By Mohamed Shehk

The following article is a feature action piece from Issue 36 of Critical Resistance’s The Abolitionist newspaper, printed in December 2021. The issue features “Pathways toward Freedom,” or strategies for getting people out of cages. This article explains prison closure as one pathway toward freedom, a strategy Critical Resistance Oakland and Los Angeles are working on to close 10 prisons throughout CA by 2025. Learn more about The Abolitionist newspaper, and support the project with a paid subscription to sponsor free subscriptions for imprisoned people.

Between 1982 and 2005, California embarked on what two state analysts called “the largest prison building program in the history of the world.” Within those 23 years, the state averaged one new prison per year, building a total of 23 state prisons. This unprecedented and massive expansion of the state’s capacity to cage human beings drove a 500% increase of the state’s imprisoned population. The prison construction boom has been a central pillar of the rise of the prison industrial complex (PIC), and has resulted in immeasurable devastation and violence on communities of all stripes, but particularly for Black, Indigenous, immigrant, and working-class groups.

Yet as long as there have been plans to build prisons, there have been communities organizing in resistance. This legacy continues today, stronger than ever. However, with no new prison construction plans on the horizon, communities are now going on the offensive: We are working to close prisons to get people free.

Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) is a statewide coalition of which Critical Resistance (CR) has long been a core part. We at CR are working collaboratively with other organizations in CURB on a statewide “Close Prisons and Build Communities” campaign. We believe that just as California built dozens of prisons at a mind-boggling rate, it should be able to close them. Our goal in this campaign is to build a movement that will close 10 state prisons in California by 2025. So far, two state prisons have already been slated for closure – Deuel Vocational Institution is already emptied out as of September 2021, and California Correctional Center will be next.

“However, with no new prison construction plans on the horizon, communities are now going on the offensive: We are working to close prisons to get people free.”

Our fight for prison closures is first and fore- most a strategy to get people free. We want to shrink the state’s ability to lock people up by shrinking the number of cages it has to do so. Many people have heard the phrase, “if they build it, they will fill it” – and California has certainly lived up to this phrase by rapidly building and filling its state prison system. We are seek- ing to reverse this process and dismantle these structures of racism and state violence. As is written in CURB’s report titled The People’s Plan for Prison Closure:

“Over the past decade, Californians have been working diligently at righting the wrongs of the past by changing public safety policies on the ballot and in the legislature, resulting in reduced prison populations with the goal of shifting public safety to center care, not cages. In order to meet the people’s goal of cut- ting wasteful spending on corrections, the state must continue to work to dramatically increase prison releases – not transfers – and change ‘tough on crime’ laws and policies that drive the incarceration crisis.”
Prison Closure Campaign Print made by Nick DeRenzi and Sarah Fatallah

In addition to closing and tearing down the cages themselves, this campaign is focused on chang- ing and passing policies to reduce sentencing, expanding existing pathways for people to get out, and reforming penal codes that will make it harder for the state to criminalize people and lock them up. These are all strategies to get people free, and taken together, we believe they can provide a comprehensive and more power- ful approach to get significant reductions in the number of people locked up across the state.

Yet, as we are dismantling and changing, we are also seeking to build. We want the state to rein- vest the money that it will save through prison closures into resources like community-based, non-punitive reentry programs; affordable, ac- cessible, and quality stable housing; healthcare and mental health services; education; and employment opportunities for imprisoned people coming home. Rather than criminalize and cage people for not having access to these things, which is what California – the third most expensive state in which to live throughout the entire US – has been doing for the last 40 years, we are demanding that communities be allowed to live and thrive with the resources that sustain people.

One of the common hurdles that we consistently face is the claim that prisons are “good for their local economies.” Pro-prison politicians and institutions claim that prisons provide jobs and industry for the towns that they are in. However, as far back as the 1990s, study after study has shown that communities have not economically benefited from having a prison in their town. For instance, examining 25 years of economic data on rural communities in New York, Ryan King, Marc Mauer, and Tracy Huling reveal in Big Prisons, Small Towns: Prison Economics in Rural America:

Residents of rural counties with one or more prisons did not gain significant employment advantages compared to rural counties without prisons. Unemployment rates moved in the same direction for both groups of counties and were consistent with the overall employment rates for the state as a whole. During the period from 1982 to 2001, these findings are consistent for the three distinct economic periods in the United States, and in fact, the non-prison counties performed marginally better in two of the timeframes.

On the contrary, there are mountains of evidence that the prisons have been a drain of funding from the state – funding that could otherwise be used to build schools, hospitals, and create job opportunities. Not to mention that prisons have caused massive devastation to the environments that surround them.

In reality, it is the same people that want prisons closed that care most about strengthening our communities, towns, and society as a whole. Closing prisons means we can have healthier environments, more stable and dignified communities, meaningful jobs, and more resources for the things that genuinely keep our people safe. If we were to go back to 1982, instead of California building one prison every year for 23 years, what if we built one university a year, one community-based healthcare clinic a year, or one employment training center a year? We can easily imagine that instead of wasting money locking people up and destroy- ing people’s lives, we could have supported people –their growth, their health, their education, and their quality of living – all while creating vastly more current and future jobs than the 1000 or so jobs that a prison offers. Our future depends on us making this transition.

Many people have become more familiar with the idea of an environmental “Just Transition” – a plan for moving us away from industries that are causing climate change and destroying our planet. An environmental Just Transition involves finding environmentally “green” alternatives to burning fossil fuels. Importantly, a Just Transition also ensures that everyone who is currently employed in the fossil fuel industry such as coal miners, oil riggers, and pipeline developers, are guaranteed “green” jobs.

We believe that we can engage in an “Abolitionist Just Transition,” shifting our society from relying on prisons – and all their false promises of public safety and job creation – to one that invests in our communities and our future. We can invest in building up alternatives to imprisonment and the resources that allow us to thrive, while making sure that everyone has a job and training in these healthier industries.

“If we were to go back to 1982, instead of California building one prison every year for 23 years, what if we built one university a year, one community-based healthcare clinic a year, or one employment training center a year?”

The PIC impacts all of us in various ways and to various degrees, so closing down prisons and abolishing the PIC will benefit all of us. However, in order for us to build a successful movement, it is crucial that we amplify the voices of imprisoned people – the people who are most intensely repressed by this violent system. Part of the function prisons play is to disappear and silence people, so our work in fighting against it must involve breaking through the walls and making sure that imprisoned people’s voices are heard and uplifted.

We hope you join us in this effort to close prisons, as we are working, fighting, and organizing alongside you on the outside of these walls. With this article, we’re including a survey that you can respond to as just one way you can join us in this effort. ♦

Author Bio: Mohamed Shehk is the National Campaigns Director for Critical Resistance (CR). He has supported CR’s campaigns and projects to shrink and end policing programs, fight against new prison and jail construction projects, and close down existing cages. He has also been engaged in amplify- ing international solidarity with people’s struggles outside of the US., and supporting the Palestinian movement for liberation.