Closing prisons and reducing the incarcerated population should be a good thing, but when local economies become dependent on the prison industry it creates many perverse incentives for keeping our inhumane system of mass incarceration going. Residents of Susanville, California, are experiencing this firsthand after the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced the impending deactivation of the California Correctional Center. In this episode of Rattling the Bars, Charles Hopkins, better known as Mansa Musa, is joined by Nicole D. Porter to discuss the prison closure in Susanville and how expanding the prison-industrial complex is neither a just nor viable method for reviving local economies.
Nicole D. Porter is the Senior Director of Advocacy at The Sentencing Project, managing state and local advocacy efforts on sentencing reform, voting rights, and eliminating racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Her advocacy has supported criminal justice reforms in several states including Kentucky, Missouri, and California. Porter was named a “New Civil Rights Leader” by Essence Magazine for her work to eliminate mass incarceration.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Charles Hopkins: Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, co-hosting with Eddie Conway, who will be back to the program real soon. Prison closing should be a good thing in California. After decades of struggling to reduce the incarceration population, some prisons are closing down. What happens to a town that has built the local economy around prisons when those prisons close down? A recent article in The New York Times explores the fate of one town in Northern California that is dealing with this exact issue. To talk about this today, I’m honored to have, to be joined by Nicole Porter, who is a Senior Director of Advocacy for the Citizen Project. Thank you, Nicole, for joining me today.
Nicole D. Porter: Thank you so much for having me and for covering this issue.
Charles Hopkins: I want to jump into something I read and I was talking to you earlier off-camera. I read recently an article – And I’m paraphrasing what they said about something you had said in relation to this issue – That working people should have jobs and work, but not for mass incarceration. And I’m paraphrasing. Talk about that.
Nicole D. Porter: Well, what’s clear is that jobs programs, even in rural towns, should not be focused on disappearing people to prison. Prison should not be an economic development opportunity. And the resistance around downsizing prisons, decommissioning prisons during a period of modest decarceration… California is among a handful of states that have seen its prison population decline by more than 30% since it peaked in the early 2000s. So closing prisons in California is a real opportunity there. And the resistance in the community around this prison that is currently slated for closure should not be focused on keeping jobs for human warehouses, for human prisons. There is a conversation to have about what jobs come next, but the discussion in the community in Susanville, California, should be focused on what’s the future of the economy, given the opportunity to decarcerate and to close prisons in the state.
Charles Hopkins: Let’s pick up on the resistance aspect of it. Now, California has one of the largest unions, prison guards, in the state, in the country probably, and they have one, what they call a PAC, a political PAC, and one they had made the second largest donation to candidates in California, governors and local races. Do you think that a lot of the resistance comes from these types of entities?
Nicole D. Porter: Absolutely. The California prison guards’ union and their influence, their political influence, has been well-documented over the years as a contributing factor to why sentencing reform has been so challenging in the state. And so given the reality of decarceration and prison population reduction in the state and the opportunity that state officials have towards decommissioning prisons and then finding new opportunities, economic opportunities, and opportunities to build out infrastructure and support programs that will reduce contact with the prison system and with law enforcement to begin with, the resistance from the prison guards’ union in California should be confronted directly and not be allowed to undermine any efforts towards decarceration and prison closures in the state.
Charles Hopkins: Right. Exactly. And now let me give you another tidbit. Right now, California has 35 prisons and an estimated prison population of 1000, 1500, or more. The state spends $17 billion on corrections. Do you think that the fact that the budget of this massive, behemoth prison population or industry, do you think that also has an impact on decision-making in terms of closing down prisons, more so than a sense of humanity?
Nicole D. Porter: I think that there is definite resistance to doing things in the way that they should be, as opposed to the way they’ve been done given the size of California’s prison population, given the number of prisons in the state, and given the status quo in the way things have always been done. But the reality is, in 2022, California is among a handful of states whose prison population has declined by more than 30% since it peaked. That’s for a range of reasons including court order requiring decarceration because of chronic overcrowding that led to a range of conditions issues. Other states are experiencing similar issues. There’s chronic overcrowding in Alabama, there’s chronic overcrowding in Nebraska. Other states have also decarcerated. In addition to California, states like New Jersey and New York. New York is also going through a conversation around prison closures in the state, which have also decarcerated substantially since they peaked in the early 2000s.
So in spite of the current money spent on California’s prison system, in spite of the current size of the prison system with the number of prisons that have opened over the last 30 to 40 years during the era of mass incarceration, the opportunity now available can be focused on decarcerating and prison closures. There is resistance given the announcement of closures in California, but folks in California and across the country should know that there is an active conversation supportive of those closures. There’s also real conversations happening around permanently decommissioning closed prisons towards other uses that we can get into if you’re interested in talking a little bit more about that as well.
Charles Hopkins: Yes, I am. I’m going to get into those things. And speaking of prisons in the prison-industrial complex, how would you look at it from this perspective, that this is not unique to Susanville California? I’m in the District of Columbia. I was incarcerated in Maryland, and in Western Maryland alone, it had the whole entire Western Maryland is a prison industry. So once you get to a certain part of there, you have nothing but prisons. And that’s the source of the income. That’s the source of the economy. That’s the source of the infrastructure. What do you think the net result is going to be when this movement that we see taking shape now, for a lot of reasons as you outline, what do you think going to be the results or what is the response going to be from these small towns? You think they’re just going to take it lying down?
Nicole D. Porter: Well, no, they’re definitely not taking it laying down, because the residents of Susanville in California are actively litigating to stop or slow down the closure. But I think what’s important, given the reality of the state of California’s prison population declining, and an opportunity that creates for decommissioning prisons, surfaces new questions, new opportunities around local economic development in the state. Not just in the community, but also in the zip codes that send a majority of Californians to prison to begin with. This creates an opportunity around community investment, not just in those prison towns, not just in California, but the way you just described with Western Maryland. In my home state of Texas there are entire towns where three or four state prisons are located, so the entire community has been organized around prisons over the last 30 to 40 years. That reality is in states throughout the country.
And the active effort to try working towards decarceration is having real outcomes. There have been prison declines, prison population declines in California, prison population declines in New York, which creates an opportunity for closure that should lead to additional discussions led by the state. So there’s intentional work to be done by California lawmakers, starting with the governor around economic development conversations, not just in Susanville, but also in those zip codes where there’s chronic over incarceration happening, that are sending Californians to state prisons to begin with.
In the ’80s and ’90s when mass incarceration started, the United States responded to rises in crime with what I call the carceral Marshall plan that led to prison building and prison expansion that led to prisons like in Susanville and in Western Maryland. What the United States now needs to do is prioritize resources and services to, number one, support the promise that people should not expect going to prison as a natural outcome of one’s life journey, which is almost expected in this country depending on what zip code that certain people come from. And then also create new opportunities for economic development and social services, given this conversation, given this outcome around decarceration and prison closures. So that just shouldn’t come with focusing on local prison economies, but should also come with new investments in chronically underserved and disinvested communities from the cities of Baltimore to Los Angeles, from New York to Houston. It’s not just about the prison towns like Susanville. It’s also about the zip codes that send people to prisons to begin with.
Charles Hopkins: Why do you think it’s such a resistance? And this is like the logical way of looking at it and more practical way of looking. Why do you think that on a legislative and a national level – And we talking about the legislative body – Why do you think it’s such a resistance to making investment in and these ideas of investing in the people and recognizing that declining the prison population is a good thing all the way around the board? Why do you think it’s such a resistance on so many different levels?
Nicole D. Porter: I think the way in which public monies is prioritized in the United States is racialized. And so there is chronic disinvestment from communities that lawmakers don’t see themselves as having a future stake in helping to govern. So there’s a couple of different solutions to that. One is making sure that residents from communities that have been chronically disinvested participate in governing, get elected to office so that they have a seat at the table, or they’re creating their own tables, to help prioritize the public resources that are collected in the public interest and also help influence conversations around decarceration and prison closure and community reinvestment.
I think also that the imagination, the collective imagination of the United States is very limited. And it’s also racialized, so that legal practitioners, criminal justice practitioners, from police to judges, to parole board members, to the lawmakers in the budget meetings in California, and in the legislative assembly in Maryland who are seriously looking at the prison population, the state’s prison population, and next steps around it, have very limited imagination around who is going to end up in prison and what the solutions are to either reject the assumption that people should expect going to prison to begin with. Or that the extreme sentences that dominate United States criminal legal policy are valid and legitimate in the way that they’ve been operating for the last 40 to 50 years.
And to correct that, to challenge those assumptions, there has to be more intentional work done to stretch people’s imagination and to reject the status quo as it’s been operating, given the collective harm that not just the two-point-something million experience every day when they’re in prison, but also that family members and the communities left behind experience. And this false promise that communities like Susanville and the towns in Western Maryland focus on in relying on their local success to focus on the disappearing of residents from the cities and communities hundreds of miles away in the urban cores in their states.
Charles Hopkins: And when we look at Susanville and their resistance – And I want you to pick up on this. In the information that was provided, they took the position that there’s nothing else out there. We don’t have nothing. We ain’t looking nowhere else. This is our livelihood, this prison-industrial complex is everything for us. Now fact, you take the same attitude that you will have in all rural America. So what should the country be doing in terms of dealing with this type of thing? And that’s been, they’ve been indoctrinated to believe this, not so much as that they got economic wealth, but they just got a livelihood that they’re able to sustain from this massive prison-industrial complex. How do you get these people? How do you get these rural communities that are heavily invested in this to change their thinking?
Nicole D. Porter: Yeah, I mean, they should look to other communities that have gone through similar experiences around prison closures and decommissioning prisons for non-carceral uses to understand what the future holds and towards economic development for their localities. That those localities’ economic future should not be focused on the disappearing of residents, mostly Black and Latinx residents, behind prison warehouses. There are examples in California, prisons that close down that have been decommissioned and reused for agricultural purposes. There’s examples in other parts of the country including Florida and North Carolina. Also closed prisons in rural communities in both of those states that have been repurposed for agricultural hubs. There’s a closed prison in New York that’s being reused as a movie studio.
So there are a handful of these economic redevelopment projects that are currently in operation throughout the country. And the local officials in Susanville as well as the local officials in Western Maryland and in other communities that are grappling with what comes next, what opportunities are in the future, can look to and can take lessons from [them]. And also, I’m quite certain, invite those local officials into a conversation to help imagine and dream for the economic future. And that those conversations should not just be focused on the prison communities that relied on prison warehousing, but should also be focused on the chronically disinvested neighborhoods throughout the state of California and Maryland and other states around the country to also be supporting community investments, to prevent law enforcement contact in prison, people bound for prison to begin with.
Charles Hopkins: Let’s talk about the decarceration movement. And this has been growing, as you acknowledged that we have been gaining some momentum for a lot of reasons, but we’ve been able to get in that space and organize around it. Where do you think the decarceration movement should be, at this juncture right now, because this is going to become contentious?
Nicole D. Porter: I think that the decarceration movement should focus on solutions for people who would otherwise be bound for prison, and also take a look at the people who’ve been subjected to too extreme sentences to see whether or not their continued imprisonment serves a public safety function. Because, presumably, in any state throughout the country, there are hundreds if not thousands of individuals that no longer need to be in prison today. So there’s a range of options and remedies that decarceration advocates and officials could take a look at including people who are past their minimum parole date, people who’ve aged into elderhood or an elderly status and no longer need to be in prison. Other people who served a minimum time served requirement. The Sentencing Project supports a maximum sentence of 20 years except for the most serious cases. So there’s presumably thousands of individuals within every state whose underlying crime of conviction can be examined against their institutional record.
And there can be an evaluation on whether or not those individuals continue to need to be in prison. Right now, there have been, or in recent years rather, there have been a range of reforms that have supported and helped build out real decarceration strategies from New Jersey. Including, as COVID started, an effort to decarcerate New Jersey’s prisons by allowing several thousand people to be released for social distancing purposes in the state. So there are recent examples of states enacting policy so several thousand people could be released in order to depopulate and decarcerate a state’s prison system. And similar examples have happened over the last two years in California, New York, Maryland, explaining why decarceration is a real option at this time.
Charles Hopkins: Let’s explore this here. And this time I thought that you might be aware of as well. We having this conversation is almost like the paradigm shift is about to take place again. We’re having this conversation in the country about crime and the uptick of crime. Do you think that we might find ourselves back in the space of the harsh sentencing laws? Or what should we be doing at this juncture, because the conversation’s happening in this state, in Maryland it’s happening, and all the states it’s happening, and we know what the true cause of crime is, but where do you think we should be at right now?
Nicole D. Porter: Well, I think we are in a very challenging time right now, given the fact that there has been an uptick in crime in the last couple of months. But I think that those changes in crime are something that this country will have to struggle with forever, because crime is a factor, is a feature of what countries and societies have to grapple with. A similar issue confronted the nation in the 1960s and the country responded with mass incarceration and what, again, what I characterize as a carceral Marshall plan. Other Western countries also experienced an increase in crime in the ’60s and ’70s. They did not respond with prison expansion. They responded by expanding social services to prevent contact with crime in the first place. That meant an investment in early childhood education, that meant an investment in social services, so that citizens and residents most at risk of criminal justice contact could come in contact with services and wraparound services to help with case management including housing assistance and employment training.
Now in 2022, given the real challenges that localities and states are facing with recent crime trends, the response does not have to be, let’s put a stop to criminal legal reform, particularly given the fact that so many people in prison today were sent in in the ’80s and ’90s and have already been in 25 to 30 years. Addressing their extreme incarceration is part of this conversation, but not mutually exclusive to it. And serious efforts at decarceration should continue to move forward with all the considerations that we have before us, including the social science that talks about aging out of crime, and brain development, and the lack of recidivism amongst older prisoners if they get the relief that they should be seriously considered for that can help them get home to their families and their communities.
And in terms of addressing recent challenges around crime including upticks in homicide and armed robbery and carjackings, car theft. There’s real opportunities that cities and the nation can take in order to prevent new crimes from happening. And some of those conversations are happening. I’ve been very encouraged by investments in violence interruption programs, supporting the social capital amongst credible messengers. People who’ve had prior contact with the legal system and are now working in the communities to help mentor young residents, particularly young male residents of color to give them, to support them on their life journey and help direct them into programs and services that might help them avoid future contact with law enforcement.
Part of the Biden administration’s effort to address crime has been to support those programs. But that has also happened with increased support for policing. So what communities can do is help address the full menu of options that are available to us nationally and at the state and local level and to help support adequate funding, quality funding for services that isn’t just focused and concentrated in policing or in the court system, but is also about building out supports for the chronically disinvested neighborhoods where high crime and high incarceration are an indicator of, frankly, a failed social contract that this country has been working with for the last 30 to 40 years and explains the current level of imprisonment in this country and the fact that the United States continues to have the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
Charles Hopkins: Thank you, Nicole. And I’m going to close on one thing. Tell us what are you all doing? What’s the Sentencing Project doing? It might be related to this or might not be, but…
Nicole D. Porter: No, I at the Sentencing Project am continuing to follow prison closure, so it’s very encouraging the conversation that’s happening in New York, in spite of the resistance of the residents of Susanville. But I’m going to be closely following the developments around that prison’s closure and next steps in terms of economic development not just for that community, but for other communities throughout the state. Very excited to be watching prison closures in other parts of the country, too, including New York and Washington State. And I hope to update the analysis that I’ve been publishing with new numbers around more recent examples of prison closures and also documenting prison reuse. That’s coupled with the priorities that the Sentencing Project has around decarceration and addressing the extreme sentences that contribute to mass incarceration in this country. We’re in a midterm election year, the Sentencing Project has been very focused on expanding voting rights to justice-involved citizens.
We’re happy that those laws have changed in DC that ended felony disenfranchisement outright. So there are about 4,000 DC residents who are in custody with a felony conviction who can now vote. We want to see that happen in other states, and there’s pending bills in Oregon and Illinois. And so we hope we can add more states to the category that people never lose their right to vote, even when they’re in prison. And we’re also working to expand youth justice and to strengthen youth justice and help young adults and young youth most at risk of coming in contact with the youth justice system to have better outcomes.
Charles Hopkins: Thank you. Thank you, Nicole Porter, for joining me today on this edition of Rattling the Bars. We appreciate your help and this insight. There you have it, Nicole Porter, rattling the bars, raising the consciousness about mass incarceration, the prison-industrial complex, and alternatives that we are offering to resolve these complex matters. Thank you today for joining me, Nicole. Thank you very much.
Nicole D. Porter: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Charles Hopkins: And one way I want to encourage everyone to support The Real News and Rattling the Bars so we can constantly get this message out to you all, to people that really need to know what’s going on in this country and around this society in general. Thank you.