JAY WARE: Welcome to Millennials are Killing Capitalism. This is Jay. In this episode, we interview Brooke Terpstra and Carlin Chávez, members of Oakland Abolition and Solidarity. Oakland Abolition and Solidarity supports prisoners’ efforts to organize for their own self-defense against inhumane treatment. They function as a liaison, building bridges between inside and outside to support prisoners organizing their local chapters. They advocate the abolition of incarceration, white supremacy, and capitalism.
We speak with Brooke and Carlin about a recent announcement made by California Governor Gavin Newsom. The announcement claims that Newsom will transform San Quentin Prison into a Norwegian-style prison. This claim has been widely disseminated within mainstream media, along with visions of Newsom as some transformational prison reformer. Ultimately, this is a form of carceral propaganda that serves a similar function as other forms of copaganda that we see all the time in relation to policing. Brooke and Carlin talk about some of the realities of San Quentin and its role in our imagination of prisons in the US, which unsurprisingly is out of step with the realities on the ground inside.
We also talk about these conceptions of the “Norway Model,” or Norwegian prisons, or Scandinavian prisons, and how these concepts function in our society. Discussing the propaganda purpose they serve, which is more significant than the actual reality of these types of projects, there is also some discussion of efforts which happen across the country to develop a small set of programs inside individual prisons that can serve as smokescreens for the prison system as a whole. To have an individual prison capable of hosting tours, producing five o’ clock news segments; of prisoners doing organic gardening, taking yoga classes, or training emotional support dogs, as part of an effort to mystify the level of violence that is the everyday reality of all prisoners locked up.
We also talk a little bit broadly about why the idea of Norwegian prisons has currency in the US, who this appeals to, and discuss possible motivations for politicians deploying this language and imagery through the media. We close with a brief discussion of whether California actually represents a model for decarceration, with its declines in prison populations over the last fifteen years or so, [but] most of the conversation is dedicated to debunking certain ideas and mythologies.
JAY: Alright, so I want to welcome you both to the podcast. Brooke, we have you on – last time you were our actual guests was in…2019, so it’s been like, four years. It doesn’t feel like that since you and I talk all the time, but welcome back for sure. And, of course Brooke, last year you did the Journalism for Liberation and Combat series that we hosted here as well, so great to have you back. As we start up, I do want to give you space – both of you – to introduce yourselves, because it has been a while, and [to] say a little about yourself and about Oakland Abolition and Solidarity for those who may not be familiar with your organizing.
BROOKE: My name’s Brooke; I’ve been introduced before on the show, but I’m a member of Oakland Abolition and Solidarity. I’ve been involved in a number of projects over the years, but I’m a lifelong resident of California – been in Oakland since I was a teenager. Oakland Abolition & Solidarity is now going on seven years, and it was essentially called into being by a call put out from inside prisons for support on the outside for the 2016 National Prison Strike. And Cole Dorsey, rest in peace, had moved here to Oakland and I met him and got the ball rolling. First, we were operating as a chapter of IWOC – the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee – under IWW, but we pretty much always did our own thing, [our] own rules – [and] we’ve since disaffiliated for a variety of reasons. But essentially, we are a pretty small [group]; I don’t think we’ve been more than fifteen members at any one time, and we kind of exist in a liminal, in-between space where the rubber meets the road when it comes to organizing. We’ve got one foot in abolition, and the abolitionism we have more of an affinity with is of the type that recognizes that the US is essentially a civilizational project built on genocide and slavery, and [that] prisons and the whole carceral regime are a pillar of that. And that’s not going to change unless the whole order is upended. We don’t think that – we’re not fixing society. We tend to belong to the more ruptural or revolutionarily oriented stuff.
We’ve got one foot rooted in prisoner solidarity work. We collaborate with folks inside getting busy working on their own behalf; organizing, politicizing. We approach it as collaborators. We don’t characterize ourselves as “allies” or “advocates.” Working relationships are negotiated based on certain criteria, with a pretty wide net considering what constitutes politicization inside and how people move and how people can move. We do a number of things to support that: media work, when possible; communications, publishing, getting folks inside published, building relationships with the inside. We realized, too, we couldn’t really handle the size of our mailing list [and] commit to personalized correspondence with everybody, because we’ve got hundreds of folks inside that we talk with, so we also publish a newsletter on the inside and the outside. We’re pretty firmly committed to political education and the practice of solidarity in very material, concrete ways, so we also focus on community building in a very tangible and social sense. We coordinate and have spearheaded jail support outside our local county jail, which is basically a mega-prison, with a capacity of 4300 here. Unconditional jail support is basically – when folks come outside until 2 in the morning, we’re there with rides, phones, food, and [we] put solidarity first, which means listening more than speaking. We also support sibling projects that run a hotline helping folks make contact with the outside and get them referrals. And so, we basically exist in a small political home. Not a lot of folks do this, but we’re also engaged in building and contributing to a national network of similarly aligned groups across the country.
JAY: Rest in peace to Karen Smith and Cole Dorsey.
BROOKE: And Rebecca Hensley. We’ve lost a lot of people.
JAY: Carlin, say a little bit about yourself and how you got connected with Oakland Abolition and Solidarity, Brooke, and everybody.
CARLIN: I wanted to get hooked up with the IWW because I’ve been a member since the 60s, and it’s hard to remember how exactly, but I met Cole in a bar. It was about the IWW, we got talking, had a couple beers, and [we] realized that I’m also an ex-convict, so he said, ‘we’ve got this group, IWOC.’ And I said, ‘oh, that’s good’…so we started talking and realized I had done quite a bit of time since the 50s, almost – 1960 is the first time I went to prison.
So, it was IWOC at the time, but like Brooke said, we had to resolve something that we couldn’t do with these people. Definitely they weren’t giving jail support to where I was working. I was working in San Quentin trying to do stuff, and I’d go to IWW meetings, and they looked at me strange when I asked about it – even though I liked the IWW, because they were around for a long time doing the right stuff. I guess you can’t support everybody. Then I got a little job coming out of prison, working for a 501(c)(3) – and that’s kind of disappointing, but they do pay me. I mean, I don’t know why they pay me – I just looked at the bank today and they paid me again! It’s just ridiculous; they’re grifters, they get the crumbs that fall off the table – but hey, I’ve been a criminal all my life, I’ll take some of it, what the hell.
My vocation is organizing, which I’ve been doing all my life since I was seven, eight, or nine, when I organized bus strikes. The bus driver was mean, so I said: ‘fuck this guy, we’re not getting on the bus’ – and it just went from there. The last thing I tried to do…was organizing sex workers in San Francisco. I used to live in the Tenderloin, which is close to the strip, but it’s really changed. When I was younger, there was a pimp, and prostitutes, and it was like you read in the books, you know – the books that are in prison anyhow, the ones they give us about the life. But it’s a lot of runaways now. The ones I met in the Tenderloin were kids from Nebraska, Indiana – fourteen or fifteen [year old]. It wasn’t like it used to be. I thought it was just the one gender that worked, and the other ones that paid, but now – phew. They’re all just trying to live. Sex work isn’t a trade like it used to be – it’s the only way they can live and get what they need to live in the Tenderloin, which is pretty bad living down there in one sense.
So, I guess that’s it. Oh yeah – and then I tried to go back to the academy – that was a mistake. Very disappointing. UC Berkeley had a reputation when I was a kid that it was at least liberal, but if that’s liberal – boy, I’m nervous. But they do allow me to attend the classes sometimes. Oh, and then I shake the government for money, because for some reason they give you money…to go to school. I know it’s a burden for people who are seventeen, but I’m almost eighty – how am I gonna pay it back? I mean, I’ll be dead – [so] as long as they keep giving me forty, fifty thousand a year…it’s alright. It’s not as good as Trump – I mean, I’m not that good a grifter, but I’ll take that.
That’s about it, I think.
JAY: That sounds like the healthiest relationship to the nonprofit industrial complex and [the] academy that we’ve had articulated on this show yet – so I appreciate that a lot, Carlin.
We’re here today to talk about a news item. It’s not often – we should do it more – but we don’t do it that much. I think it represents a concrete example of something that we talk about a lot on the show, which is counterinsurgency, and the way that liberal institutions [and] the state try to co-opt certain energy, certain movements. And we often talk about that kind of theoretically, but this gives us an opportunity to talk about a real-world example of this, and also to talk a little about the media, how the media works as a propaganda function for folks, and also [about the] relationship between state, folks who work in universities, nonprofits, what we were just talking about a little bit.
So, this is about California Governor Newsom. There’s all these articles that are out right now about him allegedly transforming San Quentin. There’s a press release he put out about it – there’s a bunch of articles, like I said – he and Jon Stewart are going to record or have recorded an episode in San Quentin which will be aired soon, and it wouldn’t be surprising if that’s also part of the same general campaign from him. San Quentin is probably California’s most notorious prison; I don’t think it’s the worst or the most violent, especially at this point, but it is well known and has a certain historical reputation. So maybe we can start by saying a bit about that reputation and the prison itself, and where it currently fits within the California prison system, which for folks who don’t know is called CDCR, in terms of the regimes of security status, privilege, and the overall system of control.
BROOKE: Sure. I kind of want to get a couple things, just [some] background out of the way first. And I’m sure Carlin can definitely talk about the nature of San Quentin and even its evolution over the decades – since you did what, 20 years?
CARLIN: I did over 20 there, just recently.
BROOKE: So right during the period when it went through this transformation which we’ll talk [about] a bit.
BROOKE: So I’m going to read a story that is pretty typical – of not just a range of stories, it was an onslaught. I have news alerts set up for different topics, of course, when you do this work, and every single one of them lit up with these near-identical stories across all channels, even nationwide. And now there’s an article even in the Washington Post, LA times, in the Guardian. This happened even before the event happened. As soon as they announced the press conference that was going to happen on the 17th of this month, stories were out that virtually identical and often verbatim from the announcement.
But I’m going to read this one from the Sacramento Bee which was completely typical: how ‘Gavin Newsom plans to transform infamous San Quentin State Prison.’ That headline has been changed, by the way – before, it just said ‘Newsom transforms infamous San Quentin State Prison.’ They walked that back, but we’ll get into that. Here’s the text:
“California’s infamous San Quentin State Prison is headed for a major transformation as Gov. Gavin Newsom advances his efforts to remake the state’s penal system. Newsom is scheduled to visit the 171-year-old penitentiary Friday, and details plans to shift it from a maximum-security facility into a center for education and training within the prison system, according to his press office. In his statement Thursday, Newsom called the prison’s impending evolution ‘a new model for safety and justice – the California model, that will lead the nation.’ The Governor’s plan includes renaming the facility as San Quentin Rehabilitation Center, and creating an advisory group made up of rehabilitation and public safety experts to spearhead the transformation. It was not immediately clear how long that process would take, but the reimagined facility will incorporate more holistic Scandinavian incarceration models according to Newsom’s administration. The 2023-24 budget proposal released by the Governor allocates 20 million to commence the project.”
Blah blah blah, pull quote from supposed expert. But then, this section basically finishes up… “San Quentin would not be the California’s first penitentiary modeling such an approach. At the Valley State Prison in Chowchilla” – which, parenthetically is another mega-prison, 4000 people, all male – “…inmates are experiencing the philosophy firsthand…the facility has a garden, [a] barbecue pit, and more comfortable furniture.” Apparently in this article that’s what constitutes a more humane thing – 4,000 men locked up in the Central Valley and they’ve got a barbecue pit.
When this came out, it was kind of debatable whether even to comment. I’ve been hearing invocations of the Norway model basically since I’ve been politically conscious, since I was a teenager in the 80s. It’s a cyclical re-incantation of this kind of mythology. And it occurs on a cycle and as a certain call and response to the dialectical relationship. There’s a tension, and it’s invoked to be resolved or utilized for certain purposes.
So, when we thought about it, okay, this is par for the course, but there’s certain things that make it important. These moves that we’ve made are relevant to understanding this certain period, these last dozen years; and it’s relevant to understanding how the state re-legitimizes itself, and specifically how CDCR maintains its legitimacy and its aura of reform and tacticality and reason. It’s relevant to understanding how [the] media, the nonprofit complex, and the academy basically function in collaboration. And I think this is a really important period right now because, in this period, there’s a kind of instability. There’s a crude and hard-fought-for delegitimizing of incarceration over the last two decades that’s accelerated.
And this, essentially, is a gambit to contain that and to push back. This is a really dangerous period of time, which we’ve identified as such in our group in the last five years. This is a period of renegotiation where they’re experimenting and crowdsourcing not only with new forms of self-mythologizing and referring to themselves but renegotiating the terms of order [for] the next fifty years of captivity. I’ve heard it referred to as the third reconstruction within American history. I think Dylan Rodríguez has called it that as well. The Civil Rights Movement and Black Power were the second, and then the first of course being 1865, 1873, 1877.
With this story out of the way, I want to give you little background on Gavin Newsom. These moves don’t boil down to his individual character. He represents a historical bloc and a certain strain of California, [or] even national political machine. Newsom’s about my age; he’s a multi-millionaire, he’s a lifetime politician – mom was a judge, dad was a high-priced lawyer. He was appointed to his first position on the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco by none other than Willie Brown, a pretty notorious kingmaker and Democratic Party operator within the state assembly. He represented the district in San Francisco, that’s the Marina and Pacific Heights, which is where all the mansions are. He is even related to Nancy Pelosi – his aunt married Nancy Pelosi’s brother-in-law. He was Lieutenant Governor underneath Jerry Brown, also a pretty high bigwig in the Democratic Party machine, [and] son of Edmund “Pat” Brown who was basically the king of California for a decade or two, post World War II.
Newsom has always been a climber, basically a dude in a 400-dollar haircut with his foot on the ladder looking to climb. So, some of this has to be regarded as him padding his resume. He’s included in all kinds of national polling when it comes down to presidential aspirations. So, some of this is curating his legacy moving forward. And that should be applied to all this stuff, because essentially, this proposal isn’t real. And we’ll be treating it that way for most of this discussion; but even if it were, there are huge problems with analogizing the United States to Norway. And also, the Scandinavian model itself is a liberal/social-democratic myth that is invoked in the United States for a variety of really shady, stupefying, mystifying purposes.
But when it comes down to the nature of San Quentin and its evolution, for one: the errors in these stories – San Quentin isn’t a maximum-security prison anymore. It hasn’t been for twenty, thirty years. It’s a minimum-security prison. Security levels in California are on a complicated calculus, a point system of security risk…it goes one through four, four being the highest; this is a level two facility, and level one. When it come down to the nature of San Quentin, I’ll yield the floor to Carlin. He’s the expert in terms of what it looks like inside, how it’s regarded within the system, and its transformation from this mythologized symbol. Shoot – there’ve been live albums recorded there; Johnny Cash’s album there in ’69 was a chart-topper for all of 1969. I think we’re still fighting a lot of imagery from the past, but Carlin can give a more grounded appraisal that’s related to reality.
But – San Quentin is not a maximum-security prison. So that’s really crazy; I don’t know how they can even say that – it’s almost common knowledge in California. So, he wasn’t even talking to Californians. Unless they’ve gotta be out in the mountains somewhere and looking at them old movies. So, in 1987, I think, it became a level two. And before that it was a level four, yeah, because when you get sent to prison in California…I’m an immigrant to California, but I’m a pretty keen observer because I’ve been in prison for quite a bit of time. There’s the convict class that’s been convicts all their lives. They know it’s just — I do my crime and I get caught and I go to prison. And then there’s people who just have a bad day, a bad minute – but whatever crime you commit, you’re gonna end up with the same time.
So, to go back to the 60s, I don’t know if they called it the Norwegian model, but they used to say it like this. We’d be prison and back then it was almost all convicts. Except this is interesting: when I was in the federal prison – not the prison, but the detention center – it was half immigrants waiting for deportation. This was in the 60s. So that’s nothing new either. All this stuff is just – back then, no one knew about prisons, they were a dark hole, a dungeon. Nobody knew. So, we used to talk about – or I wouldn’t talk about, but the older guys used to tell me ‘Hey in Europe, they’ve got…’ and they had all these nice fantasy stories about how nice prisons were in Europe, because we didn’t even have indoor plumbing in the one I was in in New York. So that story’s been around – it’s just been the prison guys telling each other, and now it’s been taken over by the state, I guess, to promote ‘hey they’ve got nice prisons over there.’ Hey, but prisons are prisons.
I just saw a thing in the Prison Policy –
JAY: Prison Policy Initiative.
CARLIN: Yeah, I think that’s it. But this is really amazing, because it just hit my mailbox recently. And the first article was about trying to make the perfect prison. They keep doing this over and over again, right? Starting with Bentham and the panopticon, and probably even before that. So, this thing is just continuous. They’re always trying to perfect the prison; it’s gonna be nice and stuff.
So, San Quentin, back in the 70s. I didn’t get sent there, but I was I sentenced to California State Prison. There was a dividing line. So, if you were a made guy, sorta – if you were part of – down here it’s prison gangs, but back East it would be the mob. If you were a made prison gang guy, you were probably older, more than likely, and you definitely have a criminal past: you wouldn’t go to San Quentin, you would go to Folsom. If you were young – and young in California is really young, 18 or 20 for sure – and you hadn’t made your bones yet, you were just a soldier, you’d go to San Quentin. San Quentin was like the youth version of the maximum-security prison. That meant there was a lot more busy-ness, but less death. But a lot more accidents. So, even though it was a level four, it was kind of you know, notorious is an O.K. word – I don’t know if it has ever been notorious, except for the guys – the guys that went there were notorious.
San Quentin was a hellhole. I did my thesis on the COVID and the research I did, they had the same exact thing happen in 1919 in San Quentin. Same exact fuckin’ scenario – exactly! It was the Spanish Flu. San Quentin has no disease; they bring in guys from the city jails because the flu’s killing people in the cities – San Francisco, Oakland – they bring them to San Quentin, and then everybody in San Quentin starts getting sick and dying. Sounds familiar. It’s not like they don’t keep records, they know that, but they did it again. My paper was on the recent one.
The structure hasn’t changed. The only thing they did when I was there – there might’ve been stuff before, I’m sure they did, because you could see the old sections and the new sections. New in a sense – they were from 1940; the old sections from 1858. There’s no way to make it – I mean, the construction alone would be billions. I think it’s 10 million they wanna do for the construction?BROOKE: 20 million.
CARLIN: 20 million, it would take 20 billion at least to do anything. When I was there, it was earthquake unsafe, whatever that shit is, and they had to put those buttresses. That probably cost a billion dollars for them. I mean, they put buttresses on all the buildings. They could sell the property, but they can’t, really, because it’s toxic waste. I mean, it’s been polluted for last 150-something years. And the cells – Folsom might be smaller. About the same. But you can put your arms – like that – and that’s the width of the cell. The length of the cell is twice as long, maybe. I’m sure there’s stuff you could get on exact size, but that’s it. And two people are in the cell. So even if they put a bocce ball court outside, you still have to live in that cell. The only thing they could do, really – 10 million could get in maybe 50 cells’ worth and it would be like living in an SRO, you know? Except with none of the amenities that SROs have – which, they don’t have any, so…
San Quentin was a hellhole. I did my thesis on the COVID and the research I did, they had the same exact thing happen in 1919 in San Quentin. Same exact fuckin’ scenario – exactly! It was the Spanish Flu. San Quentin has no disease; they bring in guys from the city jails because the flu’s killing people in the cities – San Francisco, Oakland – they bring them to San Quentin, and then everybody in San Quentin starts getting sick and dying. Sounds familiar. It’s not like they don’t keep records, they know that, but they did it again.
I guess they think it’s maximum-security because of death row. But the only reason death row is there is because the lawyers, most of the guys that’ve got death sentences are out of the city, San Francisco. They fight really hard to be close to their clients because they don’t want to travel to Avenal, or San Diego, or Pelican Bay. They’d rather not travel to those places because they’re not death penalty guys because they love the job, you know? Death penalty guys get money from the state. I think they pick the names out of a hat, sometimes – some guys do it because somebody got some money for them, but most of them…it’s like public defender stuff. So, the idea is to move all the death row guys out. And I guess they won that battle somehow, and so that would make it definitely no maximum-security guys.
When I got there – the way I remember convicts, the way I do my time, I didn’t recognize many of the guys – there were a lot of guys in there that were doing a lot of time, but they were just guys that had bad days. They didn’t have a criminal bone in their body, but they just did a bad thing one day – well, according to the state – and they were doing an inordinate amount of time: 20, 30, 40 years.
But I go back recently, and they’ve got this thing where they mix up the yards now. So, guys that were in yards that were protective custody yards, or guys that were in yards that were for people that weren’t well, they were being sent to San Quentin. I’d go into San Quentin about once a week. Everyone in there was just in need of – I don’t believe in psychology, I think it’s witchcraft, but something like that – their minds think different than my mind, to the point where it’s like, ‘that guy didn’t really say that.’ The crimes they’d commit – I don’t know what they could be, probably the same ones that homeless people commit around here, whatever those are, like taking your pants off cause you gotta pee in public, so you get arrested for indecent exposure. That’s a sex charge: do it one more time and they probably get you for something, and then you’re doing 20 years in San Quentin.
So, it’s like – there’s no criminals in there, so there’s no need for the prison at all. But to make it into a Disneyland – I mean, they’ve been doing it for years. When I was there, they used to have concerts pretty often – I mean, B.B. King was there, Grateful Dead were there; like I said, Johnny Cash was there, that heavy metal group from Marin County, they were there – I don’t know what their name is but they’re really famous.
CARLIN: Yeah, Metallica, they were there. Everyone was hanging off the tiers and getting into pictures; it was kind of crazy. They had food sales every month where food would come in from outside vendors. And the yard, it’d be like on the yard they’ve got a basketball court – what’s that team? I used to play sports, but I don’t follow it –
CARLIN: The Warriors guys would come in. Either the staff or some of the team players; I don’t think the famous guys would come in. But the Giants would come in. They’ve got a baseball field, they’ve got tennis – tennis is big because it’s in Marin County, and Marin County is one of those counties where tennis is a real sport. Tennis is big so they’ve got a nice tennis court. They’ve got a track that – eh, it’s alright, and they’ve got every program in the world. You think about self-help programs, and I mean, it would be hard to think of one that San Quentin doesn’t have. I don’t know if they have self-help on the East Coast but out here it’s big. Folsom had AA and that was it. AA’s been around forever. That was the big thing. No one went, but they had it.
But I go back recently, and they’ve got this thing where they mix up the yards now. So, guys that were in yards that were protective custody yards, or guys that were in yards that were for people that weren’t well, they were being sent to San Quentin…The crimes they’d commit – I don’t know what they could be, probably the same ones that homeless people commit around here, whatever those are, like taking your pants off cause you gotta pee in public, so you get arrested for indecent exposure. That’s a sex charge: do it one more time and they probably get you for something, and then you’re doing 20 years in San Quentin…I guess rehab’s a good word; I guess that’ll take over the word trauma. That’ll be the new word – rehab – for poor folks who don’t know how to behave.
JAY: I want to add one piece of context and then ask a quick follow up on that. In terms of where I think a lot of San Quentin’s national reputation came from, really, is the San Quentin Six and George Jackson.
For folks who don’t know that story: August 21, 1971, there was allegedly – it’s a very contested thing – of whether it was a setup, or whether George Jackson tried to escape. Six deaths occurred and two people were seriously wounded, and that was the San Quentin Six. George Jackson was included and the other folks that died, it was a couple other prisoners, and three guards. This became – Attica’s not long after, a couple weeks after, and it caused a lot of prison unrest around the country. A lot of folks think it was a political assassination of George Jackson. There was a trial associated which at the time was 16 months long and was the longest trial in California history at the time. TIME magazine was running articles on it. And this in a lot of ways created a similar kind of mythology like Attica has in New York. People talk about Angela Davis in this period, George Jackson, et cetera. So, I want to give folks that context and I think that it is important in terms of the quote unquote notoriety of it and where that might have come to bear.
But the point I wanted to follow up is, what is the point of all these programs?
BROOKE: I can comment on that. What Newsom is announcing is – I think right now, it’s being hyped for a few reasons as a maximum-security prison. One, to exaggerate the amazing transformational talents of Gavin Newsom and his new regime. Two is just straight up journalistic malpractice. Or, alternatively, the pig media or mainstream media doing exactly their job according to their nature. Their stories are basically stenography of Newsom’s press release. They couldn’t even get the population right. I just looked it up right before this interview. It took me 30 seconds. They got it wrong. Right now there are 3900 people locked up in San Quentin. Which is 500 more. It’s basically grown over the last few months, but they couldn’t look that up.
But in terms of all these programs – what I’m going to lay out, in some groups, folks involved with movements might disagree; some might agree, some might agree but can’t say so, and we’ll get into that a little later. But San Francisco is basically the center of one of the major media markets in the United States. There’s New York, LA, and then it’s San Francisco, when you consider the whole area [that] it reaches. And San Quentin is in the middle of it, right on the Bay. If I climbed onto my roof right now, I could see it, because it’s a clear day. It’s right there; Bay-front property, before Marin became an upper-class suburban feeder community, it was built right there. Now, it’s right next to a freeway so it’s really high-profile. But not only is it within a major media market, but it’s placed right in the center of the nonprofit industrial complex in North America. Again, after New York and Washington, D.C., San Francisco is the headquarters and the center in terms of philanthropy and money flowing through here – a massive amount of the nonprofit industrial complex. National organizations also have their headquarters here in San Francisco.
So, it’s essentially the perfect conditions for this kind of propaganda and conspicuous programming to happen in San Quentin, because it’s basically a 20-minute drive from San Francisco or Oakland. At the center of the media market, it’s perfectly placed for what is now this genre of stories of prisoners doing occupational therapy with emotional support dogs, or organic gardening, podcasts, newspapers, all kinds of stuff. Creative writing groups – I mean, they crochet, anything you want. You get –
JAY: Aren’t there TV shows that feature San Quentin?
BROOKE: As long as there’s basically a sergeant as a censor, there will be things going through there. Within CDCR’s system [San Quentin] has evolved to be a show pony: a boutique prison in order to run a smokescreen using the biggest media market in the world about what’s going on within CDCR. Drive up the road for an hour and you get none of this. You get AA, and that’s for lower-security – you get nothing. I know people who’ve been inside for years who can’t even get access to Narcotics Anonymous or anything. And the guards are importing dope by the bushel, and now killing them with fentanyl. That’s what the programming is. People that’ve been locked down for years, sometimes locked down just to screw up their chances to enroll in school. So, it’s run as a front. And, caveat, no aspersions on anybody that’s doing time in there or any of the organizations that are providing these programs. All time is shitty time. No one should be in inside of prison. There is no such thing as humane captivity, period. And even if it’s got a reputation as a soft prison, or a petting zoo, quote unquote, all respect to everybody in there just trying to live and get the fuck out.
Within CDCR’s system [San Quentin] has evolved to be a show pony: a boutique prison in order to run a smokescreen using the biggest media market in the world about what’s going on within CDCR. Drive up the road for an hour and you get none of this. You get AA, and that’s for lower-security – you get nothing. I know people who’ve been inside for years who can’t even get access to Narcotics Anonymous or anything. And the guards are importing dope by the bushel, and now killing them with fentanyl. That’s what the programming is. People that’ve been locked down for years, sometimes locked down just to screw up their chances to enroll in school. So, it’s run as a front.
Another thing to note is that none of these programs are funded or staffed by CDCR. They just gatekeep outside organizations to come in and do them. Because again, it is the center of all these programs. This basic legitimacy strategy, this media strategy, this kind of smokescreen that’s put up – it’s not the product of some all-seeing, omniscient intelligence or conspiracy; some omniscient cabal that rubs their hands together and says: “this is how we’re going to maintain our system’s legitimacy and offer this front to the world.” It’s basically something that evolved. One program comes in, and it reaps certain dividends for the system, and they say: ‘okay, this thing is working,’ or, ‘this isn’t working,’ and then it drops out. This is how systems reproduce. Things emerge; they evolve. But there are people high up within the system and at large that do recognize its function and cynically manipulate it, Gavin Newsom being one of them. Especially when they’re pressed.
Because with this tension and this relationship, these reforms are touted, these headlines grab – this cyclical invocation and re-mythologizing is often in response to delegitimization or crisis or organizing or resistance inside or outside, here. That’s essentially how San Quentin functions within the system. So, a lot of advocates and folks on the outside were asking, why are you promising all these programs to a facility that already has them, when all our loved ones are basically starving to death, ankle deep in water in flooded Central Valley prisons? They can’t even walk through their tiny closet of a cell to cook up some ramen or anything, because the whole place is flooded. And you’re talking about this magical transformation.
And 20 million dollars? Again, more background, for scale: California’s prison budget – not jail, just prison – this last year was 14.6 billion dollars. Estimated costs per head is about 106 grand per person to lock them up, just on average – it varies. So, guessing – CDCR doesn’t really give a lot of information on per-facility operational costs, unless you sue them. They don’t respond to FOIA requests; we’ve been ignored for years. You have force them with high-money lawyers to get any information out of them. But estimated, their operational budget is 400-500 million dollars a year just for San Quentin. So 20 million dollars is a joke. It’s nothing. And it hasn’t even passed yet – it’s a budget proposal for this coming budget. So, all this reporting is this fait accomplis, as if something already happened. It’s just damning of the media if anyone was even paying attention.
And also, note there was a similar bill that came up last year from the Central Valley, from a Stockton assemblyman that passed the legislature, for a training facility. A similar program to train folks, vocational training, and Gavin Newsom vetoed it. Why would he veto it if it was all about rehabilitation? Well, it’s branding- it didn’t have his name on it. This is part of a media onslaught. He didn’t just put out these statements. He hosted an event inside San Quentin in this empty corrugated shed – a 60,000-foot, empty PIA prison industries shed where they used to make license plates and furniture and stuff. He hosted this big event and trotted out these talking heads, but he vetoed [the bill] last year. And [San Quentin] is falling apart. 20 million dollars is nothing. So, you essentially have to treat this as not real. This is a media event, not a shift in actual modes of incarceration.
…why are you promising all these programs to a facility that already has them, when all our loved ones are basically starving to death, ankle deep in water in flooded Central Valley prisons? They can’t even walk through their tiny closet of a cell to cook up some ramen or anything, because the whole place is flooded. And you’re talking about this magical transformation.
JAY: Carlin, I don’t know if you wanted to add anything on the programming side in terms of –
CARLIN: I could talk for twenty years about San Quentin but let me say this: that’s what I meant by notorious. The people are notorious, like George Jackson. The prisons – they had notorious people back in the 20s. They had names like Black Davey or Gunslinger Tom – but you know, they were probably murdered too. Look, I was old in the 60s, and there were millions of people in America on the street – millions – on the street against the state, mainly because the state was prosecuting a crazy war. And that transferred to the prisons, and the media focused on Black Panthers, guns in the street, crazy people protesting war, and then it blew up. But they’ve been killing people for a long time in prison. In Folsom, they killed like it was – I just thought that was normal for California. But it didn’t make the news because it was people killing their owns, mostly. The guards only killed you occasionally, from the gun tower – so it wasn’t personal, right?
But it’s the convicts that make the places notorious. And also, like I was telling Brooke the other day, it’s a paradox where the convicts are the ones that run the inside of the prison to the point where if it runs to the state’s satisfaction, if it’s not too criminal an operation, the state will adopt that as their idea and that will be the new principle of how we run the prisons. It’s a phenomenon that’s like – unless you’re inside and do the sociological study of what’s going on, it’s hard because like Brooke said, you can’t get information out of them. They’re not going to give you the specs.
They were building a new hospital. And I was an engineer when I was younger, and I was talking to the engineers, and they had to stop construction because they found a metallic ore that causes cancer in the dirt. But they discussed it and figured hey, fuck it: it’s prison, OSHA’s never coming in here. Just build the hospital on top of it, who cares. This is constant. They used to come in with Haz-Mat suits to our work areas to take out the asbestos. They didn’t tell us we were working with asbestos. Just when it became too nasty and the stuff was all falling, they’d come in with Haz-Mat suits [to] remove it. While you’re still working, of course. I think they still use lead paint in the prisons. The prisons in the valley, they get all that toxic stuff, that Agent Orange, but it’s something else that they use for the fields. They get that sprayed on them all day every day.
JAY: Round-Up, probably?
CARLIN: Yeah, exactly. I mean the planes come overhead and they just spray it. The prison is in the middle of this field, and why shut the thing off, right? It’s a prison, who cares? Guys would be lifting weights and next thing you know, they’ve got these little red dots all over their bodies. They’d say, ‘what the hell’s that?’ and I’d say, ‘they’re spraying poison on you, homes.’ But yeah, 20 million. It wouldn’t matter what they spent. It would still be prison, right? What could they make the prison into? Make it into what? Make it into Fruitvale or East Oakland with a fence around it? What would that be? I mean, I always consider people on the street just on minimum custody. So, maximum custody is when they put a wall around your location. If you’re on the street you’re just on minimum custody.
San Quentin – it’s like you said, they make shows on it. My wife watches shows. Black is the new orange, orange is the new black; I don’t know what these shows are, but they’re all prison shows. She watches them all the time, I don’t know. They could be about San Quentin, I don’t know, but San Quentin’s got the name – so it could be No Name Prison, but if you’re watching it, you’re going to think San Quentin. Maybe Folsom. Sing Sing, maybe. And the prison that really blew up that they don’t want no one to know about was Lucasville. But, hey. Talking about San Quentin being a rehab place; Newsom, you have to look at his lineage, like Brooke said.
The prisons in the valley, they get all that toxic stuff, that Agent Orange, but it’s something else that they use for the fields. They get that sprayed on them all day every day…I mean the planes come overhead and they just spray it. The prison is in the middle of this field, and why shut the thing off, right? It’s a prison, who cares? Guys would be lifting weights and next thing you know, they’ve got these little red dots all over their bodies. They’d say, ‘what the hell’s that?’ and I’d say, ‘they’re spraying poison on you, homes.’
And – this is really sad, but I’m invited to some of these weird things. So, I’m invited to this thing about helping people get out of prison to get a job or something. I don’t know what the real thing is. But it’s people with money. I got invited by a guy I knew from prison. And who ends up being there? People I know from prison, but also the warden of San Quentin, the chief medical officer of San Quentin. Jody Loewen, who runs the education program in San Quentin. Oh, she’s on the panel, by the way, to make San Quentin a rehab center. These people – you can tell they’re all out of the academy; they’re out of the liberal academy. They’re going to help people because of course we have no agency, so they have to help us. But they can’t let anybody out.
San Quentin was a good one to pick. Like Brooke said, it’s in the middle of the media, but it’s got the reputation. You can get up there and say anything. Whatever word. I guess rehab’s a good word; I guess that’ll take over the word trauma. That’ll be the new word – rehab – for poor folks who don’t know how to behave. And it’ll be the new thing if Newsom can run with this thing. And the money thing don’t matter. 20 million, 200 million, 2 billion – it couldn’t do anything to that prison.
JOSH: Would you say a bit about the Scandinavian model or the Norwegian model and the role that these play…these ideas, because they’re never concrete realities in the U.S., [but] are completely within the liberal imagination; there’s academic articles pushing Scandinavian reform around the U.S. How do you understand the role – idea – of the Norwegian prison model these days?
BROOKE: Well, I was debating how to approach thinking about this interview. Should we even talk about the reality of what goes on in Scandinavia, or just talk about it as the mythological contours in the United States? I think more important and at hand is how it plays out in terms of narratives and building legitimacy. It’s essentially an invocation here in the United States. The reality of the Nordic or Scandinavian model is never instituted in the United States. Even if all these programs in San Quentin – that’s not the Nordic model. But even if it were the Nordic model, Scandinavia is not some utopia. You have no idea what it actually constitutes.
I think that should be a topic for another show: the mythology of social democracy and of whiteness in northern Europe. Globally, incarceration has a direct relationship between income inequality, settler colonialism, and the rate of incarceration. We have nothing in common in Norway, except that it’s also a deluded white supremacist nation state. Which – I don’t need the Nordic model for that – I already live in the United States, which is a white supremacist nation state. We have more in common with Brazil, with Palestine, with the Philippines in terms of the actual, structural function of incarceration. But in terms of the discourse, capital T capital D, around the Norway model and how it functions as an invocation – as an image – within the imaginary, especially the liberal-progressive one. And those are synonyms, at this point: progressives are basically liberals with stolen vocabulary from radical movements.
It’s basically an invocation because, one, it’s highly legible to white liberals. Norway is 90 percent white and it’s a 91 percent white, gated community. So, they can imagine themselves in that context. Two, it affirms their fantasies about the beneficence of the state. Whenever there’s headway made about accurately portraying – when understanding progressives in the United States, [when] incarceration is delegitimized, which it has been over the past 20 years, that’s due our hard work and to resistance inside. Everybody breaking their backs, organizing, and pushing. Not to mention the completely obvious failures on every front in terms of what it’s promised to deliver in material terms and lived conditions. I mean, half the country knows what time it is with prisons, and that’s the populations and communities that are policed and go inside, that get locked up.
It’s the other side that’s intentionally invested not in understanding what’s actually going on and in facing [the] contradictions, the violence, and the genocide this country is founded on and depends upon. They’re heavily invested in negotiating and reconstructing plausible deniability and a position of comfort. Resuscitating this model periodically – as a goal it performs a great utility in that resettling motion, in that drive to reconstruct a position of comfort for this class of people, so it has a certain appeal. It promises to deliver what reform always promises to deliver: stability, public safety and well-being. This is the central conceit of the modern, liberal, secular democratic state that is the guarantor of wide social wellbeing: the mediator of conflict, the resort for when things get nasty – it guarantees wellbeing and a life worth living.
This is profoundly false. Antagonisms structure the world. The United States as a civilizational project [is] built on genocide and enslavement; on erasure, extraction, dissembling, propaganda. Immensely regressive and policed. The center of an empire. So, this is basically an invocation that also depoliticizes any particular moment. It fights back against all these realizations, and this kind of drive, this tension between people trying to struggle and understand their conditions and these contradictions. This assertion that’s basically broadcast on all channels by what Stuart Hall called the primary and secondary definers within a media environment – the authorities and figures of the state; and then, correspondingly below them, all the stenographers of power. The academics, the nonprofits, the experts, [they] parrot this line to shove all this down our throats and push back and reassert this mythology of governance supposing what the nature of the United States is.
It promises to deliver what reform always promises to deliver: stability, public safety and well-being…This is profoundly false. Antagonisms structure the world. The United States as a civilizational project [is] built on genocide and enslavement; on erasure, extraction, dissembling, propaganda. Immensely regressive and policed. The center of an empire.
So, the Norway model is a club; it’s epistemic violence and there’s always a relationship between epistemic violence, institutional violence, and the kinetic, physical violence. These three broad categories – there’s a relationship. One licenses the other. The epistemic violence, this cultural hegemony, this dominance is essential to maintaining legitimacy, order, and this cultivation of consent. [Or] if not consent, at least apathy and resignation.
CARLIN: I like what Brooke said, of course. But I think this is really good because the people that aren’t the 50 percent that either are incarcerated, in the sense that someone they know [is incarcerated], they live in an incarcerated community…it’s in back of their brain that if they institute the Nordic model, the country will look like the Nordic country! And that would make them feel good. Because Nordic countries – they’re safe, they’re no stain on them, they’re clean.
BROOKE: And they’re rich.
CARLIN: Well, everybody wants to be rich, right? The other thing about the epistemic – to show you that I do go to college – there is epistemic carcerality, in the sense that our knowledge is disrespected and disregarded constantly. You know? Anytime you try to talk about your knowledge from experience, like Mao would try to tell you [that] you need, it’s like: but no, we have the data, we have the algorithm, we have the evidence-based stuff. Well, that’s nice – who wrote that? The people I know, that’s the main thing they feel – is disrespected constantly. Like they know nothing. Never mind that, they have no agency, they know nothing. The Nordic model will not resolve any of that. That’ll just make us stupider because we’re nicer. Then we’ll be happy in prison. So, I like that epistemology came up. Because I hate Foucault.
JAY: One thing I would say is important about how this model operates is that one, it’s about changing the prison, it’s not about trying to change the society. For folks who want a good critique of Norway and the Nordic model, we do have a good discussion…that breaks down the role, and how much imperialism is involved, and how much they outsource their violence through third parties. But the thing I would say is that, as Brooke said, there’s a lot less income inequality, which we know is a huge factor in terms of crime, right? The level of income inequality…the haves and have nots.
But I think the other piece is that their sentencing is so much different. No one in the U.S. says ‘we’re going to do Nordic-style prison reform: our average prison sentence will be less than 8 months, and, say, our maximum prison sentence will be 21 years.’ Which is still a fucking hell of a lot of time. In the United States we have ‘Buck Rogers’ numbers, as they call them, or people doing life. If we add certain programs into the prison in the United States, suddenly it’s a Nordic model, but really it doesn’t have anything to do with what the Nordic model is. It’s a veneer, it’s like the furniture – like that thing we talked about the barbecue and the organic fucking garden – boom, here’s your Nordic model. It’s important to pierce through how ridiculous it is. What you were talking about earlier, Brooke and Carlin, is about the creation of a kind of prison where you can do your dog and pony show, and bring people through and say, see, we do a better job, we care about rehabilitation. They do it in a lot of states at one site, so that they can operate within these media markets and push this narrative. It’s never looked at as a holistic reform of the statewide system. We’re not reformist here; we’re not trying to advocate for that, but it’s just to understand that it’s bullshit.
BROOKE: And I wouldn’t want to live in Norway. Period. One, they wouldn’t allow me – well, I’m white, so maybe I’ve got a shot. But you can’t analyze Norway in isolation, either. People say it’s not as violent – well, no, it’s part of fortress Europe. It exports its violence to other countries. It is deeply complicit in colonialism and imperialism. It hitchhikes on top of dominant imperial powers. It sold off its colonies a hundred years ago that hitched a ride on top of the British empire as part of the mercantilist system, that division of labor. It is intensely rich. They send delegations to Afghanistan; they sent deployments to Iraq right now. They have blood all over their hands for everyone that’s drowning and being returned in the Mediterranean from Libya and North Africa. They are tiny, one of the wealthiest countries on earth, 91 percent white – which means 9 percent nonwhite. But yet, they still incarcerate non-whites at three times the rate that they do white people.
They are still a monarchy which has a massive, 1 trillion-dollar investment hedge fund run by the state that invests in all kinds of heinous extractive, destructive projects around the world. In the trans-Atlantic slave trade, they were immensely complicit. They built the ships; all the steel and the shackles around enslaved Africans being taken across the Atlantic – that’s Swedish steel. All the explosives that debuted in World War I – that’s Nobel dynamite and TNT. To proclaim them as some kind of peaceful alternative is to be ignorant of their complicity and [their] place within the global order. They maintain a gated community, where their incarceration serves a different purpose: to stabilize their white polity and the white body of their citizens because they are deemed to be human. It’s to stabilize their community, largely; whereas in the United States it is to destabilize and [to] colonize Black and indigenous populations. There’s a different function going on. This is distinct from how it’s invoked, but it speaks to ignorance and a spectacle that North Americans are satisfied with.
And another conversation we should have is about the anti-communist and repressive function of social democracy, both historically and theoretically.
JOSH: That’s a great point because it reminds me – I don’t even disagree, but in the context of it serving a different function, does it really though? I think of the ideological function of the prison and the general application of something such as the Nordic model – much of it is to maintain an out of sight, out of mind understanding; of keeping violence and terror and exploitation on the outskirts of civil society. Not even the prison aspect but even in terms of economically speaking. I see this from the white left in particular, people who advocate for this social democratic approach: it is also to maintain the fruits of imperialist exploitation, ultimately. When we have that – kinda like, gross interpretation – that people…thinking that they just want free health care – of course we do, everyone wants health care, everyone wants education, everyone wants these things…everyone wants wealth equality, as contradictory a term as that is. The fact of the matter is people are actively aware of how these things are maintained, how wealth in the U.S. and these Western European nations is maintained – it is maintained through violence: racialized violence and terror. And people don’t want to get to the root of that antagonism. They want to maintain that allure, [maintain] the ruse that this shit can be equal in any grand scheme without a total overhaul of it all.
BROOKE: I would definitely agree that it functions as more of an image than a reality.
…you can’t analyze Norway in isolation, either. In the trans-Atlantic slave trade, they were immensely complicit. They built the ships; all the steel and the shackles around enslaved Africans being taken across the Atlantic – that’s Swedish steel. All the explosives that debuted in World War I – that’s Nobel dynamite and TNT.
BROOKE: And to be clear, when I say it is to stabilize whiteness – that’s materially within the gated community of Norway, not within the United States. They deem White Norwegians – which is basically synonymous – [as] redeemable. Their punishment and captivity is contingent upon a certain kind of expected behavior. Norway is an incredibly repressive state. Which is why when folks that are alienated – there’s not much of a socialist movement anymore in Norway – but people burn down churches. They burn down Lutheran churches. You still have a monarchy; you still basically have a state religion, and there’s strict notions of propriety and behavior. They view a white Norwegian as salvageable and part of this Herrenvolk philosophy. They are interested in redemption, but redemption in order for you to fulfill your white mandate as part of this gated community.
I’m not quite clear on it, but this is one of the distinctions for further discussion down the line that I’d like to brainstorm with folks about. There’s not enough adequate explanation or exploration of why white people are imprisoned in the United States. I think there’s a difference of function and relation there that’s going on. But that’s a theorization, a supposition and kind of an open question – but I definitely see it fully in effect within these Scandinavian countries.
CARLIN: I want to say one thing about that and then I want to close this. So, you live in a community that doesn’t have anybody – it looks like Norway, but it’s in America. The police can’t help themselves. There is a police department in every town. They’ve got to arrest somebody – it’s just their job. Whoever it is, they’ve gotta arrest. I’ve seen it. I don’t care where you are. Fuck, Montana. There’ll be a cop, he’ll arrest the truant kid, whatever it is, and he’ll be white, and that kid ends up in prison eventually because that’s where, you know – I’m not saying it’s structural, I’m just thinking, it can’t help itself. That’s what police do: their only job is to hurt, and if they can’t hurt you, they kidnap you – that’s their job, is to maintain the bullshit. I’m going to close this and try to pick it up in the car, but if I don’t –
JAY: It’s been great. Thank you, Carlin.
CARLIN: Thank you – alright.
JOSH: We should say a bit about how we think about this greater climate of counterinsurgency, one that is, in some ways, responding to decades of anti-carceral struggle in California; really, going back to the 90s in earnest, but of course preceding that, but also very specific to the uprising we associate most prominently with the response to George Floyd’s public execution. So, I would love to hear your thoughts on it and how you think this announcement relates to social movements against prison and policing.
BROOKE: We’ve spoken a little bit about it; I’ve touched on how there’s a tension and relationship. A back and forth call and response between repression and resistance.
These announcements I classify as repression. These are containment strategies – these spectacles that are curated and launched. But I don’t want to over-emphasize what went down in 2020, because there’s definitely some folks out there that feel like the whole terrain shifted, that it was a grand insurrectional moment, and everything is now re-encoded in a different way. I don’t think that’s true. Maybe that’s just because I’ve seen kind of a sine wave: this up and down, this to and fro – I’ve been through several cycles of it now, going back three or four decades. But there is a relationship.
We talked about this cumulative, hard-won fight against incarceration, not to mention its failure to deliver on any of its promises; its rationale wears thin. With legitimacy not only of these institutions and modes of control, but with the state itself, there’s a day-to-day attrition. Essentially, they prove themselves to be illegitimate and [to be] failures on a visceral, day-to-day level. There’s a constant wearing-away of legitimacy because essentially, a lot of us live within the contradictions. And even if you can’t verbalize it, or articulate it, or put it together, we recognize shit is all fucked up – that this gives us nothing. No one actually believes or depends upon prisons to rehabilitate anyone. Even though they might be the most fervent law-and-order…liberal defending the system or its necessity, [it is] as a flawed system that is in need of repair, blah blah blah. If you mention someone’s going to prison, there’s an immediate fear because you know it is a site of degradation, violence, and trauma. So, to combat this, the contradictions aren’t faced, the violence is never remedied, because it demands a complete upending of the social order. Call it revolution, call it whatever you want.
The state and these institutions, they don’t construct legitimacy – this aura and extension of authority – [out of] whole cloth. It’s cumulative and it’s always a repair job. They’re always maintaining it. Counterinsurgency – which is essentially the same as public relations, or a continual hearts and minds campaign, this maintenance of appearances and social control – it’s always being patched and renewed. Essentially, we have a ritual of renewal here that is scheduled: they’re called elections. I have to view these incantations and invocations of the Norway model of reform as responses – to this delegitimizing, and [to] a good chunk of the population no longer co-signing what’s going down. It’s kind of a renegotiation of the terms of order – or a re-wording, a re-encoding. I think it’s a feudal kind of postponement of a reckoning. Because it’s coming – maybe not within my lifetime, but it’s this perpetual fight against – I don’t know if you’d say it’s collapse – or just the appearances giving away.
I think for a moment in 2020, the veil was lifted, or at least it was rendered problematic. I think that Dylan Rodríguez mentioned it recently in one of your interviews. That not only since 2020 but even since 2014, since Ferguson and Baltimore, there’s been a real strong drive on behalf of the liberals. Not to change, not to face anything, but to reconstruct a certain kind of plausible deniability…to struggle to resettle, I think is how he put it. To reconstruct a position of comfort. And they’re willing to throw anybody and everybody under the bus in order to regain that, and [regain] their own relevance. Because in 2020, liberals were irrelevant as such; liberalism was irrelevant. So, this is a repair job, of what we successfully ripped apart and are still ripping apart and resisting.
JAY: Yeah, I think that’s right. There is this other piece I wanted to get to with you because – California’s interesting…it’s also become within the US kind of a – I don’t necessarily want to call it a model; I wrote that originally, but I don’t think that’s quite right. It’s invoked as an example of how decarceration can happen. Not full decarceration, obviously; we’re not talking about abolition, but reducing the number of people who are inside. There was a high point in the 90s; if you add up the jail population along with the prison population, there was another high-water mark around 2006. Since then, there has been some reduction in those numbers. I think it’s important to say, of course, that there’s been a lot of organizing in California from folks like CURB and people who have tried to oppose prisons being built; and also, stuff like the Pelican Bay hunger strikes, which led to certain consent decrees. Which are always kind of bullshit, but sometimes, certain things filter down from these things. So, some people might say, this is the pragmatic state…. for people who say, well, we just need to take these steps to reduce our prison population, and that’s the way to get towards abolition – is to just take this chunk off and this chunk off and then suddenly we’ve gone from 130,000, and we could get down to 30,000 and keep going, right? I’m sure you confront these kinds of discussions and opinions with the work that you all do, so I’m interested in your thoughts on the realities of what has actually occurred in California; whether there’s a trajectory of decarceration that’s ongoing, and what would be your concerns with everything I’ve laid out.
There’s a constant wearing-away of legitimacy because essentially, a lot of us live within the contradictions. And even if you can’t verbalize it, or articulate it, or put it together, we recognize shit is all fucked up – that this gives us nothing.
BROOKE: It’s interesting because to the rest of the country and even internationally, California is held up much like Newsom is holding up Norway or the Nordic model. The reality of what’s going on in California is there is no California model of decarceration. There’s no coherent plan that’s being pursued, either by the state or being negotiated by coalitions. It has decreased from its peak of 173,000 locked up in 2006, but that’s due to a variety of reasons. It peaked, really, in 2006 primarily because at the height of prison building boom and even the response to the Rodney King uprising in L.A. – in terms of neoliberalism, the new terms of social order, and the punishment regime coming into full flower – was these tons of young Black men, young Chicano men being laced up with double-digit sentences: 25 years, 30 years. Basically after 2006, a lot of those folks started getting out, because their sentences were up. They maxed out, or they got out.
I think the rest of the country has to realize – and even folks within the state; they want to believe this myth that we’re on the leading edge – we certainly are a leader. In that news story we mentioned that ‘California will lead the nation’: in many ways it does, but not in the way it was intended. Certainly not in the way that this myth of California leading decarceration efforts does. California does lead as an experimental test bed for isolation and control. And, we see, with this story, with discourse – with media, with cultural hegemony and ideas, with hearts and minds. And this is incredibly adept. Can you imagine DeSantis coming out with something this sophisticated to manage? Or any other state? A lot of folks are more provincial, or crude; they’re not forced to this level of chicanery and dissemblance.
But also, materially, California [has] a highly professionalized, very bureaucratized incarceration system. A ton of money – we were the first state to build a supermax, even before the feds: Pelican Bay, in ‘89. We pioneered the new architecture of full doors, panopticon placed pods, lines of sight; isolation regimes, classification regimes, in terms of separating prisoners and managing ‘inmate society,’ ways of using isolation – we were the first ones to use the SHU as a method of breaking up inmate populations and [as] punishment, of prisons within prisons. They train regularly with Israelis – the same kind of international to and fro. There’s a whole professional field of penology and criminology that’s devoted, basically, to evil – to straight-up scientizing torture, isolation, captivity. It’s all depoliticized into this perverse science.
So, in that way, we do lead – I say we, but I really mean they, it’s they. They’re not my cops, they’re not my governor, they’re not my system. I’d renounce my citizenship if it weren’t just a huge problem, but I don’t consider myself a United States citizen, to make that clear. But in terms of the actual population numbers, that is interesting because things are under renegotiation. Certain facts that do throw a certain kind of light on it…as certain correctives. Any resentencing and decarceration: that’s due to organizing and pressure from below. Period. But that’s not to say it also isn’t a problem. This is essentially one of the forces – this pressure from below – [in] how systems modify and respond to conditions to extend their life. This is how institutions mold and shift to meet new contradictions or challenges. I forget who it was – maybe you know – but it’s like, reform as a paradigm is built into the creation of this industrialized captivity system. Prisons – reform is part of the paradigm. Not only were they reformed themselves, as a form of sophistication above and beyond straight-up corporal punishment or execution, but it’s almost built in. It might be Angela Davis in Are Prisons Obsolete?
JAY: She definitely covers it there. I don’t know if she was the first, but she definitely talks about the entire history of prison as the history of reform, because prison was a reform of other punishment regimes that existed outside of prisons, essentially.
BROOKE: And regarding the duopoly, dual paradigms that orbit around each other; the twin faces of U.S. fascism and settler colonialism – the conservative and liberal. The Old Testament and New Testament. Let’s consider – it’s essentially true with Biden. Liberals are the ones: they are the reconstructive, the modifying, the adaptive engine that built mass incarceration. They co-constitute. They help each other, these two teams, and revolve around each other; they mutually reinforce. In that way California also leads. We can see the new rationales being crowd-sourced in front of our faces right now.
And it’s actually nationwide. Humane prisons, feminist jails, mental health expansions. These are the new rhetoric and rationales for expanding the carceral footprint. And even though a few prisons have closed here in California due to the smaller population, they haven’t really closed. Their carceral capacity, has that decreased? No, the buildings are still standing. Have they decreased the number of guards and staff? No one’s been let go. Have budgets decreased? The opposite – budgets have increased. That, in combination with…number games that are going on: one, right now the numbers in California are falsely depressed because of the pandemic. Because in addition to shutting down restaurants, bars, concerts, and everything else, they also shut down the courts. So, the whole pipeline, the whole funnel that vacuums up people from communities and then puts them into cages was blocked, was shut down. Now it’s firing up again. And actually, San Quentin just increased in its population. It’s at 125 percent right now of its designed capacity, and in the last 3 months it’s increased over 500 people in its population. There are still prisons in California that are running at 150 percent of designed capacity.
I would say also, that when you evaluate abolition, or at least our iteration or understanding of abolition – our strand of it, our analysis, our particular approach – it’s not about prisons themselves as a site – it’s the power relationship and the whole control structure. And there’s a division of labor and multiple forces and agencies and methods at work. So, you’ll notice that even though the numbers here in California peaked in 2006, they started declining. Well, one, because prisons here were so overcrowded [that] people were dying and getting sick en masse with what’s called Valley Fever. There were epidemic conditions in the Central Valley. Some number games, then, pursued – after lawsuits. CDCR was just letting people die, denying that anything was happening. So many people were dying, and then getting lawyers – the people that survived – that there was a court settlement and realignment occurred: a cap was put on to how much it could be overcrowded. And that’s like, 135 or 125 percent. So, people were shipped out of state, plus a certain classification of folks with convictions were shuttled to county jails.
So, when COVID came, this pipeline was shut down, but a lot of people got stranded in county jails. The right to a speedy trial was just thrown out the window; it went in the trash. I personally know people – friends, people around me – they spent 2, 3 years inside with one hearing after another getting postponed for months. Not even getting to trial; not even getting to a plea deal, for years. So, we’ll see what numbers change, going forward, but they basically plateaued over the last two or three years.
I think there is a re-negotiation going on. One thing I also want to say that it did peak in 2006, and that was also simultaneous with the time that big data, mass surveillance, ankle bracelets became economically feasible for mass deployment. So, you have to look at the overall control apparatus in place. For a while, we were watching as these moves were being made with surveillance, cameras, ankle bracelets, and gang injunctions – basically, they were turning barrios into outdoor prisons with go/no-go borders and control of outside populations. Essentially, taking a cue from the Israelis – creating Gaza Strips, the Golan Heights, but it’s called East Oakland or South Philly.
But now with the new fascist turn, I think we’re gonna be seeing – there’s more criminalization going on. But it’s being called – people are actually planning camps for homeless folks, for unhoused folks – with an astonishing resemblance in many respects to minimum security compounds: in terms of supervision, piss testing, curfews, fences. And also, being theoretically similar in terms of…populations targeted: exactly the same. Exactly the same. But also, in terms of invisibilizing people; pushing them to the margins. And the same logics of disposability going on. I don’t know how to combat that nationwide. But it’s really curious, too, because Oakland, in particular, where I’m at right now, suffers from something really similar, the way that California is held up as a symbol nationwide. You hear it, and those of us who do media work keep running into it, and those of us who are dealing with situation on the ground, who know people inside, or have been inside, are like: what are you talking about? What are you talking about?
Same thing goes with Oakland. It has this national reputation. Even to the extent that we just have Oakland in the title of our group’s name, people assume we are a Black group. We’re mixed, but we’re predominantly white. But Oakland hasn’t been a chocolate city for a decade. It’s incredibly repressive, with a highly transient population. So, it’s a very odd place to organize, with waves of transient populations with limited understandings. But then, even when you organize nationally, it’s got this weird reputation. California as well: so, if we’re going to abolish carceral society, let’s also abolish the California model. That’s just another illusion. I think it’s understandable [that] people are grasping at illusions; a lot of folks are really desperate for some kind of positive example out there. A lot of people aren’t desperate, though, and are holding these things up as, again, that liberal blanket of comfort and reassurance. They want to believe that these things are in place or are happening. But those of us on the ground doing this work can’t afford to indulge in any of that bullshit.
California does lead as an experimental test bed for isolation and control…we were the first state to build a supermax, even before the feds: Pelican Bay, in ‘89. Liberals are the ones: they are the reconstructive, the modifying, the adaptive engine that built mass incarceration…In that way California also leads…And it’s actually nationwide. Humane prisons, feminist jails, mental health expansions. These are the new rhetoric and rationales for expanding the carceral footprint. And even though a few prisons have closed here in California due to the smaller population, they haven’t really closed. Their carceral capacity, has that decreased? No, the buildings are still standing. Have they decreased the number of guards and staff? No one’s been let go. Have budgets decreased? The opposite – budgets have increased.
JAY: Yeah – right on. Thanks a lot, Brooke. I don’t know if there’s anything else you want to add, just in closing. We really appreciate your time and Carlin’s time in talking to us about this. Hopefully we can have you on another time again and talk about some of the organizing that you all do – I know we said a little bit at the top, but I don’t know if there’s anything you want to point folks to…
BROOKE: Well, like any halfway decent conversation, you come up with two or three more topics. For brainstorming what the pillars of liberalism are psycho-socially, or the myths of social democracy. I mean, I’d be interested in listening as much as participating – I don’t know if I’m qualified to participate – but as a sufferer of the bullshit, maybe, I can share my pain. I don’t know how much insight I have to share on that. But I appreciate the opportunity to talk about this stuff, at least. And perhaps it will inoculate against the next wave of bullshit we’re gonna be getting from Newsom with this Jon Stewart interview being publicized. Maybe this interview will at least be a tool we can use.
JAY: I think it’s helpful for that; I think it’s helpful in terms of this Norwegian thing. You know, this is the latest iteration of it, but there are other examples. I mean, the lady who’s – I’m trying to think of her name –
JOSH: Brie Williams.
JAY: Brie Williams, right. She’s an academic who’s associated with this and she basically just travels around the country peddling this shit to people. And they take wardens on tours of Norway and then come back. It’s a big shell game, really.
BROOKE: It’s evolving into a micro-industry.
JAY: Yeah. South Carolina did the same thing; Vera Institute came in and put some programs in a prison down there, but at the same time they were putting metal plates on the windows of every fuckin’ cell outside of that prison. So, I think that it’s important for folks to see that for what it is; I think it’s important for folks to demystify California as some model to put on a pedestal for decarceration towards abolition. Even at the same time, acknowledging that there has been a lot of good, important, historical organizing that has gone down there as well. And I think it will puncture several of those myths and hopefully – I know the Nordic model in particular is something around prisons, specifically, that people have been asking for, because it’s constantly addressed. It’s like, well, we’ll turn our prisons into the prisons [in] Norway.
BROOKE: It’s worsening.
JAY: It’s nonsense. And worse – is it plays right into the hands of any state with 20 million dollars that feels like they need to co-opt some energy from social movements or whatever. Because it’s very easy for them. 20 million dollars is nothing to a state. And it’s very easy for them to just bring some therapy dogs in, bring some gardening in, and pay some nonprofit folks to come teach prisoners how to podcast. I’m not trying to diminish it for those 300 prisoners who get to experience that instead of sitting inside their cells for 365 days a year; that might have some marginal value to them, of course –
BROOKE: Or even some of the NGOs that run these programs. Because there’s a whole taxonomy of different types of folks involved, and some folks know what time it is but know that in order to do the work they gotta do, they gotta eat some shit.
And there’s this dynamic as well – we didn’t talk about it much – but this funding and the way that CDCR doesn’t run any of these programs, and relies upon outside organizations to run them, creates a very clientelistic relationship with this organizations. In that, even if a group did have the inclination to get more combative, or to criticize, or to run something more radical, they’re essentially held hostage by this relationship in order to maintain access; in order to continue doing some of the good work they are actually doing with folks inside. So, it’s an effective strategy at maintaining this penumbra of compliance among certain organizations.
And a lot of organizations are true believers in their own line, their own mission statement, quote unquote; they couldn’t care less, but, I mean, shout out to the folks that are struggling with contradictions and having to live with really deep compromises to do some of this work. Recognition to those few folks out there doing that.
JAY: Absolutely: it’s a complicated thing, but like you say, it becomes a kind of disciplining mechanism. You want the funding to be able to operate, then this is what you’re gonna do –
BROOKE: But not even funding, just access – to let you in the gate.
JAY: Well, thanks a lot, Brooke, this is great. We appreciate the work you all do and hope that folks connect with you all and find ways to share and be in relation to one another. Thank you, a lot.
BROOKE: Right on. Thank you.