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Prisons, State Budgets and the New National Freedom Agenda

As more states push to re-evaluate their budgets, a movement aiming to shift funding from jails to schools and other support services is gaining steam nationwide.

(Image: Prison keys via Shutterstock)

Three days into a 10-day, 113-mile march across Pennsylvania, Fatimah Islam-Hernandez had a realization: “I have learned that when I want to have a powerful breakthrough in my life, I have to create a space, a clearing, so that my stand can be seen,” wrote Islam-Hernandez. “No matter how unreasonable, no matter what fears I have.”

Islam-Hernandez is an educator and parent in Philadelphia whose partner is one of the 51,370 people locked inside Pennsylvania’s sprawling state prison system. Her reflection came as part of the “March for a People’s Budget- Stop Prison Expansion Now” in Pennsylvania. The March, which left Philadelphia on May 25 and ended with a major rally in Harrisburg on June 3, is a sign of how new movements against imprisonment and punishment have been creating a new clearing by targeting the state budgeting process with creative modes of direct action.

Something new is happening in the realm of American criminal “justice.” After more than three decades of dramatic increases in incarceration, the popularity of prisons is sharply declining. Alarm about the human rights implications of imprisonment is growing as economic crises have raised new concerns about massive expenditures, including the billions spent annually to keep people in cages. And people are taking to the streets in response.

Under normal circumstance, it is difficult to imagine that a state budget ledger would incite popular rebellion. But these are not normal circumstances: Millions of people are in prisons, jails and detention centers throughout the United States, and many millions more have a family member there. Overwhelmingly, they come from poor communities and communities of color.

As austerity measures at the state level lead to school closures, healthcare cuts, and the elimination of essential public services, continued increases in spending on policing and prisons are becoming harder to ignore. Such trends are creating the potential for new alliances, as a series of grassroots campaigns around the country are learning to decipher and reimagine the process of state budgeting. These burgeoning coalitions signal an exciting movement focused on enacting what scholar-activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore recently called “a new national freedom agenda.” At stake might just be the future of America’s massive punishment regime.

Five years ago, we might have predicted that a financial crisis marked by austerity budgets and an ever-burgeoning divide between the richest and poorest Americans would require an expansion of the costly – and highly racialized – US prison state in order to maintain disastrous cuts to health care, housing, education and environmental protection. While this threat remains, the past three years have seen a range of promising resistance on both sides of prison walls. Hunger strikes have become the method of dissident prisoners from those locked in solitary confinement in California to the legal black hole of Guantanamo Bay. Campaigns challenging imprisonment and the harm it causes have popped up from the streets to college campuses, from churches to Occupy encampments and beyond. This new wave of organizing against prisons combines radical critique, direct action and brass-tacks pragmatism to take on previously obscure issues like state budgeting processes.

Today, contending futures lie on the horizon: in places like Michigan, Illinois, Kansas and New York, states have responded to shrinking revenues by closing prisons, often in the face of resistance from people whose only opportunity for living wage jobs has been a choice between being a foot soldier for wars abroad or wars at home. Meanwhile, states like California and Pennsylvania continue to build new prisons despite budget crises, moral outrage and organized resistance demanding community-based alternatives to incarceration. These movements are converging on state budgetary procedures to force the issue of decarceration: shrinking the prison and policing apparatus while growing the institutions and resources that create strong communities.

Behold the Budget

Prisons and jails, which are funded through a combination of debt-financing and general fund expenditures, have been removing people and resources from poor communities and communities of color while bleeding state and county budgets for more than three decades. While racism and other forms of violence have always defined the American criminal justice system, since the late 1970s, the rapid expansion of prisons and prisoners has turned the state budget into a crucial battleground for fighting these systems of domination. Contrary to popular belief, states have not withdrawn their investments from communities of color; they have just shifted more and more of that investment away from a social safety net into greater spending on police, jails and prisons. This is a two-fold attack, withdrawing support from institutions that support social ties while funneling support to institutions that actively destroy lives, families and neighborhoods.

While budgets are deliberately made to seem inaccessible or boring, they are yearly processes that both determine our collective futures and serve as itemized documentation of our moral choices. No matter what comes out of politicians’ mouths, we can see where they put our money. Budgets are also the places where all of our struggles connect: from family members fighting to get their loved ones out of prison, to teachers and students fighting for smaller class sizes and affordable education, to patients fighting for universal healthcare, to tenants fighting for affordable housing, to mothers fighting for child care, income support and early education programs.

With this in mind, prisoners, their family members, and other organizers across the country are raising and attempting to answer a set of important questions: How can we understand the connections between budget cuts to the public safety net and the rise of imprisonment as a catch-all “solution” to political, economic and social problems as two sides of the same coin? How can we enact strategies that can intervene in and reverse both of those trends while building movement across race, class, gender, age, ability, sexuality and sector? How can a focus on state budgets translate the moral imperative to decarcerate into a process that makes a positive and lasting difference in people’s everyday lives beyond the legislative session or election cycle?

Budgets for the People

Resistance to this kind of state violence is not new, but in recent years, the state budget has become a much more dynamic site of political struggle. The emergence of budget-based movements has been helped along by a phalanx of factors, ranging from budgetary shortfalls to a growing critique of prisons as a result of popular literature like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.

Two examples from our own work illustrate the ways in which struggles over prison budgets have catalyzed broader movements for social change. The first comes from California, the second from Pennsylvania. These states have among the highest incarceration rates in the country – and in recent years, broad grassroots coalitions have emerged to shrink the prison system by targeting the state budgeting process.

Ten years ago in California, grassroots organizations across the state formed an alliance aptly named Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), which seeks to curb prison spending by reducing the amount of prisons and prisoners in the state. Since 2007, CURB has been fighting to cancel AB 900, the largest prison expansion project in the history of the world, which allocated $7.4 billion (approximately $12 billion with interest) to build more than 50,000 new cages. In 2012, they were successful in cancelling $4.1 billion of the project.

CURB is now fighting new jails across the state, with local campaigns in San Mateo and Los Angeles counties. While politicians and Sheriffs’ departments continue to put out proposals to build “kinder, gentler” and often closer-to-home cages, CURB is combining direct action, media, and advocacy work to bring our loved ones home and build a Budget for Humanity by stopping all prison and jail expansion, making changes to sentencing and parole policy and investing in life-affirming programs that both keep people out of cages in the first place and support them returning home.

Decarcerate PA formed in early 2011 in response to the state’s $685 millon plan to build three new prisons and expand nine others. The campaign took shape around a three-point platform demanding that Pennsylvania stop building prisons, reduce the prison population and reinvest money in our communities. More than 80 organizations across the state have endorsed the platform and have supported the campaign in a series of advocacy efforts and direct action protests.

In November of 2012, seven members of Decarcerate PA were arrested in perhaps the first ever civil disobedience action aiming to stop prison construction in the United States; the group blocked the entrance to the prison construction site by setting up a model classroom and sitting at school desks with signs that said “Fund Schools Not Prisons.” Most recently, Decarcerate PA led a 113-mile march from Philadelphia to the State Capitol in Harrisburg. The marchers talked with hundreds of people across the state about the impacts of budget cuts and incarceration on their communities. Everywhere they went, they asked people what they would build instead of prisons. Each of these ideas was affixed to a large flag and presented at the capitol as a “people’s budget, not a prison budget.”

The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For

Prisons are difficult institutions around which to organize. They’re far away, deeply stigmatized and maintained through complex and obtuse political decisions. That difficulty – geographic, ideological, infrastructural – makes the current movement all the more impressive.

At its heart, these movements also present us with an opportunity. The question, “What will we build instead of prisons?” is about more than a reordering of our fiscal priorities. It also opens up the space to talk about what community safety actually looks like. If decades of mass incarceration and austerity have led to more violence and more insecurity, what visions of the future create safe, sustainable communities? Rather than see such rhetorical questions as the end of the conversation, these movements treat them as the beginning. The question of what to build instead of prisons is an exciting opportunity to explore the kind of infrastructure, organizations, labor and relationships that maximize human potential. And now, in the middle of recession and repression, is the perfect time to begin answering these questions. This might just be the moment, and the movement, we’ve been looking for.

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