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Maya Schenwar | When Prison Reform Means Prison Expansion

Although “prison reform” is gaining steam in progressive and conservative circles alike, it doesn’t always look like progress.

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Early 20th century prison reformer Julia S. Tutwiler, for whom Alabama’s maximum-security women’s prison is named, was praised as “the angel of the stockades.” Still lauded in this century, Tutwiler is well-known for battling to house incarcerated juveniles separately from adults, shielding youth from some of the rampant abuse they experienced in adult prisons.

However, less known is Tutwiler’s support for another kind of separation: segregation between Black and white people in prisons. She wrote in a 1911 letter that racial segregation was an “obvious reform” that was “important for the public welfare,” and that implementing it within prisons “would be better for both races.”

Tutwiler’s recommendation was framed as a “reform,” but in reality, it was a prescription for intensified racial oppression — an affirmation of the white supremacy upon which the prison system was constructed.

The modern prison system itself was originally promoted as a reform. Prior to the widespread use of prisons, the state response to crimes often involved corporal and capital punishment. The “reformers” of the 18th and early 19th centuries advocated prison as a humane alternative to death and torture — a place where, isolated from society, those convicted of crimes would, theoretically, do penance (in a “penitentiary”) and reemerge rehabilitated.

The legacy of many of history’s “prison reforms” is, simply, more prison.

However, of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. As Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander and others have chronicled, throughout much of the history of prison as an institution, prison has not generally functioned as a “correctional system”; it has functioned as a system of racial, economic and social control. After slavery was abolished in 1865 — and again in the 20th century, after the fall of Jim Crow — the prison became a strategy for maintaining a racial caste system in the South and throughout the country. And as Luana Ross and Stormy Ogden have noted, imprisonment has also been deployed against Indigenous people, as a tool of colonialism and genocide.

The racialized war on drugs, which resulted in the incarceration of millions, was spurred forward in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s by various “reforms.” Take, for example, the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act. This legislation established the Sentencing Commission, which proceeded to attach mandatory sentence lengths to some federal crimes, removing a certain amount of judicial discretion. Less discretion would mean less racial discrimination in sentencing, according to the reformist logic. The Sentencing Reform Act also abolished federal parole, theoretically doing away with another opening for racial bias, since parole boards were more likely to grant release to white people.

However, since racism is embedded in the system — and Black and Brown people are more likely to be targeted by police and prosecutors and more likely to be convicted by racist juries — mandatory sentencing and parole abolishment did not magically solve racial disparities. Extracting “bias” from a particular step did not diminish the influence of white supremacy upon this inherently white supremacist structure. The sentencing reforms of the late 20th century simply resulted in longer sentences for everyone — particularly people of color.

The legacy of many of history’s “prison reforms” is, simply, more prison.

Building New Prisons in Alabama

Nowadays, Julia S. Tutwiler’s name is most often uttered in connection with the notorious Alabama women’s prison that bears it. Despite previous “reforms” instated at that institution — like painting the walls of one dormitory pink, because the color was reported to be soothing — a federal investigation found that the prison was rife with sexual assault by male guards. Women who reported being raped were retaliated against in large numbers and frequently placed in solitary confinement. For many years, the prison quarantined women with HIV, confining them in segregated housing with little access to basic programs. Public outcry around the prison has risen steadily, to the extent that even in historically “tough-on-crime” Alabama, public officials are under pressure to shut Tutwiler down.

On the surface, it seems as if those officials are taking heed: A hefty prison reform package passed the Alabama Senate last week. This legislation, proposed by the state’s Republican governor, involves a restructuring of the entire Alabama prison system. It includes closing Tutwiler once and for all, and replacing it with a brand-new women’s prison.

On its face, this may seem like a positive step, but in fact, as is often the case in prison politics, “reform” in Alabama means expansion. The new facility would contain 1,200 beds — over 200 more than the current prison’s capacity of 975.

If we’re not careful, the golden age of prison reform will simply re-form mass incarceration in its own image.

These expansionist plans, justified by overcrowding, extend beyond the women’s prison. The governor’s larger prison reform package involves building four new prisons and closing a large number of existing prisons. Taking up the language of progressive prison critics, the bill is called the Prison Transformation Initiative Act. In the final tally, the $800 million plan would leave Alabama with 3,000 more prison beds.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Republican State Rep. Steve Clouse, stressed that the bill “addresses important issues plaguing our prison system,” and added, “This bold reform measure reinforces our commitment to addressing this matter once and for all.”

We are left with the question: If this expansion bill addresses the matter of incarceration “once and for all,” is the endgame a permanently larger prison system for Alabama?

The answer is cloaked in buzzwords. Commenting on the reform plan, Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said, “By using modern, state-of-the-art design, the new, more efficient, correctional facilities will improve the security and safety of staff and inmates and provide increased capability to offer rehabilitation and re-entry services aimed at reducing recidivism.”

For those of us who believe in decarceration — efforts to shrink the prison system and decrease the number of people locked up — phrases like “state-of-the art” and “increased capability” are not good news. Neither, of course, is the building of new prisons.

As decarceration activists everywhere know, the rule of thumb when it comes to prison construction is: If they build it, they will fill it.

Regressions That Masquerade as Progress

Right now, public consciousness of the destructiveness of mass incarceration is growing rapidly, and judging by the tenor of the debate in mainstream party politics and the dominant media, you’d think that incarceration rates might be dropping dramatically.

In most states, incarceration numbers are indeed falling, mostly at modest rates. However, the United States’ total incarcerated population isn’t plummeting. In part, that’s because in some states, mostly in the South and West, incarceration rates are increasing considerably. As The Sentencing Project noted earlier this year, “Of the states with rising prison populations, four have experienced double-digit increases in the last five years, led by Nebraska (22%) and Arkansas (18%). While sharing in the national crime drop, these states have resisted the trend toward decarceration.”

The same principle holds for county jails. Decreases in the jail populations of large counties and major cities have gotten a lot of media attention, giving us the impression that pretrial incarceration is securely on the downswing. However, while jail use is declining in cities, it’s actually going up in rural areas and smaller counties.

We can’t sit back. Just because the public consensus has shifted against “mass incarceration,” in a general sense, doesn’t mean that it will simply coast downhill from here. In fact, as the Alabama proposal illustrates, the shift in public sentiment is ripe for exploitation by savvy politicians who see it as an opportunity to peddle reforms that will only bolster the prison industrial complex.

Even in some of the states where prison populations are shrinking, governments and private companies are simply morphing tactics, confining people in other prisonized spaces, such as locked-down drug treatment centers and psychiatric hospitals and often their own homes. The expanding use of electronic monitors has actually begun encompassing populations that would previously not have been held under state control, widening the net of carceral domination. Meanwhile, as states like Nebraska and Arkansas — and perhaps, soon, Alabama — are demonstrating, the steady decline of actual prisons is far from guaranteed.

Let Alabama be a lesson: We — meaning all of us who believe that the incarceration of millions of people must end — must continue speaking out against regressions that masquerade as progress. We need to do this even if, to ourselves, it feels as though we’re simply repeating the same things we have repeated for years. Because the prison system is still doing the same things it’s been doing for years: perpetuating white supremacy, perpetuating violence, perpetuating injustice.

If we’re not careful, the golden age of prison reform will simply re-form mass incarceration in its own image. And incarceration is incarceration, even if every wall in every prison is painted pink.

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