Anglos dominated the prisoner population in 1977 and did not lose their plurality until 1988. Meanwhile, absolute numbers grew across the board—with the total number of those incarcerated approximately doubling during each interval. African American prisoners surpassed all other groups in 1988, but by 1995, they had been overtaken by Latinos; however, Black people have the highest rate of incarceration of any racial/ethnic grouping in California, or, for that matter, in the United States (see also Bonczar and Beck 1997). TABLE 4 CDC PRISONER POPULATION BY RACE/ETHNICITY The structure of new laws, intersecting with the structure of the burgeoning relative surplus population, and the state’s concentrated use of criminal laws in the Southland, produced a remarkable racial and ethnic shift in the prison population. Los Angeles is the primary county of commitment. Most prisoners are modestly educated men in the prime of life: 88 percent are between 19 and 44 years old. Less than 45 percent graduated from high school or read at the ninth-grade level; one in four is functionally illiterate. And, finally, the percentage of prisoners who worked six months or longer for the same employer immediately before being taken into custody has declined, from 54.5 percent in 1982 to 44 percent in 2000 (CDC, Characteristics of Population, various years). TABLE 5 CDC COMMITMENTS BY CONTROLLING OFFENSE (%) At the bottom of the first and subsequent waves of new criminal legislation lurked a key contradiction. On the one hand, the political rhetoric, produced and reproduced in the media, concentrated on the need for laws and prisons to control violence. “Crime” and “violence” seemed to be identical. However, as table 5 shows, there was a significant shift in the controlling (or most serious) offenses for those committed to the CDC, from a preponderance of violent offenses in 1980 to nonviolent crimes in 1995. More to the point, the controlling offenses for more than half of 1995’s commitments were nonviolent crimes of illness or of illegal income producing activity: drug use, drug sales, burglary, motor vehicle theft. The outcome of the first two years of California’s broadly written “three strikes” law presents a similar picture: in the period March 1994–January 1996, 15 percent of controlling offenses were violent crimes, 31 percent were drug offenses, and 41 percent were crimes against property (N = 15,839) (Christoper Davis et al. 1996). The relative surplus population comes into focus in these numbers. In 1996, 43 percent of third-strike prisoners were Black, 32.4 percent Latino, and 24.6 percent Anglo. The deliberate intensification of surveillance and arrest in certain areas, combined with novel crimes of status, drops the weight of these numbers into particular places. The chair of the State Task Force on Youth Gang Violence expressed the overlap between presumptions of violence and the exigencies of everyday reproduction when he wrote: “We are talking about well-organized, drug-dealing, dangerously armed and profit-motivated young hoodlums who are engaged in the vicious crimes of murder, rape, robbery, extortion and kidnapping as a means of making a living” (Philibosian 1986: ix; emphasis added).
Ruth Wilson Gilmore (Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (American Crossroads Book 21))