"Prisons are both remembered and forgotten places," Ruth Wilson Gilmore explained to her audience on November 3rd, 2011. Gilmore spoke to Rice students, faculty, staff, and community members about the growth of prisons in the U.S., specifically in California, and the recent push to incorporate gender responsive "solutions" to problems facing incarcerated women. Gilmore is a Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
The population of incarcerated people in the U.S.has more than quadrupled since 1980, and although this country is home to only about five percent of the world's population, it holds twenty-five percent of the world's prisoners (NAACP statistics). In the past twenty-three years, the state of California has built twenty-three prisons, twenty for men and three for women. Most, if not all, of these facilities operate over capacity and under situations that often prove unhealthy and abusive to inmates. Despite efforts to close several older California prisons and replace them with newer facilities, Gilmore explained, the state has followed an "if you build it, they will fill it" policy, consistently filling new prisons with more and more prisoners while allowing older facilities to remain in operation.
But researchers like Gilmore have repeatedly demonstrated that mass incarceration does not, in fact, correlate to an increase in community safety. And the new movement to incorporate "gender-responsive" prisons ignores deeper issues that strike at the very heart of the impetus to incarcerate. Adding the fact that the vast majority of prisoners, both men and women, are African American, there are serious problems with the way our society views and handles punishment. Gilmore belongs to a growing group of abolitionist feminists who seek to reform the prison system in the country through attention to issues of racism, feminism, and data that supports alternative solutions to punishment. Gilmore's 2007 book, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California, addresses many of these concerns.
"Gender Responsive Prisons: Or the Dangers of Innocence" was the second talk ofthe 2011-12 academic year's Gray/Wawro lecture series. Stay tuned for this semester's upcoming Gray/Wawro Lectures: on February 9th, Laura Lederer will deliver her talk "In Modern Bondage: An Examination of Sex Trafficking as Gender-Based Slavery," and on April 19th, Nancy Folbre will speak about "Unpaid Work and Well-being: The Nature and Logic of Patriarchal Capitalism." In these and other Gray/Wawro Lectures, CSWGS is grateful for the additional support of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.
Editors' note: CSWGS was honored that the image to the left appeared in the December issue of OutSmart Magazine. Pictured (l-r) are: Brian Riedel, Melanie Gray, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Elora Shehabuddin, and Josh Cory. Photo courtesy of Dalton DeHart.