Fighting Back Against the Forever Lockup

There’s a rather descriptive phrase used to describe those who end up in prisons, jails and penitentiaries in the United States. Two words make up the phrase. Those two words put together explain the nature of a nation whose economy is based on extracting as much labor from a human being while not only paying them as little as possible, but by discarding them when they no longer serve the needs of those in power. That phrase is “surplus population.” This is how the rulers perceive those who have been historically marginalized even when their labor was needed: people of African descent, immigrants, and even working-class white people. If one expands this understanding outward into the world, the reality doesn’t change, it only gains exponentially in number. In other words, it is still the poor, the non-white-skinned, and migrants who mostly become surplus. It is their livelihoods that are destroyed by war and financialization in the service of the so-called one percent. Instead of working on state-financed solutions to the situation created because of this search for profit, politicians and their supporters’ campaign against the state providing any solutions, creating what Gilmore calls the “anti-state state.” This is a state whose primary purpose is not to care for those it governs, especially the most vulnerable of them, but to police and control them even more; to create a police state.

Let’s return to the US, where approximately 2 million people are in jail or prison on any given day, while another three million or so are under some kind of supervision by prison-related authorities (parole, probation, etc.) This includes more than thirty thousand immigrants with no criminal charges against them. The Black population in the United States, which history tells us has been considered “surplus” ever since slavery was eradicated by war, is grossly over-represented in the nation’s criminal justice system, with those of Latino heritage similarly affected. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore points out in a recently published collection of essays and talks, this is not an accident. Indeed, the development of this phenomenon is part and parcel of economic and governmental policy to the extent that observers have called it the prison-industrial complex and industrialized incarceration.

I imagine some of those reading this have done time. Whether it was a few days or many years, anyone who has been behind bars knows the finality of the doors clanging shut, the guards pushing food through the slot, the fear that one will not get out alive, and the almost constant undertone of fear and violence—from the guards or other inmates. The fear is real. When one realizes they are inside for an offense that those with more money or from a different neighborhood would either not be imprisoned or even arrested for, that fear deservedly turns to anger. Unfortunately, the power of a prisoner to change the law that put them inside is at best limited, even when organized into groups.

This is the juncture where the outside world must step up. Some of the most interesting (and hopeful) sections in Gilmore’s book, titled Abolition Geography: Essays Towards Liberation, are those describing such organizing efforts. Two such groups discussed in varying detail include Madres de lo Estes Los Angeles and another southern California group mostly from Los Angeles called Mothers Reclaiming Our Children. The former group coalesced around a plan by the state of California to build a new prison in East Los Angeles while Mothers Reclaiming our Children began in response to the police murder of a former gang member working to reform himself and help end gang violence. Gilmore’s descriptions and analysis of these groups emphasizes their predominantly female membership, the depth of their passion and their growing understanding of the role their loved ones play in the greater scheme of US capital and the management of so-called surplus populations.

While reading these stories of the two groups composed mostly of women, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the 1954 film Salt of the Earth, where the women of a mining town organize against the mine owners after the men in the union are threatened with jail for picketing and one of their leaders is beaten and arrested. The fact that much of women’s lives are separate from men’s gives them the power to organize outside the boundaries of the patriarchy, at least until the forces of capital and its laws can figure out a way in.

The essays in this text range in date from 1993 to 2018. Reading them in the order they were previously published provides a history of mass incarceration and the thinking of the movement to abolish prisons that developed because of governments’ incarceration policy. What became most clear to this reviewer in regards to the latter is the growing insight by organizers of the movement into the role capital and geography play in the policy of mass incarceration. Another equally important theme is the effectiveness of grassroots, people-to-people movements and organizations. This is not only useful to today’s understanding of how prisons serve the economy of capital and power, but also as a reminder that people’s movements must exist in real space and not just cyberspace if they are to be effective enough to change policy. Gilmore’s prose is descriptive and direct; it describes a society whose economy has failed too many of its members and whose only solution is to create a police state.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: