A good look into California’s prison situation tells us a lot about what Californians believe about Californians. Look closely and you may not like what you see. Perhaps this is why, for far too long, Californians have been determined not to look at all.
At its founding as an American state, new Californians held their earliest prisoners, quite literally, at bay. Gold-seeking Australians and other non-American troublemakers were quickly dispatched on ships set in the San Francisco Bay—a scenario that promptly reached overcrowding. Not long in, these same captive laborers constructed their own prison on land—San Quentin—just two years after California became the thirty-first state. And we kept on building them, sending more and more of our fellow residents to them, until something had to be done.
California has long been pressed to deal with immense problems. While prison reform began in the United States not long after the nation’s founding, in California, change—whether for good or ill—seemed easier. This is still true with today’s movement to end mass incarceration, fueled by activists, academics, professionals, politicians, and practitioners. Hastened by the three-judge panel that found California’s prisons to be unconstitutionally overcrowded, the massive expansion trend has finally started to reverse course. Much of this effort is overseen by Governor Jerry Brown, who recently admitted that the mandatory sentencing policies he’d established in 1978 increased recidivism, with no incentive for prisoners who turn their lives around. This recent realization prompted his courageous call to relax mandatory sentencing with an initiative for the November ballot known as the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016 (Prop. 57), called “dangerous” by former Governor Pete Wilson. California voters will once more get to decide if they want to continue the reforms now underway.
When we set out to work on this issue of Boom, we hypothesized that we may indeed be presenting a tough pill for Californians to swallow. We pondered what to call it. Uncaging California? There are a lot of people being released. The cells’ steel bars do look like cages, but prisoners aren’t animals; humans don’t go in cages. A moment of freeing California? Perhaps. But not everyone will be released. Abolishing the prison? This may be the vision of one or two contributors here, yes—but this is not realistic. Reforming. Revisioning the prison. Seeing the thing we hesitate to look at.
Many perspectives are represented in this issue of Boom. Mine, for starters: I served three years in the California Youth Authority during the era when guards referred to prison furniture as “Pete Wilson’s.” Staring into the abyss can have a strange effect on the observer. And yet, we are finding glimmers of hope in this moment of experimentation and new possibilities. Together we grapple with the California prison, its meaning, and its humanity. We do so with the sincere belief that positive reform is possible. We are realists, but optimists, too. We are Californians, after all.
The kinds of new possibilities that abound as Californians redress our correctional situation offer ongoing opportunities to better do justice for the future of California’s children, and those who have been deeply affected by the system.
A seminar course I teach to Honors students at Cal State Fullerton, which this summer became Boom‘s new institutional home, is called “American Institutions and Values.” The majority of the course focuses on the American story of punishment and the prison, including California’s, critically examining these institutions we’ve built and the values that gave them rise. Not unlike the majestic mural painted by Alfredo Santos in San Quentin telling the California story, shown in the photograph at the top of this letter, the prison tells our story.
As they look at the situation, my students are often shocked when they see the scale of the problem, holding a mirror to their own stories, many of which are already connected to the system. The history, of course, cannot be changed. But as each contribution to this issue of Boom notes, highlighted especially by one contributor who is at the beginning of an eleven-year prison sentence, our future, and that of our prisons, remains to be written. It’s to this end that we offer these pieces to you, our readers, as we imagine California’s future together, which will be shaped significantly by this present moment of prison reform.
It’s a privilege to share this issue with you as Boom‘s new editor. I am indebted to my predecessors Louis Warren, Carolyn Thomas, and, of course, Jon Christensen, whose spirit of rigorous optimism continues to imbue the journal with thoughtfulness, creativity, and beauty.
Jason S. Sexton
A fragment of one of Alfredo Santos’s six murals inside San Quentin’s dining hall. Photograph by Correctional Officer P. Jo.