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State of confinement: California’s carceral habit

Jonathan Simon, professor of law | September 10, 2012

Scott Simon’s amazing interview with George Takei (Sept. 1) brought tears to my eyes and made me think once again about why this hauntingly beautiful state with its sunny optimism and reputation for creativity and innovation has so often embraced mass incarceration in various forms. Takei, best known to the world as Hikaru Sulu, the fictional pilot of the star-ship Enterprise in the television show “Star Trek” and the several feature films that followed, was confined along with his family in several concentration camps setup by the United States to intern Japanese-Americans in 1942 (read his Wikipedia article here).


George Takei as Sulu

Talking with Simon, the host of NPR’s Saturday Weekend Edition show about the new musical about the Japanese internment Allegiance, Takei related that when he and his family finally left Tule Lake, their second camp, to return to Los Angeles, housing was so expensive they had to live on skid-row near downtown LA.  His little sister wanted to go home, home to incarceration.  That Takei’s family came back to LA and set themselves back to the life of being ambitious hard-working Californians (Takei studied at Berkeley (architecture) and UCLA (acting)) is amazing and inspiring, and a reminder that children scarred  by contemporary mass incarceration can be tomorrow’s George Takei’s, but why is this state so prone to locking people up?

It is true that the internment of Japanese Americans was a national crime whose stain lies on our whole nation, California had a far deeper responsibility, with all the major champions and the deepest sources of racist populist support for internment based here.  While it only lasted a few years, the internment involved over 100,000 people (read the Wikipedia article here).

California also was a heavy user of mental hospitals from the late 19th century through the 1950s to warehouse large numbers of people with mental illnesses or disabilities (or sometimes just deviant characters) largely without treatment and with little legal recourse to get out.  Most other states had similar institutions, but California did so at a much higher rate, and was far more aggressive in pushing sterilizations along with hospitalization and imprisonment.

Joan Didion reflects on California’s habits of confinement in her powerful memoir of the state, Where I Was From (listen to an interesting interview with Didion on the book here), and points to a number of traits that seem to combine in California’s political culture to favor regular paroxysms of fear and racially infused demands for exclusion.  Prominent among them is the fact that so many of the state’s middle class citizens have a vision of themselves as independent entrepreneurs who have belonged to the state for ever, when in fact they are a generation or two away from migrating into California from somewhere else and the state as a whole has depended for generations on massive federal spending projects the last of which was the Reagan era military technology boom.

This propensity to fear and loathe those we perceived coming into “our” state and to demand that a lot of them be locked up preventively is one that has achieved its most powerful and malignant form in contemporary mass incarceration. By using crime, often regardless of how minor, as our “reason” for confining large numbers of mostly brown and black Californians, our great confinement seems superficially more just then the Internment of the Japanese or the hospitalization and coerced sterilization of people with mental illnesses and disabilities, but not if you look much closer.

Most important, this propensity to confine seems to have little to do with the specific locus of fear nor the technical-professional apparatus that is ostensibly in control of it, whether it is medical, military, or juridical.  Courts should thus refuse to give much if any deference to California’s confinement decisions (unfortunately they generally do).

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.