Date of Degree
Earth & Environmental Sciences
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
American Studies | Human Geography
critical prison and policing studies, racial capitalism, Louisiana, social movements, Black radical tradition, state formations
“The Contested Terrain the Louisiana Carceral State” examines the development of the Louisiana carceral state as produced from above and contested from below from 1971 to 2016. Through a combination of archival research, oral history interviews, and in-depth ethnographic fieldwork, I argue that Louisiana has expanded, consolidated, and adapted its carceral infrastructure in response to multiscalar political economic crises tied to global oil booms and busts, federal state interventions, and when oppositional movements gain traction. “Carceral infrastructure” refers to both the literal building of new state prisons and parish jails alongside passage of draconian sentencing laws, and bulking up of prosecutorial and police power. In particular, I examine how punitive state enhancements are shaped by and through the imperatives of racial capitalism, and how punitive power works as a key gear in the engine of neoliberal governance. The growth of carceral state power is underpinned by and reinforces racist and patriarchal ideologies about violence and safety which in turn justifies state disinvestment in public forms of collective responsibility and care – particularly during periods of acute crisis. However, these periods of crisis not only produced intensified carceral geographies but also dialectically form spaces of possibility for oppositional politics, social movement formations, and coalition-building. Activists behind bars and free have collectively organized to scale back the punitive power of the state in the lineages of the Black radical tradition and abolition democracy. Such oppositional movements illuminate how the formation of the carceral state is shaped by contestation and contingency.
The contested development of the Louisiana carceral state occurred in three primary stages. Beginning with four Black prisoners filing a federal conditions lawsuit against the inhumanity of the Louisiana State Penitentiary - Angola in 1971, Louisiana responded by undertaking an unprecedented state prison expansion project in response to federal court mandates shaped by racial liberalism and the rehabilitative ideal. As the liberal imagination of the federal courts failed to call into question the fundamental (as against egregious) violence of incarceration, the state’s prison build up was increasingly produced through law and order politics in the 1980s. While the global oil price hikes paid for carceral infrastructure growth in the 1970s, New Right state politicians instituted austerity measures in tandem with harsh new laws, that targeted the growing number of unemployed Black men in Louisiana. In response to these twinned crises, incarcerated men at Angola collectivized their struggles through forming the Angola Special Civics Project. The second phase was built by emboldening the state’s jail infrastructure during the 1990s. While state prisoners were first incarcerated in local jails as a temporary spatial fix in response to the federal courts’ population limits on state prisons, the incarceration of state prisoners in rural and urban jails turned into the long-term geographic solution to the state’s penal overcrowding. This reconfiguration met the demands of the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis while it also responded to the political mobilizations of sheriffs seeking to expand their base of power. Rural jails were filled to the brim with state, federal and INS prisoners while urban jails – particularly Orleans Parish Prison – was filled to capacity with state prisoners and pre-trial municipal prisoners charged on misdemeanors following New Orleans’ adoption of broken windows and community policing in the name of “policing reform” and in service of neoliberal urban redevelopment. New Orleans community activists took notice of this new carceral growth and ushered in a new wave of abolitionist grassroots organizing on the eve of Hurricane Katrina. The crises and contradictions that had been accumulating for decades came to a head following the intensification of racial criminalization and organized abandonment in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Community activists leveraged national attention following the state violence surrounding the hurricane to organize and win transformative campaigns that revamped of the public defender system, enacted greater police accountability mechanisms, and shrunk the jail by 6,000 beds when the city redeveloped OPP with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds. In the post-Katrina period, the Louisiana carceral state has developed through the escalation of policing and surveillance of surplus populations in the New Orleans French Quarter – namely Black transwomen accused of being in the sex trade – amid the uptick of municipal and private investments in the tourism economy. To contest their criminalization, the organization BreakOUT! organizes against the racial, gendered, and sexualized everyday violence of the NOPD while claiming their right to life in the new New Orleans.
Overall, this dissertation demonstrates that the scale of Louisiana’s punishment regime is central to the utterly contemporary neoliberal round of New South racial capitalist state development. And at the same time, people’s manifold organizing against the Louisiana carceral state reminds us that in even the most constricted of settings people strive to materialize new geographies of freedom.
Pelot-Hobbs, Lydia, "The Contested Terrain of the Louisiana Carceral State: Dialectics of Southern Penal Expansion, 1971–2016" (2019). CUNY Academic Works.
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