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Against Carcerality: Planning, Strategizing, and Organizing for Decarceral Spaces

by Ian Baran and Walter Nicholls The following piece is a part of Progressive City's Planning for Decarceral Spaces for Collective Action series, which addresses how planners and activists can actively engage in designing, creating policies, and/or advocating for the creation of decarceral spaces which promote safety, reduce harm, and are accessible.

The Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Downtown Los Angeles

The utilization of the planning process to support marginalized communities has been a contested issue in planning activism and planning theory. Planning is both critiqued for reinscribing the dominant (racial) capitalist mode of production and viewed as a means of equitable decision-making through community participation. Within this continuum are “pragmatic,” pluralist, and communicative theories in which the planner is the representative for a community and/or the medium for honest communication—each focusing narrowly on participation in the planning process. Beyond the battle over communication, most progressive planning theories focus on decision-making and final decisions, i.e. if a proposed plan or policy passes or not. Planning theories and on-the-ground actors are limited in their conceptualization of how community-based organizations should engage the planning and larger governing processes, especially towards socially just ends, such as decarceral planning, without reinscribing racial capitalist legitimacy. We are left lacking an analysis which understands how planners can support oppressed communities through the planning process to achieve progressive ends and challenge the carceral state in all of its forms.

The use of Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) as a decarceral tool is an example of working within policy and planning areas through conversation with the county, city, and board of supervisors. EIRs contain evidence of broad environmental concerns relating to a project, reports from various governmental agencies, and an archive of support and opposition to new construction. In showcasing environmental concerns, Environmental Impact Reports have become one piece of the analysis and actions taken by prison abolition groups. Environmental impacts examined by EIRs are not limited to effects on the “natural” world, but all effects of new construction, such as economic impacts of a project, cost of projects and their alternatives, noise levels, etc. Although sometimes used by officials to minimize concerns surrounding prison building projects, prison abolitionists use these reports to work against the building of prisons and present alternative decarceral paths rooted in transformative justice.

EIRs are important for several reasons. EIRs can serve as a tool for abolitionists to build coalitions and motivate continuing action that may help prevent, halt, or delay prison construction. Second, public comment on EIRs provides an opportunity to explore the record of community concern about prisons’ environmental and social impacts. The commenting portion of these reports provides a forum for concerned community members and facilitates research of the effects of the prison. Third, organizations can challenge the EIRs and delay any decisions being made. Last, these reports contain an archive and evidence of opposition to new jail and prison construction. Such an archive informs future strategizing and recognition of dissent, which can bridge gaps between seemingly disparate communities. Critically, EIRs can be used to show the state’s treatment of prison populations and those living near prisons as disposable, aiding planners’ efforts to strategize for decarceral visions. Using EIRs helps to highlight the interconnection between issues of environmental racism, inadequate health care, and racial planning. Prisons and jails are often built on “unwanted” sites near toxic waste sites, abandoned coal mines, and in areas of high risk for climate disasters. Some prison facilities discharge raw sewage into local streams. The choice of these sites can have significant health impacts and underscore the intersection of environmental justice and the abolitionist movement. 

We argue that the planning process is both critical to decarceral strategies by shifting our focus from a narrow view on the decision outcomes—if a proposal or plan passes or not—to a larger understanding of how planning is implicated in carcerality and the limitations and possibilities of the planner to inform community strategies. We argue around three major themes:

1) A shift away from the final planning outcome to the larger process changes the focus from the final decision to how communities mobilize and strategize around planning 

2) The reproduction of state power and authority through state paperwork and the potential for community action around state paperwork 

3) Utilizing planning as a public forum to highlight an issue 

To analyze the planning process, we offer a quick overview of decarceral planning through a case in Southern California. Los Angeles provides a unique case of how the country’s largest jail system can be mobilized against by organizations and coalitions. Over the past 20 years, Los Angeles grassroots organizations fought a multi-tactical battle against jail construction, including engagement in the planning process and the use of EIRs. This includes statewide activism around the buildup to the release of the EIR, actions following its release, and the use of the EIR as a negotiation tool. 

EIRs played a role in building cohesion and capacity among groups by bringing different political (single-issue) interests together. In Los Angeles, multiple progressive organizations, building on the prior anti-jail organizing of the No More Jails Coalition, formed a new coalition called Justice L.A. to challenge and stop the construction of two proposed jail plans: a women’s facility in Lancaster, CA and a mental health jail called the Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility (CCTF) in Downtown Los Angeles. While the new jails were labeled as progressive in scope by allegedly being responsive to gender and mental health needs, activists countered that narrative by calling it what it was—a jail by another name—and demanded solutions grounded in transformative justice. By coming together as a coalition, different organizations could utilize their different skill sets and political and social capital, thereby activating multiple membership bases and influencing policymaking. These coalitions are not only composed of activists, but can also include imprisoned people, jail workers, residents who live directly outside jail walls, and even planners. 

However, we caution planners to consider how, as state workers, they can be reproductive of state violence and reinscribe racial capitalist norms. For instance, state workers can appropriate activist language, creating hesitation amongst activists who (justly) fear cooptation. In L.A., even County Supervisors utilized activist campaign rhetoric, including “can’t get well in a cell” and “a jail is a jail is a jail.” While important to have supervisors and other state workers on one’s side, these statements were at odds with their assertions about needing to replace other crumbling jail infrastructure across Los Angeles with new jails. This represents an interplay between the growing threat of cooptation of larger decarceral struggles towards reformist ends and the need for community organizations to push their message while challenging the (local) state towards progressive visions. Though supervisors and other state workers ultimately voted against the jail plan, their alternative solutions were not grounded in restorative or transformative justice. 

It is important to analyze the strategic pitfalls involved in navigating the planning process in the pursuit of decarceration. First, planners fall into what we call the “victory trap.” Planning decision wins—when a proposal is approved or denied as a result of organizing—can be important, both materially, by preventing jails or incinerators from being built, and symbolically, by presenting a David vs. Goliath narrative. However, these wins end up being fleeting: a new jail is proposed, an incinerator is built in a nearby community, or community reinvestment funds are never received in full or given with strict stipulations. Additionally, symbolic wins attach a heightened sense of importance to one particular moment, without placing that decision in a larger political and economic context or mapping out the different ways by which that decision might dictate where organizing and energy needs to be placed next. Win or lose, the planning decision cannot be the end of activity. 

Instead, planners can offer knowledge of the planning process, including how to enforce decisions made and how to best leverage community power and solutions in the long term. With involvement only at specific moments, planners tend to view organizing and movements in stages: first you build, then you organize, then you win or lose. This is not the reality of movements, which are constantly building, organizing, winning and losing—at times spontaneously. Urban planners need to understand their role in this larger conception of movement building and state participation. Thus, planners working for decarceral change should focus on how decisions made can be leveraged for future decarceral action. Since planners have technical and institutional knowledge, they can understand legislative trends and political decision making which can benefit long-term decarceral strategies. For instance, a simple yes or no vote can easily be co-opted by state and corporate forces, meaning that a jail not built is a potential jail built somewhere else, at a different time, or even worse, under a different name. Planners pursuing structural change need to understand these traps, inform coalitions, and prevent offloading harms onto other communities. 

Also important are issues of community engagement and transparency. Nicos Poulantzas argues that the production of state content, in this case planning documents, is a ritual for the state apparatus. The argument that there is too much information given to communities, of which some is very technical, makes an important point about what is necessary for communities to understand in state decision making. Planners can be involved in clarifying documents to organizations, thereby providing contextualization and input as to how the state understands a project, which allows for citizens to engage in the planning process and build a stronger movement. 

Finally, the literature on planning tends to focus on the necessity of including oppressed and marginalized communities in “just” planning. However, this focus limits our analysis of how organizations utilize the planning process and relies too much on the planner as arbitrator. The planning process needs to be understood as a space that can become a node within a larger organizing network to build coalitions, push policy, force lines to be drawn, and support local representatives who commit to make progressive change. By focusing on the planning process in isolation, we fail to understand the importance of what takes place outside of the planning sphere and the role planners can play outside of the traditional limits of the profession.

The planning process and the EIR can serve as useful tools in decarceral struggles and the fight against prison construction and expansion. Examining the use of governmental tools (such as the EIR) can allow planners to better understand the dynamic between abolitionist and reformist groups in coalitions and help build synergy between the two. Planners can disseminate knowledge and analysis around actions, successes, and failures to help organizations make decarceral changes and to be a part of changemaking from their position. In doing so, the planning process becomes a battle which takes seriously state power and structural constraints in its organizing. 

Ian Baran is a PhD student in the Department of Urban Planning and Public Policy at the University of California, Irvine. He researches and organizes around questions of abolition, racial capitalism, and the State at the intersection of carcerality, labor organizing, environmental justice, and working-class struggles.

Walter Julio Nicholls is Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy at the University of California, Irvine. His main areas of research are urban governance, the geography of social movements, and undocumented immigrant activism in the United States and Europe.




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