Colonial Los Angeles

LA County Men's Cental Jail. Los Angeles, 2010.

LA County Men's Cental Jail. Los Angeles, 2010.

Kelly Lytle Hernández’s City of Inmates is both enlightening and troubling.  Aside from famous institutions such as Sing-Sing, prison and jail systems appear as ahistorical institutional structures.  They seem as though they materialized in response to a need to house criminals. Yet all prisons and jails have histories. They are often responses to the criminalization of human categories rather than criminal violence.

Mass incarceration in the United States took generations to produce.  Understanding the history of incarceration and carceral institutions is vital towards engaging today’s prison industrial complex.  Social amnesia has made most of this history disappear: what we do not want or find inconvenient to remember, we forget.  Prisons function to store lives and stories we want to forget.

Recovering that history is a difficult and too-often impossible undertaking, as Hernández can testify.  In Los Angeles, administrators have disposed of almost all official county jail records from the early twentieth century.  Record clean-outs are not necessarily an organized conspiracy against history: there is lack of interest in ‘dead files’ and – often forgotten – the significant public expense of maintaining archival records.  Yet the public right to know is not limited to recent information, a principle too often ignored by the ideological animosity that finds prison or jail records unworthy of preservation.

For Hernández and other historians of early incarceration, the first job is finding the remnant records and reconstructing discarded records – what she calls ‘rebel archives.’  She has done commendable work in establishing an evidentiary basis for this history of Los Angeles jails, one of the largest county and city jail systems in the world.  Hernández begins the story very early with the Tongva indigenous people, the rising use of public order charges after Mexican independence, and the incarceration of natives for use as forced labour. 

When the United States assumed governance after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Los Angeles County jail was the first and only functioning arm of government.  Chain gangs filled with natives worked on street-cleaning and road construction.  Every Monday morning the sheriff auctioned as convict labour those natives arrested on the weekend for public drunkenness or vagrancy charges.  The effects, as Hernández points out, were sweeping:  on one Saturday night in June 1860, some 20 percent of the Los Angeles indigenous population were jailed.

Next Hernández deals with the incarceration of white hobos who filled LA jails in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, lodged there using drunkenness, vagrancy, and disorderly conduct charges in public ‘clean-up’ campaigns.  These, too, went to the LA chain gangs. 

The racialist immigration and deportation laws aimed at Chinese and Mexicans contributed significantly to incarceration in the early twentieth century.  Hernández devotes chapters to the effects of white supremacist immigration laws and their enforcement through compelling individual stories, such as cigar-maker Wong Dep Ken,  anarchist intellectual Ricardo Flores Magón, and corrido singer Pedro José González.  A chapter on the 1927 police murder of Samuel Faulkner illuminates how the African American community organized to protest and resist corrupt, unfettered, and violent policing.   

The book’s disadvantages begin with its inadequate theorization, which is limited to early passing references to settler colonial theorists Patrick Wolfe, Lorenzo Veracini, and Andrea Smith’s argument that settler societies premise themselves on the elimination of indigenes, whether through culture or physical liquidation.  Critiques of settler colonial theory exist but remain unmentioned.  Hernández unquestioningly accepts and promulgates these terms of argument throughout the book in order to describe the purposes of Los Angeles County and city jails.  In this characterization, incarceration, whether in the nineteenth or twenty-first century, is a brutal tool of a settler colonial eliminationist imperative.  Incarceration gets distilled down to this imperative. 

For Hernández, the purposes of a colonial society never change: it engages in an unending central project of displacement and elimination of a resistant indigenous presence.  Inevitability characterizes settler colonial theory, a teleological certainty that relies on an implicit yet unexplained transmission mechanism linking successive colonizer generations into a shared political program.  Differences, contradictions, hybridity, repudiation, and change remain irrelevant to an unresolvable Manichean divide between colonial settler and indigene.  Rather than a consequence of class, poverty, prejudice, and disparate policing of racialized groups, mass incarceration manifests the latest phase of conquest and colonial subordination.  Thus, jails and prisons are the front lines of the struggle against elimination. 

The result appears in a text that references “white settler colonialism” or “white settlers” at least several times per page.  Obsessive racial labelling produces logical dissonances.  Although Chinese and Mexicans arrived in Los Angeles for its economic opportunity as did Euro-American whites, they become un-pejorative “Chinese immigrants” or “Mexican immigrants.”  Then there is the curious ‘whitening’ where Hernández describes the 1871 Los Angeles mob that murdered 18 Chinese as an assault by 500 whites, whereas her source Jean Pfaelzer identifies that same mob as mixed Mexican-white.  

Hernández incessantly characterizes Los Angeles as a “settler city” despite a population that was always heavily mixed.  A sub-chapter head such as ‘Chinese Extinction,’ a section that addresses anti-Chinese racism and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, illustrates how the word extinction – the terminal point of a species – has been expanded wrongly to encompass prejudice and violence.     

However limited in its development in this book, the theoretical frame that Hernández employs raises questions the applicability of settler colonial theory to US jails and prison systems.  It treats colonialism as a social Original Sin, one whose presence determines all that follows.   A prison is not only a tool of colonial elimination, according to Hernández, it is the instantiation of a white-power state determined to enforce bourgeois norms of propertied whiteness.  This simplification of prisons ignores the legitimate role of incarceration as a means of social self-defense against criminal behaviour. 

Racism has always driven incarceration, but recognition of that fact challenges the misapplication of imprisonment rather than the existence of prisons.  Further, since jails are largely for short-term sentences and release, even with repeated sentences they provide a poor evidentiary fit for arguments that erasure and replacement are primary goals of settler colonialism.  Given the use of chain gangs, they lend much better evidence for the historical uses of forced labour corvées in the United States.    

Hernández concludes with a claim that the 1965 street riots in Watts triggered mass incarceration in the United States entered take-off.  A more prevalent historical understanding dates the rise of mass incarceration to the 1971 Attica riot; widespread political belief that US prisons needed complete modernization to avoid such rebellions; the willingness of the Nixon and Reagan administrations to pour billions into state and local prison-building; hyper-incarceration caused by the ‘War on Drugs’ under different administrations; and enactment of the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act. 

Incarceration rates in state and federal prisons per 100,000 population dropped from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s when they began a rapid, steep climb towards the current astronomical rates.  Events in Watts had little to do with the matter beyond their local effects: to attribute more is LA-centrism.  Los Angeles provides a leading example of US mass incarceration, not its inspiration or model.

This work is useful and necessary historiography of California prisons, one that digs deep in little-known primary sources, and yet narrow sectarian politics mar its accomplishment.

Photograph courtesy of the ACLU of Southern California. Published under a Creative Commons license.