Earlier this year criminal justice advocates in Texas fought a bill that would have allowed private vendors to build prisons and lease them to the state. The bill’s author admitted he was inspired by Alabama’s recent “solution” to its failing prisons: encouraging a private vendor (read: private prison) to build new, prettier prisons and have the state rent those waiting buildings. Proponents claimed this was not a private prison bill, those prisons would still be run by the state! Misleading semantics aside, we know one thing is true: if you build a new prison, they will fill it. We oppose all prison and jail construction, full stop. Thankfully, that bill died in the Texas house, as Texas activists enlisted counsel and support from Alabama organizers who had stopped construction of the proposed three private prisons in that state even though contracts had already been signed.
Travis County Commissioners in Austin, Texas will vote June 15 to spend $79 million building a new women’s jail. The jail supporters have, astonishingly and, insultingly, dubbed the proposed jail the Travis County Trauma Informed Women’s Facility Project, despite unanimous consent among mental health professionals that jails cause trauma and never alleviate it.
While the fight in Travis County may seem purely local politics, it presents an opportunity for cross-country collaboration, as did the legislative battle against private prison vendors. Thousands of miles away from Austin, the same architecture firm designing the Travis County jail is set to design a new women’s prison in Boston — HDR Architecture Inc. And again, supporters of Massachusetts’ $50 million project falsely promise to build a jail that will provide trauma-informed care. In both Austin and Boston, elected officials claim these cages are needed, that incarceration is inevitable, and that women we MUST cage deserve to be treated with (the illusion of) care. In both localities, politicians have chosen one particular architecture firm to design cages for our mothers, sisters, and neighbors. If we do not stop these projects, quite literally the same nine white privileged members of the HDR Board — six men and three women — will profit from the suffering of families 1,949 miles apart.
These issues are not solely local issues. National organizations must recognize that these issues are national in scope and yet must be led by local organizers. Our oppressors have used the same rhetorical strategies in both communities. A failing prison necessarily means we need a new, prettier one, and we must continue privatizing to lessen the burden on local taxpayers while we do so. Our national strategy must mirror and support local demands: decarcerate, address root causes that lead to incarceration, and invest in our communities.