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The Synthesis


Eastern State

Penitentiary is built.​

The world's first penitentiary was built in Philadelphia; it was founded by a Quaker group on the belief that those who have been imprisoned deserve the chance to make peace with God.




Sentiments of rehabilitation were non-existent in prisons before this. The intent behind this penitentiary model made it progressive for its time, and came to serve as a model for prisons across the world.

Despite the original goals of reformation and healing that Eastern State was built off of--that the basis of our prison system was built off of-- the effects of the space "did not reform but killed" (Alexis De Tocqueville, 1835). Even by early accounts, these isolated spaces brought its inhabitants closer to insanity than any kind of peace of mind.





The civil War ends and the 13th Amendment is passed.

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction".

Reconstruction + The Black Codes + Jim Crow.

Vagrancy laws, criminalization of unemployment, the invention of petty crimes (ex. no walking beside railroads, no selling produce after dark, no talking loudly next to white women) and other laws targeting the conditions of newly emancipated people set the prison complex as a way for systems of slavery to live on.



Static's released by the US Bureau of Justice have found that an average of 69% of people detained in local jails face mental health problems. L.A. County has the largest population of people in jail with mental illness of any jail system in the country, and is one of the nation's largest providers of 'mental health care'.  The gap between original intent and actual effect are still central to our prison system.




Virginia declares it lawful for people to be "slaves of the state".

VA was the first of many states to legalize the idea that incarcerated people could be used and punished however the state saw fit. Sentiments of healing are abandoned. Convict leasing investments become standard in the years following.

By now, prison statistics are widely used to justify the cripminilaztion of black people.

After decades of shaping laws to criminalize and demonize the conditions of Black America, the skewed ratios of our prison systems are written into circular racial arguments that we abused throughout 20th century social sciences, and often still abuse as a nation to this day.





The prosecution system becomes power.

By the 1930's, prosecution became a full time job and states took on movements that held prosecutors accountable for enforcing punishment. By this point, the judicial system has become a primary mechanism for imposing folks at mass scales.

From the 1940's onwards, prosecutors relation to political ambitions take a sharp turn; career prosecutors such as Thomas Dewey, the Kennedy Family, etc. mark their stake in politics using "tough on crime" attitudes supported by their work in the justice system.

Convict Leasing Investments (n.):

A system of contracts in which the state outsources the care of prisoners to privately funded companies seeking labor. While it has been technically phased out, systems of convict labor stemming from practice are still used today.



Harrison Narcotics Act was passed.

It "requires prescriptions for products exceeding the allowable limit of narcotics and mandates increased record-keeping for physicians and pharmacists who dispense narcotics" (FDA)

This marks the beginning of explicit drug-based criminalization in the U.S.


Incarceration is just one piece of the much

larger system of imprisonment.

Courts not only

play a central

role in putting

people in jail, but

keeping them inside the

system before and after their sentence (Prison Policy Initiative)


Boggs Act + Narcotics Control Act are passed.

The Boggs Act of 1952 was the first U.S. law to "set mandatory sentences for drug conviction" (H.R. 3490).

The Narcotics Control Act of 1956 increased mandatory minimum and expanded the use of death penalties to minors for certain drugs; "any person who has not attained the age of eighteen years...shall be imprisoned for life, or for not less than ten years, except that the offender shall suffer death if the jury in its discretion shall so direct" (H.R. 11619).

Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs is formed.

"FDA Bureau of Drug Abuse Control and Treasury Department Bureau of Narcotics are transferred to the Department of Justice to form the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), consolidating efforts to police traffic in abused drugs" (FDA).





Anti-Drug Abuse Act

Increased and enhanced a number of drug-related penalties, authorized spending for a number of criminal procedures --- including federal funding to state and local law enforcement agencies for narcotics assistance, required the identification of Federal buildings for use as detention facilities, and provide that immigrants be excluded or deported upon any violation of laws and regulations relating to a controlled substance.



The War on Drugs is front and center.

"Tough on crime" attitudes reach the forefront of political and social attitudes. The number of prosecutors spikes by 10,000 in this time.




Arrest for serious violent and property crimes have developed over 25%

Regardless of this shift, the number of people being sentenced to prison continues to increase.

Why are so many people detained in jails before trial?

They are not wealthy enough to afford bail.

Pretrial policies drive jail growth. Fig 1 depicts the medium annual pre-incarceration incomes (in 2015 dollars) for people ages 23-29 in local jails who were unable to post a bail bond, compared to incomes of same-age non-incarcerated people, by gender.




"There is no accepted use of mechanism, however, for [judges] to take into account, when sentencing a defendant, whether the time in prison will or should be served in solitary" (Kennedy, Anthony. "Davis v. Ayala, 576 U.S. _____2015, Concurrence).


Median annual pre-incarceration incomes for people in state prisons ages 27-42, compared to incomes of same-age non-incarcerated people, by race/ethnicity and gender (2014 dollar).

The Present


Conditions in Los Angeles County




Measure R is passed.

On a March 3 county-wide ballot, the measure was approved with 73% of votes in support. In order to change the culture of harm we have written into our justice systems, Measure R:

i. Gives L.A. County Sheriff's Department Civilian Oversight Commission subpoena powers that allows members to independently investigate police misconduct.

ii. Timelines a plan to reduce jail population.

iii. Researches and outline strategies to reinvest jail system cost into prevention and mental health treatment. Tens of millions of tax dollars will be redirected each year to public priorities like drug treatment, affordable housing, and mental health care.


In response to pressure by citizens and reform organizations to decarcerate during the pandemic, LA County Jail population is reduced from 17,000 to 14,500 people.

"Infrequent access to soap and water. Blood and fecal matter stained walls. These are the kinds of squalid conditions" provided in prisons and jails that have gained a growing call to decarcerate (Justice LA). These efforts have brought the LA County Jail population to its lowest numbers since 1990 (Reform LA Jails).


A class-action lawsuit is filed against LA County and LASD.

Justice LA and Dignity and Power now sue for neglecting guidelines issued by public health agencies, and failing to protect people in prisons from the spread of COVID-19. These actions and the supporting media campaign #SUINGTOSAVELIVES are ongoing.


LA City Council fails to take action, and Mayor Garcetti's proposed budget passes by default.

Garcetti's proposed budget allocates $3 billion dollars (54%) of the city's unrestricted revenues to the LAPD alone Despite the call for people's budget from citizens, city government has stood by one that prioritizes cops over the provision of care for its people. #PEOPLESBUDGETLA continues to demand for the redistribution of funds.

Research sourced from: The Prison Policy Initiative (prison, EASTERNSTATE.ORG, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America by Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform by John F. Pfaff, Adam Foss + Prosecutor Impact, Reform LA Jails, Justice LA, Dignity and Power Now, National Institute of Mental Health, H.R. 5484 (Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1985-1986), H.R. 11619 (Narcotic Control Act of 1956), Davis v. Ayala, 576 U.S.___Kennedy Concurrence (2015), Milestones in U.S. Food and Drug Law History by FDA.

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