Nazgol Ghandnoosh's doctoral dissertation, Challenging Mass Incarceration: A California Group’s Advocacy for the Parole Release of Term-to-Life Prisoners, examines resistance to mass incarceration in Los Angeles. The study focuses on the case of a South Los Angeles-based group advocating for the expedited release of prisoners sentenced to life with the possibly of parole ("lifers"). In the last two decades, only 5% of parole hearings for California’s lifers have resulted in parole grants and many of these have been reversed by past governors. Parole Lifers Now (PLN, a pseudonym) – founded in South Los Angeles in 2008 and with less than 50 active members – helped prisoners’ families and romantic partners to navigate and challenge the state’s parole policies. Yet the group achieved limited results and its members sometimes hurt prisoners’ chances of parole. Fledgling advocacy of this type represents an understudied dimension of both activism and mass incarceration, and offers insights into the absence of strong challenges to carceral policies. Through two years of participant observation, 50 interviews, and content analysis of 200 parole hearing transcripts, I identify the factors that shaped the group’s tactics and reveal their impact on prisoners’ parole prospects. In three substantive chapters, I explain how the forces that propelled the group and its members also held them back.
Chapter One, “Rehabilitation Amidst Retribution: How Intimate Ties Help and Harm California Prisoners’ Parole Prospects,” examines how lifers maintained relationships with the family, friends, and romantic partners who joined PLN, and how these relationships affected their parole prospects. Past research emphasizes the obstacles prisoners face in maintaining intimate ties and the failure of prisons to reward these ties. I argue that the California prison system places lifers in a double bind with respect to these intimate relationships. On the one hand, maintaining family and romantic relationships improves prospects for parole release by helping prisoners to meet the parole board’s suitability criteria. The state’s parole board steers lifers toward and rewards them for developing and maintaining these ties. But on the other hand, prison policies obstruct intimate ties, and when prisoners skirt these rules – by using contraband cellular phones or engaging in punishable "excessive contact" – their parole prospects are tarnished. Intimate relationships therefore have a conflicting impact on prisoners’ chances for parole: they improve the parole board’s evaluation of prisoners but because they often rely on rule transgressions, they can disqualify prisoners from parole. I use this finding to argue that contradictory penal logics within prison systems are a mechanism of mass incarceration.
Turning next to the group’s collective efforts, I trace the roots of advocates’ interpretive understandings of opportunities and outcomes, and identify their consequences. Chapter Two, “Tactical Choices in Challenging Mass Incarceration: Perceived Inclusion in Institutional Politics and its Consequences,” addresses the question of how groups choose strategies for advancing political goals, and how these choices affect the goals that they pursue. Social movement theorists have shown that one condition for disruptive collective action is people’s exclusion from institutional arenas. I refine this formulation by emphasizing the significance of perceived exclusion. I show that PLN gravitated towards conventional, non-disruptive collective action – such as petitioning the parole board by submitting letters and speaking at its public hearings – because it expected to succeed through institutionalized channels. The group arrived at this conclusion because of the constrained information to which it had access: its exposure to prisoners whose freedom was gained through legal channels, its guidance from experts in these processes, and its makeup of active members with negative experience in another group using confrontational tactics. This choice then constrained the group’s efforts, in ways largely predicted by socio-legal and penal research. With little support from the group’s leader, PLN members adhered to expected legal narratives, emphasizing rehabilitation, and muting criticisms of the legal system. And because not all accounts could be bent to fit expected narratives, some prisoners – such as those who had not served enough time or who had recent disciplinary write-ups – did not receive the group’s full support.
Chapter Three, “Seeing Like an Advocate: Positively Evaluating the Impact of Advocacy,” explores how advocates evaluate their impact. I show how PLN members’ positive assessments of their efforts preceded, rather than followed, information that was often ambiguous or negative. Members took a positive view of deeply ambiguous evidence and feedback of their efficacy, such as the release of prisoners who may only have benefited indirectly from their advocacy, or polite gestures and comments of the parole board commissioners. Sometimes, their positive assessment was based on misunderstandings, as when they believed the group to be responsible for the release of prisoners who it had not supported. Members were quick to dismiss negative outcomes, including the parole denials of prisoners that they had supported. And they either refuted or were unaware of negative feedback, including explicit counterclaims to their efficacy from released prisoners and parole board commissioners. Advocates thus cultivated the optimism that sustained their efforts but kept them on a course that had limited impact on lifers’ parole prospects.