The New Jail: Profit and Social Control

Matthew Irwin

Dan Gilbert’s deal to build a new detention center for Wayne County in exchange for prime real estate is not merely his latest attempt to conceal his downtown annexation project under the pall of benevolent progress. Rather, the project, which falls under Gilbert’s Rock Ventures banner, signals a material and rhetorical expansion of racialized redevelopment in Detroit. In the words of prison studies literature, the recent land swap articulates a “carceral space” in which public and private agencies surveil, police, criminalize, imprison, penalize, and otherwise exclude people of color in order to protect white property. Not merely white property as taxable enclosures owned exclusively by wealthy white people, but as prior/proper white possession of, and right to control, city spaces.


Here’s what the deal looks like: Rock Ventures will relocate the development site for the new Wayne County jail from downtown to the I-75 service road at East Warren Ave. For an estimated cost of $533 million, Rock will build a four-building criminal justice center to house a 2,380-bed jail and administrative offices. The county will cover $380 million and Rock Ventures will cover the rest. Rock Ventures will also take $30 million in parking fees from nearby parking spots before the county takes them over, and it has pledged $500,000 to Wayne County parks and $250,000 to career and technical training for previously incarcerated individuals. In return, the county will turn over its “fail jail” site at Gratiot Ave. and St. Antoine St. for Gilbert to build a $1 billion mixed-use development in the heart of downtown.


Gilbert has referred to the swap as a “smart” partnership of public and private sectors and the new jail is generally explained by local officials and local press as a much-needed replacement for deplorable conditions in the county’s existing facilities. However, in contrast to this common sense, neoliberal reformist explanation, the jail inflates Gilbert’s investment portfolio and his influence in Detroit at the same time that it expands imprisonment itself as a mode of social control beyond the jail’s new walls.


Gilbert’s Bedrock Detroit real estate company revealed the organizing logic of this new social order when it invited tech firms and tech labor to envision a “Detroit 2.0” free of Black people. Sure, Gilbert apologized for Bedrock’s “See Detroit As We Do” ad, featuring a city occupied exclusively by white people, but the preemptive logic of Gilbert’s redevelopment narrative remains. When he said in a statement that the jail deal “fixes significant mistakes of the past,” he was not-so-covertly suggesting that prior/proper white possession of Detroit is the “solution” to Black mismanagement of the city leading up to the crash. He’s used a version of the phrase “mistakes of the past” since implementation of emergency management in 2013. Now, with the deleterious effects of emergency management all but finished, the white possessive logics cemented into Gilbert’s redevelopment regime have been built into the physical structure of downtown — the new jail acts as a kind of an assurance that it will stay that way.


In the words of Linda Evans and Eve Goldberg, the prison-industrial complex (or “prison regime”) is “an interweaving of private business and government interests,” using the threat of crime to extract profit and establish a social order. Thus, the public/private partnership that Gilbert celebrates is a further privatization of criminal justice that extracts the cost of growth and development from the poor, unemployed, unemployable, and unprotected—a form of what Jackie Wang calls “carceral capitalism.” For example, the $30 million in parking fees that Rock Ventures plans to withdraw from the criminal justice center act as “offender-funded criminal justice services” that fill municipal budgets and inflate corporate ledgers by taxing the very people Gilbert’s redevelopment regime intends to contain and exclude. The new jail site physically removes racialized, criminalized populations from the center of redevelopment (indeed, from progress) while Gilbert’s surveillance cameras throughout downtown set, as Simone Browne writes, “boundaries, borders, and bodies along racial lines.” In other words, the surveillance program extends, but also renders invisible, a carceral space that marks racialized bodies as unwanted and unwelcome, and the jail suggests where they can go if they don’t mind those borders.


Sources: Curbed Detroit, Motor City Muckraker, Michigan Radio, Riverwise, Dark Matter: On the Surveillance of Blackness by Simone Browne, Carceral Capitalism by Jackie Wang, Linda Evans and Eve Goldberg, quoted in Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison Regime by Dylan Rodriguez.


Matthew Irwin is a PhD student in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. Also a widely published art critic, he is a two-time NEA arts journalism fellow and a two-time finalist for the Warhol Foundation/Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant. Matthew’s dissertation, in progress, looks at discourses on citizenship and belonging along Woodward Ave.


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