Prison–industrial complex

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US incarceration timeline
Correctional populations in the US 1980–2013

The term "prison–industrial complex" (PIC), derived from the "military–industrial complex" of the 1950s,[1] describes the attribution of the rapid expansion of the US inmate population to the political influence of private prison companies and businesses that supply goods and services to government prison agencies for profit.[2] The most common and prominent agents of the PIC are corporations that contract cheap prison labor, construction companies, surveillance technology vendors, companies that operate prison food services and medical facilities,[3] private probation companies,[3] lawyers, and lobby groups that represent them.

The portrayal of prison-building/expansion as a means of creating employment opportunities and the utilization of inmate labor are particularly harmful elements of the prison-industrial complex as they boast clear economic benefits at the expense of the incarcerated populace. The term also refers to the network of participants who prioritize personal financial gain over ensuring one's debt to society is adequately paid or rehabilitating criminals. Proponents of this view, including civil rights organizations such as the Rutherford Institute[4] and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU),[5] believe that the desire for monetary gain through prison privatization has led to the vast growth of the prison industry and contributed to the number of incarcerated individuals. Such advocacy groups assert that incentivizing the construction of more prisons with the potential for profitability will encourage the notion of incarceration to increase profits and doubtlessly lead to the unjust and lengthy incarceration of millions more citizens, affecting people of color at disproportionately high rates.[6]


Following the War on Drugs and the passing of harsher sentencing legislation, private sector prisons began to emerge to keep up with the rapidly expanding prison population.[7]

Late 1970s[edit]

The Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) is a federal program that was initiated along with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Prison-Industries Act in 1979.[8] This program legalized the transportation of prison-made goods across state lines and allows prison inmates to earn market wages in private sector jobs that can go towards tax deductions, victim compensation, family support, and room and board.[9] The PIECP, ALEC, and Prison-Industries Act were created with the goal of motivating state and local governments to create employment opportunities that mimic private sector work, generate services that allow offenders to contribute to society, offset the cost of their incarceration, reduce inmate idleness, cultivate job skills, and improve the success rates of transition back into the community after release.[10] Before these programs, prison labor for the private sector had been outlawed for decades to avoid competition. The introduction of prison labor in the private sector, the implementation of PIECP, ALEC, and Prison-Industries Act in state prisons all contributed a substantial role in cultivating the prison-industrial complex.[8] Between the years 1980 through 1994, prison industry profits jumped substantially from $392 million to $1.31 billion.[11]


In January 1983, the Corrections Corporations of America (CCA) was founded by Nashville businessmen and would grow to become one of the oldest and largest for-profit private prison companies in America, laying the groundwork for a transformation in layout of corrections facilities across the country.[12][13] The 58 was established with the goal of creating public-private partnerships in corrections by substituting government shortcomings with more efficient solutions. The first facility managed by CCA opened in April 1984 in Houston, Texas.[14] As of 2012, the multibillion-dollar corporation, now known as CoreCivic, manages over 65 correctional facilities and boasts of a revenue exceeding over 1.7 billion dollars.[15]

To run the most efficient prisons possible, CCA cut costs by reducing personnel and designing its prisons to include more video cameras for surveillance and clustered cell blocks for easier monitoring. For private prisons, labor is the biggest expense at 70 percent of overall costs, and as a result, CCA and other private prisons have become motivated to cut labor costs by understaffing its prisons.[16]

In 1988, the second largest for-profit private prison corporation, Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (WCC) was established as a subsidiary of Wackenhuinstitutionalizedtions. The WCC would later develop into Geo Group and as of 2017, their U.S. Corrections and Detention division manages 70 correctional and detention facilities.[17] Their mission statement is as follows:

To develop innovative public-private partnerships with government agencies around the globe that deliver high quality, cost-efficient correctional, detention, community reentry, and electronic monitoring services while providing industry leading rehabilitation and community reintegration programs to the men and women entrusted to our care.[18]


The passing of mandatory minimum sentencing and truth in sentencing legislature contributed greatly to the exponential growth in the prison population throughout the 1990s.[19] Mandatory minimum sentencing had a disproportionately high effect on the number of African-American and other minority inmates in detention facilities.[20] Throughout the 1990s, the CCA and GeoGroup were both heavily connected to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and were recognized for their substantial contributions in 1999.[21]

In 1994, President Bill Clinton passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the largest crime bill in history.[20] The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act directly allotted an increase of funding of $9.7 billion for prisons and introduced the three-strikes law, which subjected convicts of three offences to exceedingly long sentences (25 year to life minimum), amplifying the effects of mass incarceration and increasing the profit margins of the private specialized corporations such as CCA and GeoGroup and their subsidiaries.[5][6][22] By May 1995, there were over 1.5 million people incarcerated, an increase of 949,000 inmates from 1993.[20]


From 1984 to 2000, the overall state spending on prisons increased at an alarmingly high rate and from the year 1970 to 2005, the number of inmates in the United States surged by 700 percent.[23] Developments in privatization of prisons continued to progress and by 2003, 44.2% of state prisoners in New Mexico were held in private prison facilities.[7] Other states such as Arizona, Vermont, Connecticut, Alabama, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, Ohio, and Florida also began expanding their private prison contracts.[7] As of 2015, there were 91,300 state inmates and 26,000 federal inmates housed in private prison facilities, according the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Nationwide, this is 7 percent and 13 percent of inmates, respectively.[24]

In late 2016, the Obama Administration issued an executive policy to reduce the number of private federal prison contracts. On August 18, 2016, then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates issued a memorandum that stated: "I am directing that, as each contract [with a private prison corporation] reaches the end of its term, the Bureau should either decline to renew that contract or substantially reduce its scope in a manner consistent with the law and the overall decline of the Bureau's inmate population."[24]

Less than a month into Donald Trump's presidency, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed the Obama Administration policy. Additionally, Trump and his administration have used "punitive rhetoric" towards groups that are disproportionately affected by privatization such as immigrants and other minority groups. The Trump Administration has so far increased immigration enforcement and instituted harsher criminal sentences.[24]

Many critics of private prisons argue that prison privatization serves as a large agent for cultivating and feeding into the prison-industrial complex in the United States. John W. Whitehead, constitutional attorney and founder of the Rutherford Institute asserts "Prison privatization simply encourages incarceration for the sake of profits, while causing millions of Americans, most of them minor, nonviolent criminals, to be handed over to corporations for lengthy prison sentences which do nothing to protect society or prevent recidivism"[6] and argues that it characterizes an increasingly inverted justice system dependent upon an advancement in power and wealth of the corporate state.[6]

Private prisons have become a lucrative business, with CCA generating enough revenue that it has become a publicly traded company. Financial institutions have taken notice and are now some of the largest investors in private prisons, including Wells Fargo (which currently has around $6 million invested in CCA), Bank of America, Fidelity Investments, General Electric, and The Vanguard Group.[16]

According to a 2010 investigation by the United States Department of Justice, many of the employees and prisoners were exposed to toxic metals from not being sufficiently trained nor were given the resources to handle toxic material. Injury and illness as a result were not reported to appropriate authorities. When investigated, they found that UNICOR, a prison labor program for inmates within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, had attempted to conceal evidence of working conditions from inspectors by cleaning up the production lines before they arrived.[25][26]

In 2010, both the Geo Group and CoreCivic managed contracts with combined revenues amounting to $2.9 billion.[21] In January 2017, both the Geo Group and CoreCivic welcomed the inauguration of President Trump with generous $250,000 donations to his inaugural committee.[27]

The War on Drugs[edit]

The War on Drugs has significantly influenced the development of the prison-industrial complex. The policy measures taken to categorize drug abuse as a criminal issue (rather than a health issue as many experts advocate) have directly sustained the existence of the prison-industrial complex.[28] Since President Reagan institutionalized the War on Drugs in 1980, incarceration rates have tripled.[29] In fact, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that drug offense convictions have led to a majority of the US inmate population in federal prisons.[30]

Some policy analysts attribute the end of the prison-industrial complex to the lessening of prison sentences for drug usage.[31] Some even call for a total shutdown of the War on Drugs itself and believe that this solution will mitigate the profiting incentives of the prison-industrial complex.[32]

History of the relationship between the War on Drugs and the prison-industrial complex[edit]

One of the factors leading to the prison-industrial complex began in New York in 1973.[33] Nelson Rockefeller, the mayor of New York at the time, rallied for a stringent crackdown on drugs. Rockefeller essentially set the course of action for the War on Drugs and influenced other states' policies on this issue. For any illegal-drug dealer, even a juvenile, he advocated a life-sentence in prison exempt from parole and plea-bargaining.[33] These demands led to the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which although were not as harsh as Rockefeller's demands, encouraged other states to enact similar laws.[33] The federal government also took a stance on this issue and passed the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. These laws led to overcrowding in New York prisons. The mayor succeeding Rockefeller was Mario Cuomo; he was forced to support prison expansion because he was unable to generate enough support to dismantle the drug laws. In order to receive funding for these prisons, Cuomo financed this project to the Urban Development Corporation (a public state agency) which, to the benefit of the state government, could issue state bonds without voter support.[33] The Urban Development Corporation legally owned the prisons and the state ended up selling the Attica prison to the corporation.[33] These events led to the recognition of the ability to gain political capital from privatizing prisons.[33]

Impact of drug offense imprisonment on the prison-industrial complex[edit]

Policies initiated due to the War on Drugs have led to prison expansion and consequently allowed the prison-industrial complex to thrive.[34] A study states that "The number of persons awaiting trial or serving a sentence for a drug offense in prison or jail has increased from about 40,000 in 1980 to 450,000 today."[34] The significance of creating efficient drug punishment is heightened by the relentless cycle created when imprisoning drug sellers. Even if a drug seller is persecuted, the drug industry still exists and other sellers take the place of the imprisoned seller. This is described as the "replacement effect".[34] There is a constant supply of drug sellers and hence, a constant supply of potential prison inmates. The War on Drugs has initiated a perpetual cycle of drug dealing and imprisonment. As a result of these events, in many ways, a domino effect has occurred: tough-on-drug policies led to overcrowding in prisons; this was one of the factors which led to the realization of the profiting gain from prison privatization; and this incentive became one of the factors which eventually led to the system now known as the prison-industrial complex.[35]

War on drugs and racialization of the prison-industrial complex[edit]

Critics have stated that the War on Drugs has disproportionately targeted African Americans and as a result has also reinforced the institutionalized racism embedded in the prison-industrial complex. Collected data illustrates that "Although the prevalence of illegal drug use among white men is approximately the same as that among black men, black men are five times as likely to be arrested for a drug offense."[33] This racial disparity has led to a prison inmate population with close to a 50% African-American demographic.[33] For further information, see § Minorities.



Eric Schlosser wrote an article published in Atlantic Monthly in December 1998 stating that:

The 'prison-industrial complex' (PIC) is not only a set of interest groups and institutions; it is also a state of mind. The lure of big money is corrupting the nation's criminal-justice system, replacing notions of safety and public service with a drive for higher profits. The eagerness of elected officials to pass tough-on-crime legislation – combined with their unwillingness to disclose the external and social costs of these laws – has encouraged all sorts of financial improprieties.

Schlosser also defined the prison industrial complex as "a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need".[36]

Hadar Aviram, Professor of Law at UC Hastings, suggests that critics of the prison-industrial complex (PIC) focus too much on private prisons. While Aviram shares their concerns that "private enterprises designed to directly benefit from human confinement and misery is profoundly unethical and problematic", she claims that "the profit incentives that brought private incarceration into existence, rather than private incarceration itself, are to blame for the PIC and its evils". In the neoliberal era, she argues, "private and public actors alike respond to market pressures and conduct their business, including correctional business, through a cost/benefit prism".[37]

Prison labor[edit]

The prison industrial complex has an economic stronghold in its inclusion and participation of private businesses that benefit from the exploitation of the prison labor;[38] prison mechanisms remove "un-exploitable" labor, or so-called "underclass", from society and redefine it as highly exploitable cheap labor.[39] Scholars using the term "prison industrial complex" have argued that the trend of "hiring out prisoners" is a continuation of the slavery tradition.[40]

Jobs that are geared toward the prison industry are jobs that require little to no industry-relevant skill, have a large heavy manual labor component and are not high paying jobs.[41] The wages for these jobs typically range between $0.12 to $0.40 per hour.[42]

Criminologists have identified that the incarceration is increasing independent of the rate of crime. This fact substantiates the idea that the upper class uses imprisonment as a way to have control over the lower class. This theory uses prison as simply a tool to control seemingly dangerous or dispensable minorities so that the top one percent can maintain the advantage. The use of the lower class for free labor while they are serving time ensures that the upper class and corporations benefit economically.[41]

As the prison population grows, a rising rate of incarceration feeds small and large businesses such as providers of furniture, transportation, food, clothes and medical services, construction and communication firms.[43] Furthermore, the prison system is the third largest employer in the world. Prison activists who dispute the existence of a prison industrial complex have argued that these parties have a great interest in the expansion of the prison system since their development and prosperity directly depends on the number of inmates.[43] They liken the prison industrial complex to any industry that needs more and more raw materials, prisoners being the material.[43]

Activists Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans report in Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex by Angela Davis that "For private business, prison labor is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No health benefits, unemployment insurance, or workers' compensation to pay. No language barriers, as in foreign countries. New leviathan prisons are being built on thousands of eerie acres of factories inside the walls. Prisoners do data entry for Chevron, make telephone reservations for TWA, raise hogs, shovel manure, make circuit boards, limousines, waterbeds, and lingerie for Victoria's Secret -- all at a fraction of the cost of 'free labor'." [44]

Corporations, especially those in the technology and food industries, contract prison labor, as it is legal and often completely encouraged by government legislature.[45] The Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) serves as a federal tax credit that grants employers $2,400 for every work-release employed inmate.[46] "Prison insourcing" has increasingly grown in popularity as the cheaper alternative to outsourcing with a wide variety of companies such as Whole Foods, McDonald's, Target, IBM, Texas Instruments, Boeing, Nordstrom, Intel, Wal-Mart, Victoria's Secret, Aramark, AT&T, BP, Starbucks, Microsoft, Nike, Honda, Macy's and Sprint and many more actively participating in prison insourcing throughout the 1990s and 2000s.[47]

Statistics show that when the unemployment rate is low "the state relaxes imprisonment to allow sufficient labor to compete for wages in the free market". However, when the rate of unemployment is high the state seems to gain greater number of prisoners to "absorb surplus labor". The prison system is easily manipulated and geared toward help support the most economically advantageous situation.[41] With more prisoners comes more free labor. When having larger privatized prisons makes it cheaper to incarcerate each individual and the only side effect is having more free labor, it is extremely beneficial for companies to essentially rent out their facilities to the state and the government.[48] Private or for profit prisons have an incentive in making decisions in regards to cutting costs while generating a profit. One method for this is using prison inmates as a labor force to perform production work.[25][26]

Advocates of prison labor cite that rehabilitation is promoted through discipline, a strong work ethic, and providing inmates with valuable skills to be used upon release.[49] Gina Honeycutt, executive director of the National Correctional Industries Association stated, "Many offenders have never worked a legal job and need to learn the basics like showing up on time, listening to a supervisor and working as part of a team."[42] Studies have also shown that participants in prison labor programs often have a lower risk of recidivism, showing that graduates of the program are less likely to be repeat offenders on average.[42] Honeycutt also stated, "In recent years, the focus of many work programs has shifted to concentrate even more on effective rehabilitation of inmates. The transition in the last five years has been away from producing a product to producing a successful offender as our product."[42]

Cynthia Young states that prison labor is an "employers' paradise".[50] Prison labor can soon deprive the free labor of jobs in a number of sectors, since the organized labor turns out to be un-competitive compared to the prison counterpart, attributed to the crowding-out effect.[50]

Journalist Jonathan Kay in the National Post defined the "prison industrial complex" as a "corrupt human-warehousing operation that combines the worst qualities of government (its power to coerce) and private enterprise (greed)". He states that inmates are kept in inhuman conditions and that the need to preserve the economic advantage of a full prison leads prison leaders to thwart any effort or reforms that might reduce recidivism and incarcerations.[40]

Private prison stock prices from 2002 to 2012.


In a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) funded study by Doug McDonald. and Scott Camp, known as the "Taft Studies", privatized prisons were compared side-to-side with the public prisons on economic, performance, and quality of life for the prisoner scales.[51] The study found that in a trade off for allowing prisons to be more cheaply run and operated, the degree to which prisoners are reformed goes down. Because the privatized prisons are so much larger than the public-run prisons, they were subject to economies of scale.[51] Privatized prisons run on business models, promoting more an efficient, accountable, lower cost alternative to decrease government spending on incarceration.[49]

In 2011, The Vera Institute of Justice surveyed 40 state correction departments to gather data on what the true cost of prisons were. Their reports showed that most states had additional costs ranging from one percent to thirty-four percent outside of what their original budget was for that year.[52]

In 2016, during President Obama's administration private prisons were on the decline, as they were considered more expensive and less safe than government-run facilities.[53] Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates stated, "Private prisons simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department's Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security."[53] Private prison stocks were at their lowest point since 2008 and on August 18, 2016, the United States Justice Department noticed a declining reliance on private prisons and was developing a plan to phase out its use of private prisons.[54]

The stock prices of the largest private prison operations, CoreCivic and Geo Group, skyrocketed in 2016 following the election of President Trump, with CoreCivic experiencing a 140% increase and Geo Group rising 98%.[53] Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated in a February 21, 2017 memo that the Obama administration had "impaired the U.S. Bureau of Prison's ability to meet the future needs of the correctional system" and rescinded the Obama directive that would curtail the government use of private prisons.[54] In 2017, CNN attributed this rise of private prison stock to President Trump's commitment to lowering crime and toughening immigration, translating to more individuals to be arrested, therefore leading to an increase of private prison profits.[53] Both companies donated heavily to the Trump election campaign in 2016.[53]


Funding of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is increasing as about a total of $4.27 billion was allotted to the INS in the 2000 fiscal budget. This is 8% more than in the 1999 fiscal budget.[55] This expansion, experts claim, has been too rapid and thus has led to an increased chance on the part of faculty for negligence and abuse.[56][57] Lucas Guttengag, director of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project stated that, "immigrants awaiting administrative hearings are being detained in conditions that would be unacceptable at prisons for criminal offenders".[58] Such examples include "travelers without visas" (TWOVs) being held in motels near airports nicknamed "Motel Kafkas" that are under the jurisdiction of private security officers who have no affiliation to the government, often denying them telephones or fresh air, and there are some cases where detainees have been shackled and sexually abused according to Guttengag.[59] Similar conditions arose in the ESMOR detention center at Elizabeth, New Jersey where complaints arose in less than a year, despite having a "state-of-the-art" facility.[60]

The number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. is 11.3 million.[61][62] Those that argue against the PIC claim that effective immigration policy has failed to pass since private detention centers profit from keeping undocumented immigrants detained.[63] They also claim that despite having the incarceration rate grow "10 times what it was prior to 1970", "it has not made this country any safer"' Since the September 11 attacks in 2001, the budget for Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), have nearly doubled from 2003 to 2008, with CBP's budget increasing from $5.8 billion to $10.1 billion and ICE from $3.2 billion to $5 billion and even so there has been no significant decrease in immigrant population.[64] Professor Wayne Cornelius, professor Emeritus of Political Science at UC San Diego, even argued that it is so ineffective that "92–97%" of immigrants who attempt to cross in illegally "keep trying until they succeed", and that such measures actually increase the risk and cost of travel, leading to longer stays and settlement in the US.[65]

There are around 400,000 immigrant detainees per year, and 50% are housed in private facilities. In 2011, CCA's net worth was $1.4 billion and net income was $162 million. In this same year, The GEO Group had a net worth of $1.2 billion and net income of $78 million. As of 2012, CCA has over 75,000 inmates within 60 facilities and the GEO Group owns over 114 facilities.[66] Over half of the prison industry's yearly revenue comes from immigrant detention centers. For some small communities in the Southwestern United States, these facilities serve as an integral part of the economy.[67][68] According to Chris Kirkham, this constitutes part of a growing immigration industrial complex: "Companies dependent upon continued growth in the numbers of undocumented immigrants detained have exerted themselves in the nation's capital and in small, rural communities to create incentives that reinforce that growth."[67] A study by the ACLU says that many are housed in inhumane conditions as many facilities operated by private companies are exempt from government oversight, and studies are made difficult as such facilities may not be covered by a Freedom of Information Act.[69]

In 2009, University of Kansas professor Tanya Golash-Boza coined the term, "Immigration Industrial Complex", defining it as "the confluence of public and private sector interests in the criminalization of undocumented migration, immigration law enforcement, and the promotion of 'anti-illegal' rhetoric", in her paper "The Immigration Industrial Complex: Why We Enforce Immigration Policies Destined to Fail".[70]

In 2009, congressional immigration detention policies requires that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) maintain 34,000 immigration detention beds daily. This immigration bed quota has steadily increased with each passing year, costing ICE around $159 to detain one individual for one day.[71]

In 2010, immigration detention policies implemented by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) benefited the two major private prison corporations CCA and GeoGroup, increasing their share of immigrant detention beds by 13%.[72] Compared to data from 2009, the percentage of ICE immigrant detention beds in the United States are owned and operated by private for-profit prison corporations has increased by 49%, with CCA and GeoGroup operating 8 out of 10 of the largest facilities.[72]

Impact and response[edit]


A graph of the US incarceration rate under state and federal jurisdiction per 100,000 population 1925–2008 (omits local jail inmates). The male incarceration rate (top line) is 15 times the female rate (bottom line).

In 1994, UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women was released which stated that "Among many other abuses women prisoners have identified, are pat searches (male guards pat searching and groping women), illegal strip searches (male guards observing strip searches of women), constant lewd comments and gestures, violations of their right to privacy (male guards watching women in showers and toilets), and in some instances, sexual assault and rape." International human rights standards[who?] reinforce this by stating "the rape of a women in custody is an act of torture".[73] In addition, some prisons fail to meet women's needs with providing basic hygiene and reproductive health products.[74]

In regards to women and the prison-industrial complex, social activist Angela Davis stated that "State-sanctioned punishment is informed by patriarchal structures and ideologies that have tended to produce historical assumptions of female criminality linked to ideas about the violation of social norms defining a 'woman’s place'. Considering the fact that as many as half of all women are assaulted by their husbands or partners combined with dramatically rising numbers of women sentenced to prison, it may be argued that women in general are subjected to a far greater magnitude of punishment than men."[75] She also suggested that the "historical and philosophical connections between domestic violence and imprisonment [comprise] two modes of gendered punishment – one located in the private realm, the other in the public realm".[76]

Angela Davis continues to argue: "the sexual abuse of women in prison is one of the most heinous state-sanctioned human rights violations within the United States today. Women prisoners represent one of the most disenfranchised and invisible adult populations in our society. The absolute power and control the state exercises over their lives both stems from and perpetuates the patriarchal and racist structures that, for centuries, have resulted in the social domination of women."[76]

According to Angela Davis and Cassandra Shaylor in their research entitled "Race, Gender, and the Prison-Industrial Complex", most women in prison experience some degree of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.[73] Very often they are neither diagnosed nor treated, with injurious consequences for their mental health in and out of prison. Many women report that when requesting counseling, they are offered psychotropic medications instead. As technologies of imprisonment become increasingly repressive and practices of isolation become increasingly routine, mentally ill women often are placed in solitary confinement, which can only exacerbate their condition.[73]


US homicide convictions by race, 1976–2005[77]

"The Prison Industrial Complex" is the title of a recorded 1997 speech by social activist Angela Davis, later released as an audio CD that served as the basis for her book of the same title. Davis also co-founded the prison abolition group, Critical Resistance, which held its first conference in 1998. Her article entitled "Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex", published in the Fall 1998 issue of ColorLines, stated: "Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages. ... Taking into account the structural similarities of business-government linkages in the realms of military production and public punishment, the expanding penal system can now be characterized as a 'prison industrial complex'."[44]

Davis continues to report, "To deliver up bodies destined for profitable punishment, the political economy of prisons relies on racialized assumptions of criminality – such as images of black welfare mothers reproducing criminal children – and on racist practices in arrest, conviction, and sentencing patterns. Colored bodies constitute the main human raw material in this vast experiment to disappear the major social problems of our time. Once the aura of magic is stripped away from the imprisonment solution, what is revealed is racism, class bias, and the parasitic seduction of capitalist profit. The prison industrial system materially and morally impoverishes its inhabitants and devours the social wealth needed to address the very problems that have led to spiraling numbers of prisoners."[44]

US 2009. Percent of adult males incarcerated by race and ethnicity.[78]

In 2010, according to Heather Ann Thompson, associate professor of history in the Department of African American studies at Temple University, following the Richardson v. Ramirez case of 1974 (which decided that those convicted of a felony could be stripped of their voting rights without being in violation of the 14th amendment), states across the country began passing laws that resulted in a growing number of disfranchised African Americans in minority communities.[79] 48 states and the District of Columbia ban inmates from voting while serving their prison sentence while 32 states disenfranchise felons in prison as well as while on probation and parole.[80] By the year 2000, 1.8 million African Americans had been excluded from the polls due to felon disfranchisement laws.[79] The mass incarceration of African American citizens along with the methods used by the U.S. Census Bureau to collect population data resulted in a direct undermine of black political power.[79] The census counts prisoners as residents of the counties where they are incarcerated, despite these prisoners being unable to exercise the right to vote.[79] This method had a small effect throughout in the earliest decades of the twentieth century, before incarceration rates began to skyrocket.[79] However, with the rapid rise of the U.S. prison population, inner city vitality exhausted when increasing percentages of minorities were sent to prisons in rural counties – in turn, resulting in urban spaces of mostly African American demographics losing their political power and influence in elections.[79]

Others argue that while prison reform is necessary, economic reform through equality for people of color is first necessary before real change can be realized.[81]


A 2014 report by the American Friends Service Committee, Grassroots Leadership, and the Southern Center for Human Rights claims that recent reductions in the number of people incarcerated has pushed the prison industry into areas previously served by non-profit behavioral health and treatment-oriented agencies, referring to it as the "Treatment Industrial Complex", which "has the potential to ensnare more individuals, under increased levels of supervision and surveillance, for increasing lengths of time – in some cases, for the rest of a person's life".[82] Sociologist Nancy A. Heitzeg and activist Kay Whitlock claim that contemporary bipartisan reforms being proposed "are predicated on privatization schemes, dominated by the anti-government right and neoliberal interests that more completely merge for-profit medical treatment and other human needs supports with the prison-industrial complex".[83]

Sociologist Loïc Wacquant of UC Berkeley is also dismissive of the term for sounding too conspiratorial and for overstating its scope and effect. However Bernard Harcourt, Professor of Law at Columbia University, considers the term useful insofar as "it highlights the profitability of prison building and the employment boom associated with prison guard labor. There is no question that the prison expansion served the financial interests of large sectors of the economy."[2]

Another writer of the era who covered the expanding prison population and attacked "the prison industrial complex" was Christian Parenti, who later disavowed the term before the publication of his book, Lockdown America (2000). "How, then, should the left critique the prison buildup?" asked The Nation in 1999:

Not, Parenti stresses, by making slippery usage of concepts like the 'prison–industrial complex'. Simply put, the scale of spending on prisons, though growing rapidly, will never match the military budget; nor will prisons produce anywhere near the same 'technological and industrial spin-off'.

Prisons in the U.S. are becoming the primary response to mental illness among poor people. The institutionalization of mentally ill people, historically, has been used more often against women than against men.[73]


Prison abolition movement[edit]

A response to the prison industrial complex is the prison abolition movement, which seeks to end the social problems that fuel the need for prisons and punishment.[84] The goal of prison abolition is to end the prison industrial complex by eliminating prisons.[85] Prison abolitionists aim to do this by changing the socioeconomic conditions of the communities that are affected the most by the prison-industrial complex. They propose increasing funding of social programs in order to lower the rate of crimes, and therefore eventually end the need for police and prisons.

Alternatives to detention[edit]

Due to the overcrowding in prisons and detention centers by for-profit corporations, organizations such as Amnesty International, propose using alternatives such as reporting requirements, bonds, or the use of monitoring technologies.[86] The questions often brought up with alternatives include whether they are effective or efficient. A study published by the Vera Institute attempts to answer this question by stating that when alternatives such as monitoring technologies were used, they found that 91% of the individuals appeared at their court date.[86] The Institute recorded that the relative cost of using such alternatives has been estimated at $12 per day [86] a relatively low price in comparison to the reported average cost of incarceration in the U.S., which has been priced at roughly $87.61 per day.[87]

Despite the relative efficiency and effectiveness of alternative to detention, there is still much debate that these alternatives will not change the dynamics of incarceration. This argument lies in the fact that major corporations such as the GEO Group and Corrections Corporations of America will still be profiting by simply re-branding and moving towards rehabilitation services and monitoring technologies.[88] Rather than effectively ending and finding a solution to the PIC, more people will simply find themselves imprisoned by another system.[88] Other opposition to alternatives comes from the public. According to Ezzat Fattah, opposition towards prison alternatives and correctional facilities is due to the public fearing having that having these facilities in their neighborhoods will threaten the security and integrity of their communities and children.[89]

Critical Resistance[edit]

The movement gained momentum in 1997, when a group of prison abolition activists, scholars, and former prisoners collaborated to organize a three-day conference to examine the prison-industrial complex in the U.S. The conference, Critical Resistance to the prison-industrial complex, was held in September 1998 at the University of California, Berkeley and was attended by over 3,500 people of diverse academic, socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. Two years after the conference, a political grassroots organization was founded bearing the same name with the mission to challenge and dismantle the prison-industrial complex.[90]

In 2001, the organization adopted a national structure with local chapters in Portland, Los Angeles, Oakland, and New York City to develop campaigns and projects working towards abolishing the prison industrial complex.[91] Currently, the cause has shifted towards supporting efforts towards resisting state repression and developing tools to re-imagine life without the prison industrial complex.[91]

In 2010, at the U.S. Social Forum, committed activists joined together to discuss prison justice and stated that "Because we share a vision of justice and solidarity against confinement, control, and all forms of political repression, the prison industrial complex must be abolished."[92] Following the forum, the rise of Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People's Movement helped to incorporate abolition into other movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Movement for Black Lives.[92]

School-to-prison pipeline reform[edit]

A competing explanation for the disproportionate arrest and incarceration of people of color and persons with lower socioeconomic status is the school-to-prison pipeline, which generally proposes that practices in public schools (such as zero-tolerance policies, police in schools, and high-stakes testing) are direct causes of students dropping out of school and, subsequently, committing crimes which lead to their being arrested.[93] 68% of state prisoners had not completed high school in 1997, including 70 percent of women state prisoners. Suspension, expulsion, and being held back during middle school years are the largest predictors of arrest for adolescent women.[94] The school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately affects young black men with an overall incarceration risk that is six to eight times higher than young whites. Black male high school dropouts experienced a 60% risk of imprisonment as of 1999.[95] There is a recent trend of authors describing the school-to-prison pipeline as feeding into the prison-industrial complex.[96]

Since the shortcomings of zero-tolerance discipline have grown very clear, there has been a widespread movement to support reform across school districts and states.[97] Growing research that shows suspensions, especially for minor infractions and misbehavior, are a flawed disciplinary response has encouraged many districts to adopt new disciplinary alternatives.[97] In 2015, mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio joined with the Department of Education to address school discipline in a campaign to tweak the old policies. Blasio also spearheaded a leadership team on school climate and discipline to take recommendations and craft the foundations for more substantive policy.[97] The team released recommendations that work towards reducing the racial disparity in suspension and discussing the underlying root cause of disciplinary infractions through restorative justice.[97]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Dyer, Joel, The Perpetual Prisoner Machine—How America Profits from Crime; 2000 by Westview Press, A Member of the Perseus Books Group, 5500 Central Avenue, Boulder, Colorado 80301-2877; ISBN 0-8133-3507-8 (hc); LC# HV9950.D04 1999

External links[edit]