It’s America’s biggest issue that nobody quite wants to talk about. Ozy Frantz unpacks the structure of getting paid to keep a lock on freedom.
What is the prison-industrial complex?
“Prison-industrial complex” is one of those terms like “rape culture” that refers to less a single identifiable thing and more a giant mess of cultural attitudes, beliefs, institutions, structures, and perverse incentives. It can be briefly summed up as “the interdependent economic and social interests that contribute to America’s extraordinarily high rate of incarceration.”
The prison-industrial complex in the form I’m discussing is primarily a USA phenomenon; while of course elements of it exist in other countries, the US has been the most assiduous about putting the prison-industrial complex into practice. America has the single highest reported rate of incarceration in the world, although admittedly some countries like North Korea blatantly lie and may have higher incarceration rates than America. Seriously, good job America, we’re possibly behind the single most totalitarian government in the world!
As of 2009, 7,225,800 people were under some form of correctional supervision (jail, prison, or parole), about 3.1% of the entire US population at the time. At the moment more than 1 in 99 people are imprisoned. Since 1970, the number of people in prison has increased 700%. Respected groups that oppose the high level of incarceration in the US include Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union. There is a problem here, Americans!
What caused the rise of the prison-industrial complex?
The number of people in prison has increased 700% since 1970. Is it just because people are committing more violent crimes now? Actually, no, the rate of violent crimes has been decreasing for two decades, while the number of people in prison rises. (In case you’re thinking that the imprisonment caused the drop in crime—nope, Canada experienced a lower crime rate as well, despite not putting three percent of its population under correctional supervision.) In addition, approximately 52.4% of prisoners in state prisons and 7.9% in federal prisons are in for violent crimes, which means that the majority of the prisoners in the United States are not in prison for violent crimes.
The first answer is the drug war. The number of people in prison for drug offenses rose twelvefold from 1980 to 2003. In 2010 1,638,846 people in the US were arrested for nonviolent drug charges. Starting in 1973 with the formation of the Drug Enforcement Administration and reaching its peak with Ronald Reagan, the government aggressively pursued the so-called War on Drugs and decided that arrest and incarceration would be the best method to keep people from using drugs. It is safe to say that that did not work very well at all, except to massively inflate the number of people in prison for nonviolent drug charges.
The second answer is harsh sentencing. The USA has more severe laws than many other developed countries. For instance, many states have three strikes laws, which make it difficult if not impossible to avoid a life sentence if convicted of a third felony—even one as minor as marijuana possession—after one has already had two serious or violent felonies. Mandatory minimum sentences mean that offenders have to serve long sentences, regardless of extenuating circumstances. Nonviolent crimes that in other countries would get drug treatment, a fine, or community service are punished in America with prison time.
A third answer is that the prison-industrial complex is a self-perpetuating system. If one has to spend more money on prisons—and they always have to spend more money on prisons—that’s less money available for prevention or rehabilitation. Parole officers and social workers are overworked and underfunded; drug treatment programs are not available for those who need them; schools decay and graduate students that are barely literate, much less capable of working a non-criminal job. In addition, prisons create a perfect environment to turn nonviolent offenders into violent offenders: they traumatize inmates with violence and rape and teach them to be brutal and never show vulnerability, because only the strong survive. Contacts on the inside can make crime easier on the outside. Being a convicted felon can make it incredibly difficult to get a job, especially in poor communities where jobs are scarce to begin with. The only option left is crime.
Who benefits from the prison-industrial complex?
The most important question to ask about any injustice is cui bono?—that is, who benefits? The answer, for the prison-industrial complex, is depressingly many people.
Consider government officials. Prosecutors and DAs are reelected based on how many convictions they get and criminals are off the streets and are willing to use tactics like unethical plea deals to make it happen. Law enforcement and corrections officials both benefit from there being more people in prison. More prisoners means more prisons and more funding and more jobs for corrections officials; more criminals means more arrests and and more funding and more jobs for police officers. Tough-on-crime politicians get reelected: after all, “I dislike crime” is almost as uncontroversial an opinion as “I like puppies.” Any politician who objects to the human rights abuses or ineffective tactics is smeared as a wimp whose election will lead to your children being murdered in their beds.
Or consider corporations. Prisons are a big business. In 2010 the states spent $39 billion on prisons, nearly all of which is going directly into the pockets of corporations. Food service? Corporation. Barbed wire? Corporation. Security cameras? Corporation. Padded cells? You guessed it, a corporation. Building new prisons? Corporation (and given that a new prison can cost up to a hundred million dollars, a fairly profitable one at that). Some states have decided to cut out the middleman and just give the money directly to corporations, via allowing private prisons, which are run by for-profit companies and are responsible for 6% of state prisoners, 16% of federal prisoners, and half of all immigration prisoners. The private prison companies talk about their ability to “cut prices,” which is a euphemism for poor conditions and not offering even the slightest attempts at rehabilitation. Of course, the states somehow have to fund all this: fortunately, investment banks are happy to loan to the states with interest, a highly profitable deal.
The media benefits as well: “if it bleeds it leads,” after all. Increasing media coverage of crimes has lead to the illusion that we’re less safe than ever, despite historically low crime rates. TV shows like Law and Order and its innumerable spinoffs are essentially propaganda for the police, who are depicted as noble, always-right crusaders battling against a world full of evil.
But perhaps the saddest people who benefit are rural communities. Prisons are typically placed in small towns, where they provide a revitalizing boost of jobs and money into a town that, with the loss of its manufacturing, probably has neither. “Corrections official” is one of the few well-paying middle-class jobs available for blue-collar workers, and the money they spend can save an entire dying small town. This shows you how the kyriarchy pits marginalized people against each other. In order to hold on and make a decent life for themselves, poor people have to fuck over other poor people.
Ultimately, the motivation behind the prison-industrial complex is simple: money. Crime and prisons are big business. The media increases its market share; rural communities get all-too-scarce good jobs; government agencies get more funding; politicians are re-elected; corporations earn billions of dollars in profit. As long as the status quo enriches some people, they’re going to perpetuate the fucked-up system. Private prison companies spend plenty of money lobbying for harsher sentencing laws. The nature of the incentives in place means they’d be fools not to.
Why is this a social justice issue?
So all that’s unfortunate, but there are lots of unfortunate things that aren’t social justice issues. What makes this a social justice concern and not simply a civil liberties violation like Internet censorship or consumer privacy? Because the prison-industrial complex systematically fucks over marginalized groups.
People of color are far more likely to be imprisoned. Sixty percent of prisoners are people of color. One in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. Black offenders receive sentences ten percent longer than white offenders. Although all races use drugs at approximately the same rate, people of color are far more likely to be arrested; although African Americans represent 14% of regular drug users, they’re 37% of those arrested for drug use.
Immigration is an issue of particular concern. Obviously, the deportation of undocumented immigrants shows the privilege that people with citizenship have over people without citizenship. The immigration process itself favors those with class, education, and straight privilege. In addition, “show us your papers” laws and deportation disproportionately affect Hispanics, far more so than Asian or European undocumented immigrants.
Mentally ill people are also more likely to be imprisoned. 56% of state prisoners and 45% of federal prisoners have symptoms or a recent history of mental health problems. Prisoners have a two to four times higher rate of mental illness. 8 to 19 percent of prisoners have a mental illness to the point that it’s a disability, and 15 to 20 percent will require psychiatric intervention during incarceration.
Class also plays a huge role in the justice system. If you’re rich, you can hire a great lawyer. If you’re poor, you get an overworked public defender who is going to pressure you to plea-bargain, which means that you’re going to spend time in prison. Not to mention that crimes committed by poor people, such as burglary, are punished much more harshly than crimes committed by rich people (how many prosecutions were there in the case of the Wall Street people who committed massive fraud and wrecked the economy again?).
And why is this a concern for the Good Men Project? Because those people of color, those immigrants, those mentally ill people, those poor people… they’re mostly men. Although the incarceration rate for women has increased in recent years, only 113,462 of the people in prison are female, less than 7.5%. Overwhelmingly, the population of prisons is male, and the most vulnerable men at that.
The greatest ally the prison-industrial complex has is denial. It is, by design, very easy to simply not think about how many Americans are in prison or on parole, or what that might mean about the state of our society; it is very easy to think that when you vote for tough-on-crime policies you’re voting for cops and safe streets, not broken-down inner city schools and overcrowded prisons. Not thinking about it is how most people approach the problem, and it works very well. Pretending the prison-industrial complex doesn’t exist will not alter their profit margins or their business models one iota, and that’s how it’s supposed to work.
Photo—Row of cells from Shutterstock