The Prison Industrial Complex
We have now peered into the reality of corruption, lies, and disinformation, which is designed to keep the people of the world blissfully unaware of the true source of their pain. We have identified another layer of the Pyramid of Power: the Big Wireless firms; the Big Oil titans, also known as The Oilgarchy, the Big Pharmaceutical Corporations and the Medical Cartel; and finally, the ways in which the food system and food itself is used as a weapon against the people. Now, our journey continues as we progress further into the labrynth of a hidden history and deep politics. What other pieces of the Pyramid of Power are waiting to be revealed?
What is The Prison Industrial Complex?
While we have thus far focused on various institutions and organizations which seek to impede or disempower the people, we also need to take a moment to look at the ways in which people are captured by industries which seek to profit off our bodies and minds. More specifically, we need to understand the ways in which the prison system, the laws passed by governments and enforced by police, and a number of intersecting factors can prevent the people from being free and reaching their full potential. We need to understand The Prison Industrial Complex.
The Prison Industrial Complex is often described as overlapping interests of government and industry who use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic and political problems. It is a web of relationships involving public and private prisons, the companies who offer probation and parole services, the police, the courts, and the transportation, feeding, and selling daily necessities to prisoners. Critics argue that this confluence of organizations see a spike in crime as a business opportunity rather than a social problem to be solved for the betterment of society. These critics believe that the Prison Industrial Complex leads to more crime because the source of their profits is prisoners, and thus, they have a perverse incentive to maintain criminal activity.
The non-profit, non-partisan think tank Interrogating Justice calls the PIC “a symbiotic relationship between police departments, court systems, probation offices, transportation companies, food service providers, and many others; all of which ultimately benefit from maintaining incarceration.”
In recent years critics of the prison systems have begun including privatized immigration detention centers in their analysis. These holding facilities, which are often unsafe and lacking adequate supplies to house families and children, are used to imprison undocumented immigrants for indeterminate amounts of time. According to a 2018 report from The New York Times, 73% of immigrants detained in the US are housed in private facilities. Opponents of private prisons say the detention centers operate with little regulation or oversight and have a clear financial incentive to cut medical, food, and maintenance costs.
Companies benefitting off the PIC include Aramark, 3M, Amazon, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Microsoft, Western Union, and Wells Fargo. Private prison operators include CoreCivic, Ferrovial, GEO Group, and Serco Group.
Other criticisms of the PIC involve the criminalizing of poverty. Namely, critics say that the so-called criminal justice system targets low-income individuals, often in communities of color. The Prison Policy Initiative says that “poverty is not only a predictor of involvement with the justice system”, but also an outcome of getting wrapped up in the PIC. For example, if an individual is living in poverty and chooses to commit a low level offense, let’s say a non-violent, but invasive, theft, they will not only find themselves locked in a cage with a criminal record, but they will also be saddled with countless fines, fees, and other costs associated with the process. Even after someone does their time in jail or prison, when they are released they will contend with the probation or parole system. This system demands monthly fees, classes and therapy sessions which are ostensibly aimed at rehabilitating people, but which are ultimately drains on their income. Sometimes individuals will find their drivers licenses suspended upon arrest, forcing them to walk, use public transportation, or drive without a license. This reinforces more costs on the taxpayer and some argue also endangers the public because of an increase in unlicensed drivers.
Additionally, there are criticisms of the money-bail system in the United States, a system in which a defendant is required to pay a certain amount of money as a guarantee they will attend future court hearings. If the defendant is unable to come up with the money for bail they can be incarcerated from their arrest until their case is resolved or dismissed in court. The Prison Policy Initiative says this goes against constitutional protections of assumptions of innocent until proven guilty and that the rise in jail population inside the United States is driven by detention of legally innocent people. Because of this the Initiative says a reform of the criminal justice system and the Prison-Industrial Complex must include a discussion of local jails and the need for pretrial detention reform.
While this is not the norm in all of the world, it is in many western nations, including the United States, which has almost 25% of the world’s prisoners and the highest incarceration rate in the world. These astronomical levels of incarceration also include juveniles under the age of 18. This criminalization of youth can be seen as a symptom of the Prison Industrial Complex. Specifically, the trend of taking children out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems is often known as the School-to-Prison-Pipeline. Children who fall prey to to this pipeline typically follow a pattern. First, there are often a lack of resources at a school, not enough teachers per student, and limited funding for councilors and mental health guidance. Second, schools are increasingly enacting zero tolerance policies where students can be expelled or suspended for something as simple as bringing nail clippers to school. Couple these factors with the increasing militarization of schools, with cops heavily armed, metal detectors, cameras, random searches of personal property, and you have a recipe for disaster. If a child acts out or breaks a rule in this environment he might find himself sent to an alternative disciplinary schools and soon enough the police and courts get involved. The increase in cops in schools can lead to students being criminalized for behavior that previously would have been handled inside the school. This often leads to a child being introduced to the juvenile justice system.
Finally, the Prison Industrial Complex, is a system which is not focused on actually correcting bad or anti-social behavior through reform. Instead, critics argue, that this system produces more violence, imprisons low level, non-violent offenders, costs billions of dollars of taxpayer money, and dehumanizes the prisoners.
History of the PIC
By the early 19th century, governments began to get involved in the business of running prisons. Private businesses began to provide contracting services for food, medical care, and transportation. However, there were times when government run prisons collaborated with private business in exchange for labor. This can be seen prominently in the convict lease system in the American South. This system involved private parties paying public prisons for forced labor. Prisoners were often rented out to plantation owners and corporations for mining coal, laying bricks, or cutting timber. The Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI) was one of the largest users of prison laborers, mostly comprised of African Americans convicted of petty crimes. U.S. Steel was another American company who has since acknowledged using African-American convict labor. These corporations would be responsible for feeding, clothing, and housing the prisoners. This would often result in unsanitary or dangerous conditions.
This system would ultimately lose favor, with Alabama being the last state to outlaw the practice in 1928. The system drew criticism for a number of highly publicized abuses, including the case of Martin Tabert, a young white man from North Dakota who had been arrested in Florida for being on a train without a ticket. Tabert was fined $25, His parents sent the money, but it disappeared somewhere along the way and Martin was subsequently leased to the Putnam Lumber Company in Clara, Florida, south of Tallahassee. Martin would end up being whipped with a leather strap by the boss until he died. The story made national headlines and resulted in Florida Governor Cary A. Hardee ending convict leasing in 1923.
As the governments of the world began to participate in the prison industry new institutions began to pop up, including the establishment of Federal Prison Industries in the U.S. in 1930. Federal Prison Industries, also known as Unicor, is a prison labor program whereby inmates produce goods and services for the public sector. Under US federal law, all physically able inmates who are not a security risk or have a health exemption are required to work, either for UNICOR or another prison job. In the United States, inmates earn between $0.23 to $1.15 per hour. Some critics equate this labor program to a form of modern day slavery.
While the convict labor program may have ended the practice of loaning out prisoners to corporations, there are also concerns around the growth of the private prison industry. As previously mentioned, today the private prison industry operates facilities for immigrant detainees. These prisons are run by private corporations who enter into a contract with the government. This contract outlines how a corporation is getting paid, which can be determined by the size of the prison, or in most cases, it is paid based on the number of inmates that the prison houses. Critics point to the incentive to create financial profits and cut costs as a reason why private prisons should be abolished or greatly reduced.
Some of the companies who profit off cheap prison labor include McDonalds, Wendy’s, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Sprint, Verizon, Victoria’s Secret, Fidelity Investments, Jc Penney, and American Airlines.
The Prison-Industrial Complex of today includes the public and private prisons, the parole and probation services, the cash-bail system, the unjust laws and sentencing, the school-to-prison pipeline, and many other factors. So what lead to the creation of this corporate-state relationship which imprisons and destroys lives?
Causes of the PIC
A 2014 report by the National Research Council identified two main causes of the increase in the United States’ incarceration rate over the previous 40 years: longer prison sentences and increases in the likelihood of imprisonment. The NRC claims the longer prison sentences were the main driver of increasing incarceration rates since 1990. These longer sentences are part of so-called Three Strikes rules where a prisoner is given lengthy mandatory minimum sentences after three arrests. In the United States, these practices can be traced to the government’s War on Drugs, a campaign launched in the early 1970’s aimed at criminalizing and punishing drug trafficking and use.
American Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan introduced anti-drug legislation with harsher punishments. During this time incarceration of non-violent drug users became the norm. Many critics of the PIC point to the Drug War as the main cause of the growth of the prison system. From the 1970’s on, Americans were subjected to jail and prison for non-violent drug offenses, such as using drugs or simply being in possession. This resulted in imprisoning and ruining of millions of peoples lives. The tough on crime and drugs mentality was embraced by then New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, of the infamous Rockefeller family. In January 1973, Rockefeller rolled out a political campaign focused on ending the use of drugs and pushing for mandatory prison sentences of 15 years to life for those caught with small amounts of Cannabis, cocaine or heroin.
“I have one goal and one objective and that is to stop the pushing of drugs and to protect the innocent victim,” Rockefeller stated. It is this legacy which spread around the United States (and parts of the world) and has created a worldwide prison industry. As of January 2022, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons says 45 percent of federal inmates are incarcerated because of drug convictions.
However, in many places around the world, we have seen a shift in the last 2 decades as relatively harmless substances like Cannabis become legalized or decriminalized. This is also due in part to a resurgence of research on psychedelic substances like Mushrooms, LSD, and MDMA. More and more people are seeing the Drug War as a cause of more harm rather than a solution. Unfortunately, the wider acceptance of certain substances has not necessarily lead to retroactive policy shifts. The fact is there are still people sitting behind bars for drug charges in states or nations which have reduced penalties for drug use or possession. This is why a growing number of criminal justice activists are calling for freeing prisoners who are held for drug charges based on drugs which are now legal or decriminalized, including Cannabis. After all, why should someone languish away in prison for weed or mushrooms or any substance that people outside of the prison walls can use freely, or even purchase legally at dispensaries?
In places like Portugal, where the possession of all drugs was decriminalized in 2001, policies have shifted towards a health-focused approach. An individual who is caught in possession of drugs for personal use is treated as an administrative issue, rather than a criminal one. In the last 20 years, Portugal has maintained lower rates of drug use and has seen the portion of prisoners sentenced for drugs drop from 40 to 15 percent. Despite fear mongering that such a move would lead to more crime and more drug addiction, the opposite has been true.
Many critics also believe the roots of the Drug War itself stem from racism and a desire to criminalize black and brown communities. There are arguments about the structural challenges facing black and brown people resulting from a legacy of colonization, domination, and slavery, but there are also those who point directly to the words of officials within the Nixon Administration. It was this administration that played a huge role in advancing the “hard on drugs”/”tough on crime” language. For example, in a 2016 article for Harper’s Magazine journalist Dan Baum recounted a story told by John Ehrlichman, Richard Nixon’s Domestic Policy Advisor during his presidency.
“You want to know what this was really all about?” asked Erhlichman in regards to the Drug War.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, because people of color often face disproportionately high rates of poverty they also suffer from the justice system’s unequal treatment of poor people. Black Americans, in particular, are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated and to receive the harshest sentences, including death sentences.
However, despite the criticism of the Drug War, mandatory minimum sentences, and subsequent mistreatment of people of color and poor people, recent research claims that these are not the root causes for the growth of the PIC. A Pew Research study released in 2020 found that imprisonment rates of black Americans have fallen by a third since 2006.
In fact, Fordham University criminal justice expert John Pfaff claims the Drug War and mandatory minimum sentences are not to blame for the growth in prison population. In his book Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, Pfaff uses facts and statistics to show that the focus on the Drug War misses a lot about the reality of the criminal justice system. Pfaff places the blame for a lack of context around mass incarceration on the 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, which he says leaves out important factors.
He says it’s not drug offenses that are driving mass incarceration, but violent crime. “In reality, only about 16 percent of state prisoners are serving time on drug charges — and very few of them, perhaps only around 5 or 6 percent of that group, are both low level and nonviolent,” he writes. He also says the federal government is not the leader in mass incarceration, but rather, prison systems on the state and local level which are leading the charge. While Pfaff acknowledges that police and lawmakers are part of the problem, he says the conversation often fails to mention the role played by prosecutors who are often out of the public and political spotlight.
This blind spot for prosecutors obscures the fact local and state prosecutors are incredibly powerful in the US criminal justice system because they have the ability to prosecute however they see fit. This can be seen in cases where District Attorney’s have decided to refuse certain non-violent cases. For example, if a DA decides they no longer want to enforce Cannabis laws in an area where Cannabis is still considered illegal, the police have no choice but to cooperate and ignore those offenses. Also, more than 90 percent of criminal cases are resolved through a plea agreement, putting the prosecutors and defendants largely in charge of which cases results in imprisonment and which do not.
The reports by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that in state prisons the majority of prisoners are in for violent offenses, such as murder, manslaughter, robbery, assault, and rape; while less than a quarter are in for non-violent drug offenses. Pfaff argues that this context illustrates why mass incarceration happened. He believes it was an overreaction to massive waves of violent crime in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s. This overreaction, he says, is what lead to mass incarceration and the growth of what we now know as the PIC.
Life After Prison/My Experience
One of the final detrimental aspects of the PIC is what happens once you leave. As noted, probation and parole are often traps meant to keep money going into the PIC and threaten those who can’t pay fines, or jump through other judicial hoops, with reimprisonment. Once you leave prison or jail you are also marked wth a bullseye and labeled felon, a scarlet letter that makes it difficult to find jobs, housing, and generally, stigmatizes an individual to the ignorant public who assume everyone who has been to prison or has a criminal record must be a dangerous, violent person. Felons also have difficulty getting student loans, public housing, welfare support, and have higher rates of recidivism, homelessness, and suicide. For many former convicts it feels like once you have been marked the world gives up on you.
I can speak from experience for this particular area of research. When I was 20 years old I became addicted to drugs and was arrested. I was convicted of felony drug possession and sentenced to a probation and prison time concurrently. In the end I would serve 18 months behind bars before being released as a felon. I had firsthand experience of being denied housing, jobs, and being judged for the felony on my record. When I was dealing with probation, and eventually parole, I saw how the courts expect you to attend meetings, pay fines, take random drugs tests, and whatever else they stipulate, or you risk being sent back to prison. Many people on probation consider it to be one foot in the prison system, and one foot outside, because you can very easily be sent to prison if the officer believes you have violated your conditions of probation or parole.
These circumstances lead to an increase of stress and potential for falling back into unhealthy habits because of the pressure to meet every stipulation, lest you be sent back to a cage. I witnessed many brilliant minds find themselves wrapped up in the PIC and struggle to find a way out. Many of the people I met while in prison are still cycling in and out of the PIC, while others lost their lives to drug addictions. The few wise ones who caught on quick never came back to the horrible institution.
What will it take to change this destructive, wasteful, and ineffective model of justice so we can properly rehabilitate those who are in need of help?
There are several potential solutions with which to tackle the PIC. The first involve attempts at using politics or legislation to overhaul and reform the prison systems. In 2018, former President Donald Trump passed the First Step Act which was heralded as the first serious attempt at reform of the criminal justice system in decades. The First Step Act introduced several measures, including a “good time credit fix” which saw 3,100 people released in July 2019, some were released a few days early, others were released months before their original sentences. The First Step Act also expanded retroactive changes to drug law, allowing people who had been convicted of possession of a small amount of crack cocaine to be released early. The US Department of Justice said the Act had reduced sentences for more than 3,000 people. Altogether, it is estimated the First Step Act reduced the federal prison population by about 5,000 people. In the first year of his administration, President Joe Biden signed an executive order which ended the Department of Justice’s use of private prisons. The order claims the goal is focusing on rehabilitation instead of imprisonment.
While many criminal justice advocates have applauded these actions by Trump and Biden, most advocates are aware that while these actions have produced tangible results they are not enough to fix the overarching, structural problems created by and connected to the PIC. On the other end of the spectrum you have activists and researchers who believe the answer lies in abolishing prisons and replacing them with institutions which focus on mental health and actual rehabilitation rather than punishment. The Prison Abolition Movement has seen renewed interest in recent years as more people become aware of the injustices created by the current policing and court systems. This movement is made up of legal scholars, activists, former prisoners, and anarchists who believe systems of rehabilitation like those seen in Portugal could serve as a model for reworking the entire prison system.
While it may seem far fetched or even reckless to imagine the idea of a world without prisons, or even police, it’s important to acknowledge and address the web of problems created by the PIC. This system not only dehumanizes the prisoners, but it also dehumanizes the prison guards, the judges, the prosecutors, and all those who profit, by normalizing the idea that humans can be caged for violations and made to suffer isolation, hunger, stress, and dangerous conditions. Until we are willing to look at this irrational situation and honestly seek solutions, millions of people around the world will continue to suffer in cages.
We must remember to question the authorities who dictate the laws to the people. Should we blindly trust their assessment of what is right and what is moral? and what is worthty of punishment and imprisonment? We ought to consider whether the current laws align with our values and our ideas of what is a violation of societal norms. We must question the mentality that says a person is irredeemable once they have made a mistake. Only once we have found the answers to these questions and sought to implement solutions which lift up all those suffering at the hands of this system, only then will we see an end to the Prison Industrial Complex.
To learn more about the Prison Industrial Complex we recommend:
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander