Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Prison Industrial Complex: What it Is and Why it Works.

The Prison Industrial Complex can be described in a number of ways.  Angela Davis, for example, describes it as “a complex web of racism, social control, and profit.”   In 1998, Eric Scholosser, writing in “The Atlantic Monthly,” defined the PIC as “a set of bureaucratic, economic, and political interests that encourage spending on prisons, regardless of need.”   Julia Sudbury, who wrote Global Lockdown: Race, Gender, and the Prison Industrial Complex, says the PIC refers to a “symbiotic and profitable relation between politicians (state and national) corporations (executives and shareholders) the media, and state correctional institutions (including correctional officers’ unions) that generates the racialized use of incarceration as a response to social problems rooted in the globalization of capital.”  Barry Yeoman put it this way: “Not since Slavery has an entire American Industry derived its profits exclusively from depriving humans beings of their freedom – not, at least until a handful of corporations and Wall street investors realized they could make millions from what some critics call ‘dungeons for dollars.’  “Prison construction and the attendant drive to fill these new structures with human bodies have been driven by ideologies of racism and the pursuit of profit.”  In short, it is a slave system where all the profits are privatized but all of the costs are absorbed through social subsidization. 

 In effect, the PIC is to inmates what the cotton field was to the slaves in the American South, only the former is a much more effective system at generating profits for private enterprise.   Harnessing the growing amount of slave labor contained in America’s prisons helps a number of private companies increase their profits by not only paying bottom dollar wages for an almost limitless supply of labor, but by also pushing onto the public the costs of providing for these modern day slaves.  Such costs do not only come in the form of higher taxes for the middle class, who are routinely told the war on drugs is saving them money, but from the increased number of people that middle class Americans have to compete with for jobs. 

Nowadays, many people worry about how increased immigration, both legal and illegal, helps to drive down wages by increasing the number of applicants that employers can potentially choose from. What those people often fail to worry about, however, is how access to prison labor drives down wages even further by increasing that labor pool with employees that can legally be paid well below minimum wage.  Nor do employers of prison labor have to pay for healthcare, unemployment, or retirement benefits for prison laborers, since such benefits are, of course, all paid for from public coffers.  In this way, the Prison Industrial Complex reaps its profits from what the war on drugs sows and middle class Americans pay in taxes.

 The “war on drugs,” on the other hand, has done little to stop the proliferation of both drugs in America and the violence that stems from their illegality.  While this “war” has clearly failed at its stated aims, it has succeeded in accomplishing a more inconspicuous objective.   Politicians who preach about the destructive effects of drugs on people's lives are finding it increasingly difficult to hide the fact that the War of Drugs is proving to be just as destructive, if not more, on the lives of African Americans.  Although a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in November of 2011, showed “that young African Americans are actually less likely to use drugs and less likely to develop substance use disorders, compared to whites,” the war on drugs has put more African Americans under correctional control today -- in prison or jail, on probation or parole -- than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.[i]  

 As of 2004, according to Michelle Alexander, “more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that explicitly denied the right to vote on the basis of race.”[ii]  In fact, more than any other single factor, the War on Drugs has directly contributed to making America the home of the incarcerated and land of the un-free.    Indeed, even the biggest totalitarian state in history, China, has a half-million fewer prisoners than the world’s pre-eminent democracy (which has 2 million in prison and several million more on parole or probation.)

Clearly, the clock of civil rights has been turned back in the name of criminal prosecutions under a ubiquitous War on Drugs, which has only succeeded at creating a system of social control that produces a Jim Crow caste of people that can be legally discriminated against.

 Money - The Reason it Works

The PIC works because the war on drugs makes American businessmen war profiteers. And America is home to some of the biggest war profiteers in the world, including some of the country’s largest architecture and construction firms, Wall Street investment banks, and companies that sell everything from security cameras to padded cells available in a vast selection of colors.  In fact, “Huge amounts of industry are connected to prison which makes criminal justice a guaranteed growth industry. Annual state spending on corrections has more than quadrupled since 1980 from $4.2 billion to $19 billion. The Justice Department reports that the US spends $50 billion a year on prisons.” 

In just the last 20 years, for example, spending on crime has increased over twice the rate of defense spending, with prison building soaring by 600% in the last decade.  The sum of $100 billion of public money is spent on law enforcement every year, while an additional $65 billion is spent on private security.  According to James Gomez, California’s Former Director of Corrections, it will cost $40 billion to build the 21 prisons required to house the surge of prisoners that “three strikes” (and similar “get tough” laws) will generate for state facilities, and an additional $5.5 billion a year to run them. 

A RAND Corporation study predicted, such laws would necessarily require correction budgets to double, growing from 9% to 18% of all state expenditures. Prosecution costs could also be expected to soar. “To support the implementation of the law, total spending for higher education and other government services would have to fall by more than 40% over the next eight years,” The report concluded.

The lesson from all of this data is that crime pays, at least for a few, but only at the expense of the many.

[ii] Id.

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