Prison Industrial Complex in America – Full Employment

On January 17, 1961 in his farewell address to the nation President Eisenhower warned the country about the development of a Military Industrial Complex. Thirty-five years after Mr. Eisenhower’s prediction the Military Industrial Complex is well established and expanding rapidly. However, Mr. Eisenhower could not foresee into the future and warned the nation about the coming of the Prison Industrial Complex.

2009 is the eleventh anniversary of both the prison abolitionist Critical Resistance conference held in Oakland, CA that coined the phrase “prison industrial complex,” and the National Jericho Movement’s march on Washington DC advocating the release of all US political prisoners and prisoners of war.

In the United States the prison system has become the first response to resolve far too many of the social problems that overwhelmed individuals living in poverty-ridden urban cities across America. These social problems are often concealed and grouped together under the label of “crime” and automatically become criminal behavior of people of color. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are a few of the social problems that vanish from public view when the individuals struggling with these problems are relegated to the prison system (A. Davis, 1998). The so-called “war on drug” has made poor people, people of color, women, youth, and undocumented immigrants the primary targets of the prison industrial complex.

It is important to view the prison industrial complex in social and historical context. While exporting prison-made products to Asia, the United States has condemned China for exporting prison-made goods, stating that this practice is a violation of human rights. At the Nuremberg trials, for example, Alfred Krupp was condemned and convicted for one of the most hated crimes perpetrated by the Nazis; the use of concentration camp prisoners as slave laborers in the German plants and mines (Smith, 1992).

The United States spends more on prisons and incarcerates more individuals than any other industrialized country in the world. According to one study, between 1971 and 1994, public spending on prisons alone jumped from $ 2.3 billion to $ 34.2 billion. Prison spending is growing at faster rate than Medicaid, higher education, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children. In 1994, funds to build prisons increased by $ 926 million while funds for university construction declined by $ 954 million.

The prison industrial complex generates an estimated $ 40 billion each year. Correction Corporation of America (CCA) is the largest private prison corporation in the world. American Express and General Electric invested in private prisons in the states of Oklahoma and Tennessee. AT&T, Sprint, MCI charge inmates and their families 6 times the normal cost of a long-distance call with in the Unites States. And the list goes on, Chevron, airline industry, and Victoria’s Secret use prison labor to complete data entry, book telephone reservations, and make lingerie at 23 cents an hour. The federal prison industry corporation uses inmates to make recycled furniture at $ 40 a month working 40 hours per week (P.M. Rojas, 1998).

If you lost your job and or closed the doors to your small business, it could be that the federal prison system may be the reason. The United States Bureau of prisons is one of the world’s largest “slave labor” industrial manufacturers who have control the market in everything vehicle parts to music speaker and missile wiring harness systems. UNICOR, also known as the “Federal Prison Industries” employs over 23,000 inmates and reported profits of over $ 800 million last year.

Thirty years ago, the prison population was approximately one-eight its current size. To supply the human bodies necessary for profitable-punishment, the political economy of prisons relies on racial zed assumptions of criminality and the racist practices in arrest, conviction, and sentencing patterns. ‘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.”

Contrary to what many may believe, slavery was not outlawed or abolished in the United States by the passage of the 13th Amendment.

The 13th Amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The 13th Amendment was not designed to abolish slavery completely, but to specify more clearly the circumstances under which slavery could continue. Therefore, a large number of African-Americans found themselves “duly convicted” and once again engaged in slave labor. In 1986, former United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger called for transforming prisons into “factories with fences” (Davis, 1998; Rojas, 1998). More to the reality, what we now have are plantations with razor wire, prison industrial complex, generating huge profits for many local and international corporations.

As the prison industrial complex proliferate in the United States, private capital will become a major partner in the punishment industry. And because of their profit potential prisons are steadily becoming an important part of the United States economy. If the notion of punishment as a major source of potentially huge profits is bothersome in itself, than the planned-dependence on racist structures and ideologist to render mass punishment as acceptable and profitable is even more distasteful (Davis, 1998).

In a nation where the driving ideology is the attainment and dominance of wealth and capital, the entry of the unbridled forces of domestic and international corporations into the prison system is profoundly disturbing. What can be the future of incarceration, when the underlying motive is profit? Under a regime where more bodies equal more profits, prisons takes one big step closer to their historical ancestor, the slave pen (Davis, 1998; Rojas, 1998).

Davis. A. (1998). Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex. ColorLines: The National Newsmagazine on Race and Politics, Fall 1998.

Rojas, P.M., Complex Facts; ColorLines: The National Newsmagazine on Race and Politics. Issue #2, fall 1998.

Smith, W. (1992). Slavery and Racism: The Conspiracy to Practice Psychological Genocide. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation. Kensington University.