Prison–industrial Complex

Prison–industrial complex is a term used to attribute 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. The term is analogous to the military–industrial complex that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of in his famous 1961 farewell address.

Such groups include corporations that contract prison labor, construction companies, surveillance technology vendors, lawyers, and lobby groups that represent them. Activists have described the prison industrial complex as perpetuating a belief that imprisonment is a quick fix to underlying social problems such as homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy.

The promotion of prison building as a job creator and the use of inmate labor are also cited as elements of the prison industrial complex. The term often implies a network of actors who are motivated by making profit rather than solely by punishing or rehabilitating criminals or reducing crime rates. Proponents of this view believe that the desire for monetary gain has led to the growth of the prison industry and the number of incarcerated individuals. These views are often shared by people who fear or condemn excessive use of power by government, particularly when related to law enforcement and military affairs.

‘The Prison Industrial Complex’ is the title of a recorded 1997 speech by social activist Angela Davis, later released as an audio CD and also served as the basis for her book of the same name. Davis also co-founded the prison abolition group, Critical Resistance, which held its first conference in 1998. She wrote an article entitled ‘Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex,’ published in a 1998 issue of ‘ColorLines.’ ‘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,’ Davis says. ‘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.”

A few months later, Eric Schlosser wrote an article published in ‘Atlantic Monthly’ in late 1998 stating that ‘The ‘prison-industrial complex’ 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.’

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”

Public speaker, musician and Green Party activist Jello Biafra talks about the Prison Industrial Complex on several of his spoken word CDs. He charges that it is a form of institutional racism and that most often the black community is the intended target of these prison developments. He compares the modern incarnation of the prison system to ‘The gulag of the red, white, and blue’ and notes the lack of a prisoner’s right to free speech in California where former governor Pete Wilson barred prisoners from talking to the press.

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