Prison-Industrial Complex

Playing Politics with Our Freedom: Race, Socio-Economics and the Prison Industrial Complex

Dan Makela, December 2014

In the short article that follows, I will expose the system of laws, policies, sentencing statutes, and prison labor conditions in the United States that are commonly known as the prison industrial complex. These practices when taken in their entirety, unfairly target African-Americans, Latinos, and the very poorest and marginalized of our citizens. The importance of the prison industrial complex in terms of American citizenship is that it creates an atmosphere in which a large segment of our citizenry are systematically targeted for the disenfranchisement of their civil rights. There has been a rapid upsurge in the number of prisons being built in the United States and an even more startling upsurge in incarceration rates, especially amongst African-Americans and Latinos. With prisons being built faster than they can be filled, it is fair for most of us to draw the conclusion that criminality is on the rise due to the recession and the ever growing economic and educational disparity between whites and minorities. This short article proposes that there is a financial gain in keeping the most marginalized of our citizens in poverty with no foreseeable means to climb the economic and social ladder. The article will also show that incarceration rates and prison building are extremely profitable and in the best interest of politicians and the private sector. An ever-growing segment of our citizenry find themselves behind bars, stripped of their place in the political process. This short article is meant to shed light on those of us who have had their rights as citizens fundamentally denied to serve the economic gain of others.

There are startling disparities in the number of minorities who are incarcerated and the number of “White-Americans” who are incarcerated. Before I delve into the numbers it would be helpful to explain the plight of minorities who live in racially segregated neighborhoods, and feel that a police force that is designated to protect and serve them is actually violating their community’s civil rights. There are police procedures, nationwide that many have scrutinized for being overzealous and possibly racist. Andres Garcia alludes to one such policy in New York known as “stop and Frisk”. Since the implementation of “stop and frisk”, the crime rate in NYC has seen a marked decrease, however community activists and residents see the “stop and frisk” policy as discriminatory, as its implementation is mostly in minority neighborhoods. Under “stop and frisk”. Police can stop and pat down any person they suspect of committing an unlawful act. Unfortunately most of the people that they “jump out” on are law abiding citizens. Activists decry these measures as a violation of the civil rights of neighborhood residents and proclaim that these instances would never occur in a “White” neighborhood. The NYC police department has what it calls “impact zones”, Officers feel pressured to bring in arrests and boost stats in these “impact zones”. Garcia eludes to the fact that the New York City branch of the ACLU accused the NYPD of “building a massive database of black and brown New Yorkers, since the overwhelming majority of those stopped are innocent.” [1]

While procedures like “stop and frisk” are a major concern for citizens in our nation’s urban areas, they are only a police procedure. What happens when young minority men and women go in front of a judge is an even more disturbing concern. There is no question that the sale and use of illegal narcotics has been an epidemic of unprecedented proportions. There is certainly a need to have effective strategies for combating the illicit drug trade, however many of our nation’s drug laws have in their design and implementation, unfairly targeted minorities. One such law that has served to rip many families apart and impose ridiculously high mandatory minimum sentences for petty drug offenses is the Rockefeller drug laws. These drug laws have been on the books in New York State since 1973, and are named after then governor Nelson Rockefeller. Studies done by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse in 2000 show just how unjust these laws are. This study’s findings showed that white college students used cocaine at a rate seven times that of black students and that they used crack-cocaine at eight times the rate of black students. The study also reflects that whites between the ages of twelve and seventeen were more than a third more likely to have sold drugs than their white counterparts. Despite these findings, the rates of incarceration for young African-Americans were staggeringly disproportionate. “In the 1980’s alone, African-Americans share of drug crimes jumped from 26.9% to 46.0%, and arrested black juveniles were 37% more likely to be transferred to adult courts, where they faced tougher sanctions.” [2]

With the combination of street level initiatives like “stop and frisk” and sentencing guidelines like the Rockefeller drug laws, a climate in policing and the judiciary has been established that through either a well-orchestrated plan or simply coincidence has served to effectively target, convict, and imprison minorities at a level much higher than “whites”. With the aggressive tactics of local police forces, and the heavy handed sentencing of both federal and municipal court judges, a cottage-industry has emerged which is reaping vast profits off of the incarceration of American citizens. This industry is the privatization of the prison system. This trend towards privatization has emerged in recent years, with proponents arguing that the private sector can run things more effectively than the federal government. This may certainly be a plausible argument, but at what stakes to the freedom of American citizens?

Private prisons are able to operate basically free of the heavy government oversight that is given to the federally or locally run prisons. Because of this the privatized prisons can afford to hire guards that are not unionized and in-turn can pay them substantially less. This leads to violent crime rates that are much higher in privatized prisons. It is not only the companies that own these prisons that see substantial financial returns, but also a host of private companies that oversee every aspect of the facility, from kitchen services to transportation, and even probation services. This, not only hurts inmates who have no say in the status of their imprisonment, but the tax-paying citizen as well. In a governmentally run prison, most of the income made from prisoner labor is kept by the government and funneled back into the economy. When private corporations run the prison system, a much higher percentage of the profits go into their pockets. What makes all of this the most startling is that essential services in privatized prisons are of a far lower quality than in “regular prisons” Jeff Sinden had this to say in volume 7 of the Human Rights Tribune (2000). “Accredited facilities (private prisons) have been and are among the worst in the nation, It is clear that as of yet there are no adequate solutions to the problem of corporate accountability” [3]. Not only are prisoners in privatized prisons privy to inferior services, they are made to have their labor exploited for the gain of fortune 500 companies, and also the federal government itself.

With the rate of the private prison population almost tripling in recent years and the growing disproportionate numbers of Black and Hispanic inmates it is easy for many to liken prison labor to that of a slave economy. It is true that inmates are paid mere pennies for the work that they do, but when an ever-growing number of these inmates are people of color and they are forced to work in sub-standard conditions, the charges of “slave labor” are not that unfounded. What makes this drastically eye-opening is the fact that many of these inmates make parts that are used for the defense department. According to Sara Flounders of International Action Center and Global Research “ Labor in federal prisons is contracted out by UNICOR, previously known as Federal Prison industries, a quasi-public, for-profit corporation run by the bureau of prisons”[4]. Most of these workers are paid slave rates of as little as 23 cents per day. In these prisons we have citizens who are making products for use by the U.S. military and are being paid slave rates to do so, yet they are stripped of their right to vote and participate in the political process. They are forced to take part in American conflicts abroad, by making these weapons components with no regards to their opinion on the actions of the U.S. military.

It is quite telling that in the United States Census the inmate population is counted as residents even though they have had all rights of citizenship taken away from them. Inmates in correctional institutions are denied the right to vote in all but two of the fifty states, yet they are counted as voters for the purpose of drawing up congressional districts. While many, including myself would argue that this is a good thing because it puts more tax dollars into the beleaguered urban areas that many of these prisoners come from, it still borders on being deceitful and fraudulent. It really boils down to prisoners not having say in how their services and fundamental existence are benefiting others at no benefit to themselves. Michael Welch, writing for Social Justice, alerts us to a few important statistics that help to verify this claim. “In Gatesville, Texas, a city of 15,600, half the population is housed in six state prisons. With a population of 247,000, Marin County, California, is a prime beneficiary of the practice of counting prisoners as residents since it includes in its census 6,000 “residents” inside San Quentin Prison” [5].

All of the items mentioned in this short essay when taken individually can be defended for a number of reasons. Indeed many look at increased vigilance amongst police departments as a social good and harsher sentences as an effective deterrent to the upsurge of criminal behavior that our society has witnessed in recent years. Still others will defend “for profit prisons” and prison labor as economically beneficial and a relief to the tax-payer, however taken in their entirety one can propose the argument that they are indeed all interchangeable parts to a systematic puzzle of disenfranchisement and discrimination. As a nation we should begin to rethink some of these policies and understand the negative impact that they have on citizenship, not only for those who are incarcerated, but for all Americans.


[1] Garcia, Andres, “Stop-and-frisk; The Policing Of Latinos In New York,” NACLA Report on the Americas 46, no. 4 (2013): 37-38
[2] Thompson, Heather Ann, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and transformation in Postwar American History,” The Journal of American History 97, no. 3 (2010): 703-734.
[3] Sinden, Jeff, “ Capitalist Punishment: Prison Privatization in the United States,” Human Rights Tribune 7, no. 2&3 (2000): 15-16.
[4] Flounders, Sara, “The Pentagon and Slave labor in U.S. Prisons,” (Global research, February 04, 213) (accessed October 26, 2014).
[5] Welch, Michael; Turner, Fatiniyah, “Private Corrections, Financial Infrastructure, and Transportation: The New Geo-Economy of Shipping Prisoners,” Social Justice 34, no. 3&4 (2007): 56-57.

Further reading

Abu-Jamal, Mumia. 2000. “The industry of fear.” Social Justice Volume 27 Issue 3 22-24.
Bennett, Mark W. 2012. “How Mandatory Minimums Forced Me to Send More Than 1,000 Nonviolent Drug Offenders to Federal Prison .” The Nation. October 24. Accessed October 26, 2014.
Coyle, Andrew, Allison Campbell, and Rodney Neufeld. 2003. Capitalist Punishment Prison Privatization & Human Rights. Atlanta: Clarity Press, Inc.
NAACP. 2009. “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.” Accessed November 4, 2014.

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