What is the prison industrial complex?

A very brief answer to that question would be: the private businesses, corporations and contractors that benefit from the construction, security and maintenance of prisons as a profit generating enterprise. In and of itself, making a profit by providing a service, in whatever form that service manifests, is how capitalism works. When it comes to the private prison industry however, that profit comes at the expense of; not only the tax-paying public that supports the private prison industry, but also the largely minority and poor population that is disproportionally incarcerated when compared to whites. The guards, or correctional officers, of these institutions are typically unable to unionize and generally paid very poorly for the dangerous job they do, ultimately leading to widespread corruption throughout the prison system; from the guards to law enforcement to the judicial system.

In the United States, 1.8 million individuals are behind bars. This is nearly 500,000 more than China, which has a population over quadruple the population of the United States and is largely criticized–deservedly so–for their human rights violations. If you are a black male in the United States, you are six times more likely to be in prison than a white male, and almost three times more likely than a Hispanic male. In 1993, while apartheid still existed in South Africa, the incarceration rate of black men was almost 1/6 what the current incarceration rate of black men in this country is. Not only is this emblematic of broad and systemic racial injustice, it is also the result of a profit-motivated prison system that makes more and more money–at taxpayer expense–when our citizens are locked up; increasingly for non-violent offenses.

The War on Drugs: creating hysteria for profit

One can easily look at the Reagan presidency of the 1980s and the hysteria propagated by the mainstream media over the war on drugs as the number one determining factor in the rise of the prison industrial complex. During 1986, the so-called “crack-epidemic” had hit the streets of America. Even though the majority of crack users were white–a fact that continues to be overlooked by the media–black, urban communities (“inner-city”) were especially hard hit by the influx of organized criminal enterprises, and the violence that came as result, from the large profits to be made by the sudden popularity of a “new” drug that was addictive and therefore profitable for these groups.

The reality is that crack IS cocaine, just in a base form. I won’t go into the specific chemistry, but base cocaine had been used since the early 70s by powdered cocaine users who sought a more immediate high. Around the late 70s/early 80s it became the norm to convert cocaine hydrochloride into base cocaine with baking soda, rather than the more complicated method which involved using chemicals that weren’t readily available. Even during this time, “crack” was used almost entirely by whites. As production and profit continued to grow in Columbia, Peru and Belize, the cartels sought a means to distribute more of their product to a larger consumer base. With the easier method of converting cocaine into its base form, there was now something that could be marketed to the already underprivileged minority communities seeking escape from their endless oppression.

With crack, one could sell it in smaller and therefore cheaper quantities–something that had prevented powdered cocaine from becoming readily available in poor communities. Once this crudely made form of smokable cocaine became prevalent in poor and minority communities, an entire underground entrepreneurial enterprise sprang up immediately. The media had a field day with creating hysteria and perpetuating white America’s fear of “crazy black dope fiends” taking over their safe, insular world. The rise of crack gave law enforcement the manufactured excuse it needed to step up the great American virtue of alienating the black community through ignoring civil rights for the supposed sake of stopping an “epidemic.”

Almost immediately after the death of college basketball star Len Bias, from a supposed overdose of cocaine, the U.S. Congress made the penalties for possession and distribution of base cocaine more than twenty times greater than that of powdered cocaine (cocaine hydrochloride) despite the fact that they were the exact same drug; not to mention Len Bias was supposedly using powdered cocaine when he died. Since the “crack” epidemic was marketed as a black and urban “epidemic,” it stands to reason that the predominantly white congress, backed by Reagan and his “just say no” platitudes, saw this as an opportunity to perpetuate a newer and more family-friendly form of slavery through the exploding rates of incarceration for black men.

The rise of the prison industrial complex

With an exploding number of young black men being incarcerated due to the perception that this was mainly a black criminal enterprise and the outrageously disproportionate sentences for possession and use of base cocaine, the prison industrial complex could now thrive at the expense of generations of black men behind bars. The numbers certainly do not lie:

Since 1991 the rate of violent crime in the United States has fallen by about 20 percent, while the number of people in prison or jail has risen by 50 percent. The prison boom has its own inexorable logic. Steven R. Donziger, a young attorney who headed the National Criminal Justice Commission in 1996, explains the thinking: ‘If  crime is going up, then we need to build more prisons and if crime is going down, it’s because we built more prisons and building even more prisons will therefore drive crime down even lower. (The Talking Drum)

These numbers are inherently the results of expanding the scope of the so-called “war on drugs” which, rather than actually stopping the flow or the use of illegal drugs, actually pumps more money into propagating and expanding the prison industrial system.

The use of private prisons is not new in this country, yet represented a fairly insignificant portion of prisons until the 1980s when the boom in incarcerations for longer drug sentences led to over-crowding in state run institutions, ultimately leading to the need for more prisons in general. Most politicians love to use the “tough on crime” rhetoric. Rather than the rational and logical approach of giving non-violent drug offenders treatment rather than confinement, our government contracts private businesses to build and maintain prisons, at a much higher cost to tax payers than actual treatment and education for non-violent offenders.

Prisons in the United States used to be institutions of actual reform and rehabilitation. Men who entered a prison, would often learn a trade and have a usable skill to earn a legitimate living upon release. The recidivism rates have sharply increased as job and education programs within prisons–especially private prisons–have steadily declined. This is not to say that skills are not acquired in these private prisons, quite the contrary. In many of these private prisons, inmates are contracted as telemarketers, among other things, for many large corporations. These prisoners can earn as much as 75 cents an hour for their job–sometimes under 40 cents. What’s the payoff one might ask? For one, corporations get very cheap–third world cheap–labor that cannot unionize, cannot call in sick and cannot complain without fear of time added to their sentence or retaliation from guards who overworked and underpaid themselves, and risk losing their livelihood if an “uppity” prisoner refuses their indentured corporate servitude.

These private prisons not only exploit the prisoners and the taxpayers who pay for their operational expenses; they also exploit the employees of these prisons as well, especially the guards who are expected maintain order in deplorable conditions for a human being, all while barely making a survivable wage. This leads to a myriad of institutional and systemic corruption. Why wouldn’t a guard take a few hundred bucks to look the other way? These private prisons operate mainly in the Southern and Western US; states that have poor union representation compared to the country as a whole. Not to say that all prisons are non union. In fact, the California Correctional Peace Officer’s Association (CCPOA) makes sure their members in California’s prisons are paid well–which is a good thing. However, the CCPOA has spent millions of dollars lobbying California’s law makers to make sure that the drug laws remain cruel and unusual in order to maintain their jobs. This is one of the few instances where I stand against a labor union. What they are successfully lobbying for will ensure that the poor and the minority population of California will continue to be incarcerated and exploited.

Where does it end?

While private prisons are a major component of the prison industrial complex, they only make up less than 10% of the prisons in the country. This will continue to increase in the future as long as we continue to incarcerate such a large proportion of our citizens for non-violent crime. State-controlled prisons are a part of the problem as well. They too allow their inmates to work at slave-wages for corporations who pay the state for the cheap labor which politicians claim offsets the cost of funding the ever-growing prison population. Yet they give these same corporations enormous tax breaks for providing jobs so that the state doesn’t need to worry about rehabilitation. It’s indeed a vicious cycle as these inmates receive no skills other than telemarketing and various other low-skill/low-wage jobs that do not even exist outside of prison because they can do the same job in India (among other countries) for a fraction of what we Americans consider a working wage.

If we continue to allow such a disproportionate number of poor and minority citizens to be locked up, released without rehabilitation, and locked up again, modern slavery will continue to thrive. Corporations will continue to exploit and use men and women who are guilty of non-violent and largely drug-related crimes to further their profits which will further their control and influence over our democracy. The media uses fear, racism and hysteria to make us think that we are overrun with crime and dangerous criminals despite the evidence to the contrary. If we buy into this lie, then we have accepted that it is alright for so many of our fellow citizens and fellow human beings to be put in a cage and forced to work for nothing other than food and shelter. We are supporting a modern form of slavery if we continue down this path and do not, at the very least, lessen the punishment for drug offenses, do away with “three strike” laws and offer education and rehabilitation as an alternative.


Below is a link to a recent segment on Democracy Now! discussing a recent case in Pennsylvania of two judges taking millions of dollars in bribes for imposing harsh sentences on Juveniles to fill up a newly constructed private juvenile detention center:

Penn. Judges Get Kickbacks for Placing Youths in Privately Owned Jails.