Musings on the Prison Industrial Complex: Lawlessness & Disorder

“The ultimate expression of law is not order — it’s prison. There are hundreds upon hundreds of prisons, and thousands upon thousands of laws, yet there is no social order, no social justice. Anglo-Saxon bourgeois law is tied firmly into economics. Bourgeois law protects property relations and not social relationships. The cultural traits of capitalist society that also tend to check activity (individualism, artificial politeness juxtaposed to an aloof rudeness, the rush to learn how-to instead of what-is) are secondary really, and intended for those mild cases and groups that require preventative measures only. The law and everything that interlocks with it was constructed for poor, desperate people like me.”

George L. Jackson, Blood In My Eye (Black Classic Press, 1972)

I just thought about the fact that the US is the most heavily armed nation on earth, and the protests that followed austerity measures in Europe. Can you imagine what the austerity protests in Athens & the riots in Tottenham would look like if they happened in the US? The very real possibility of violent protests and riots in the US- is stoked further by income inequality. (I covered this well in my previous blogpost entitled “Hunger, Unemployment and Socio-economic Inequality in the “Greatest Nation on Earth.”)

In the 1950s and 1960s, non-violent protest was a strategy used by moderate & leftist activists. Further left, we saw armed self-defence. Mind you, in the 1950s and 60s, state violence & coercion of civil rights activists was open- manifesting in the form of dogs, bombs, high-powered waterhoses, mass imprisonment, etc. Around this time, we also see the fortification of the #PrisonIndustrialComplex in the US- to house political/social dissidents. Dare I say that state violence & coercion against US citizens has become both more embedded and more common in the US in the last 30 years? We see more and more TV shows sympathizing w/ police officers- even the vigilantes. I was watching a show where the policeman beat a prisoner to death, and I was supposed to empathize w/ the killer, and it hit me like a Mack truck- “This is a police state.”

Then there’s the fact that the the US gov’t introduces a new boogyman every few decades to distract us from domestic terrorism.

“Red Scare” “Cold War” –> “War on Poverty” —> “War on Drugs” —> “War on Terror”

The US is a nation ruled by fear. The dominant historical narrative never tells you that the the “Cold War” entailed the criminalization of political dissent, while targeting entire groups of people. For example, during the Cold War, African-Americans were looked upon with suspicion by the United States government- a suspicion that readily explains the the firebombing of Black neighborhoods in Tulsa in 1921 and the bombing of Black liberation movement MOVE in Philly in 1981. Basically, the idea of self-determination and political consciousness among Blacks in America was a grave threat to the status quo.:

“The Black community was deemed disaffected and unpatriotic in spite of the 40.000 who served in World War 1, and the 2.5 million Blacks who registered in the draft, and the 909.000 who served in the armed forces in World War II.  In a sense, they were disaffected- as a marginalized, disenfranchised, and persecuted minority relegated to second- class citizenship, African- Americans possessed a level of consciousness that threatened challenges to the status quo. But they were not disaffected in the way that government officials such as Attorney Gen. Palmer assumed. The Negro was not “seeing Red,” nor were they susceptible to the influences of Communism and Socialism.  Rather, the African- American was engaging in a global struggle for equality and self- determination.”

(excerpted from my blogpost entitled “Double-Consciousness & Internationalism: An Excerpt From my Thesis”)

Also, the “War on Poverty” criminalized the poor. The “War on Drugs” criminalized the poor & brown. The “War on Terror” criminalized POC- esp, Sikhs & Muslims. Never mind that according to the National Safety Council estimates that someone living in the United States is EIGHT times more likely to be killed by a cop than a terrorist.

All the while, the Prison Industrial Complex nets BILLIONS in profit incarcerating POC, poor people & political dissidents.  And now this undeclared war on immigrants- documented or not- is swelling the ranks of the Prison Industrial Complex. In Arizona, prisons are actually charging prisoners’ friends and family $25 for the privilege of visiting their loved ones. In Alabama, the first arrest made under the draconian H.B. 56, the most stringent anti-immigration law in the US, was a legal, documented immigrant who didn’t have their green card on their person at the time.

Profit and the Deprivation of Human Rights in Prisons:

Private prisons owned by the CCA (Corrections Corporation of America), The Geo Group and Management and Training corporations profit about $5 Billion annually from the incarceration of Blacks, undocumented workers and women- the 3 fastest growing demographics among prison populations. Annually, they spend about $20 million lobbying state legislators for stringent anti-immigration bills in order to increase immigrant prison populations, thus profit. (excerpted from “Hunger, Unemployment and Socio-economic Inequality in the “Greatest Nation on Earth.”)

I was talking with a friend in Germany, getting an outsider’s perspective on what’s happening in the US- very interesting talk. He said that the grave violations of human rights in the US’ prisons, both domestic & overseas will continue as long as they are profitable. Torture, deprivation of basic healthcare, deprivation of food & water, rape- all of these violations of human rights happen in the US Prison Industrial Complex. Shortly afterward, I read about prison guards retaliating at prisoners who were engaging in a peaceful hunger strike for basic amenities and access to books.

As I raise awareness about rape in prisons, I have to combat the idea that rape victims in prison “deserved” it. Basically, the idea is that if someone broke a law, they no longer deserved the protections of the law. Poor logic. But this is reified in TV & movies- rape in prison is portrayed as par for the course- even used as a “deterrent.” Jokes about rape in prison are based upon a foundation of societal constructs- heterosexuality, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia. These “jokes” about rape in prison make light of real injustices & consciously call upon many -isms. Even TV shows like Beyond Scared Straight are based upon a tacit acceptance of 1) the Prison Industrial Complex 2) rape culture 3) trans/homophobia.

The Prison Industrial Complex & Slave Labor:

Then there’s the little detail- the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution did not abolish slavery- it merely qualified it. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, *except* as a punishment for crime…” This laid the foundation for the various iterations of the convict-lease system in the United States. Before arguing that prisoners give up their right to be free citizens, consider- POC & poor ppl are criminalized. What happened after the ratification of the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution was the continued arbitrary policing of POC, who were disproportionately jailed & exploited as un(der)paid labor through the convict-lease system. Today, most prisoner-laborers in the US earn about $0.19/hour for backbreaking labor- displacing free workers. Think about it in terms of profit- why pay living wages to free workers when you can exploit cheap prison labor?

The “justice” system is not “broken”- rather it works for its architects. Even today, the corporations behind the Prison Industrial Complex are funding & lobbying for anti-immigration laws that criminalize POC. They aren’t building these prisons to preserve “law & order.” Rather, they are preserving their bottomline. Prisons in Arizona made a killing from the passage & enforcement of SC 1070. Same for the copycat bills elsewhere. Do the math. Follow the money. Who profits from this codified xenophobia, racism & classism?

Facts About the Prison Industrial Complex in the US:

-The US has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners, making it the most heavily-incarcerated nation on earth.

-336 of every 100,000 of the world’s incarcerated youth is locked away in a U.S. prison facility. That’s nearly five times the rate of the next country on list, which is South Africa.

-Racial composition of death row inmates:

  • 44% White (63.7% of the US population)
  • 42% Black (12.2% of US the population)
  • 12% Hispanic (16.3% of the US population)
  • 2% “other” (7.8% of the population)
-More than 70 percent of the imprisoned population are people of color.
-After the “War on Drugs” was declared in the 1980s, The rate of conviction for convicted abusers of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine was 10-1, and most of those convicted were African-American.

“Most drug offenders are white. Five times as many whites use drugs as blacks. Yet blacks comprise the great majority of drug offenders sent to prison. The solution to this racial inequity is not to incarcerate more whites, but to reduce the use of prison for low-level drug offenders and to increase the availability of substance abuse treatment.”

Source: Human Rights Watch, “Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs” (Washington, DC: Human Rights Watch, 2000)

”Because of their extraordinary rate of incarceration, one in every 20 black men over the age of 18 is in a state or federal prison, compared to one in every 180 whites.” In five states, between one in 13 and one in 14 black men are in prison.”

Source: Human Rights Watch, “Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs” (Washington, DC: Human Rights Watch, 2000).

-“When incarceration rates by State (excluding Federal inmates) are estimated separately by gender, race, and Hispanic origin, male rates are found to be 10 times higher than female rates; black rates 5-1/2 times higher than white rates; and Hispanic rates nearly 2 times higher than white rates.” Source: Harrison, Paige M., & Beck, Allen J., PhD, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2005 (Washington, DC: US Dept. of Justice, May 2006) (NCJ213133), p. 10.

“In 2001, the chances of going to prison were highest among black males (32.2%) and Hispanic males (17.2%) and lowest among white males (5.9%). The lifetime chances of going to prison among black females (5.6%) were nearly as high as for white males. Hispanic females (2.2%) and white females (0.9%) had much lower chances of going to prison.”

Source: Bonczar, Thomas P., US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Prevalence of Imprisonment in the US Population, 1974-2001,” NCJ197976 (Washington DC: US Department of Justice, August 2003), p. 8

Related Reading:

-Prof. Angela Y. Davis’ piece at ColorLines: “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industial Complex

-Angela Y. Davis’ books:

  1. The Prison Industrial Complex
  2. Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture
  3. Are Prisons Obsolete?

-My blogpost: “What Does Justice Look Like in the US?: A Few Scattered Thoughts”
-addresses the history of extralegal “justice”, racial disparities in death penalty/sentencing, and racial discrimination in jury selection

-Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


  1. I have been following closely your thoughts on this subject closely on Twitter. I found this to be highly informative, but so disturbing that our nation/world feels no sense of urgency to address the multiple injustices and flat out corrupt practices within the prison system. A line that stood out to me was: “the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution did not abolish slavery- it merely qualified it.”, I had never thought about it in that way.

    1. It does disturb me that there is so little urgency to address the injustices of the prison industrial complex- but it is not surprising, given our acclimation to today’s police state.

      It rocked my world when I learned that the 13th Amendment did not abolish slavery. I am an anti-trafficking/slavery activist (in the works), and when I read this, I was taken aback.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s