[Marxism] Angela Davis on American Prison Industrial Complex

Calvin Broadbent calvinbroadbent at hotmail.com
Tue Aug 2 05:05:06 MDT 2005


Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex

By Angela Y. Davis

Imprisonment has become the response of first resort to far too many of the 
social problems that burden people who are ensconced in poverty. These 
problems often are veiled by being conveniently grouped together under the 
category "crime" and by the automatic attribution of criminal behavior to 
people of color. 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.
Prisons thus perform a feat of magic. Or rather the people who continually 
vote in new prison bonds and tacitly assent to a proliferating network of 
prisons and jails have been tricked into believing in the magic of 
imprisonment. But prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human 
beings. And the practice of disappearing vast numbers of people from poor, 
immigrant, and racially marginalized communities has literally become big 

The seeming effortlessness of magic always conceals an enormous amount of 
behind-the-scenes work. When prisons disappear human beings in order to 
convey the illusion of solving social problems, penal infrastructures must 
be created to accommodate a rapidly swelling population of caged people. 
Goods and services must be provided to keep imprisoned populations alive. 
Sometimes these populations must be kept busy and at other times -- 
particularly in repressive super-maximum prisons and in INS detention 
centers -- they must be deprived of virtually all meaningful activity. Vast 
numbers of handcuffed and shackled people are moved across state borders as 
they are transferred from one state or federal prison to another.

All this work, which used to be the primary province of government, is now 
also performed by private corporations, whose links to government in the 
field of what is euphemistically called "corrections" resonate dangerously 
with the military industrial complex. The dividends that accrue from 
investment in the punishment industry, like those that accrue from 
investment in weapons production, only amount to social destruction. Taking 
into account the structural similarities and profitability 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."

The Color of Imprisonment

Almost two million people are currently locked up in the immense network of 
U.S. prisons and jails. More than 70 percent of the imprisoned population 
are people of color. It is rarely acknowledged that the fastest growing 
group of prisoners are black women and that Native American prisoners are 
the largest group per capita. Approximately five million people -- including 
those on probation and parole -- are directly under the surveillance of the 
criminal justice system.

Three decades ago, the imprisoned population was approximately one-eighth 
its current size. While women still constitute a relatively small percentage 
of people behind bars, today the number of incarcerated women in California 
alone is almost twice what the nationwide women's prison population was in 
1970. According to Elliott Currie, "[t]he prison has become a looming 
presence in our society to an extent unparalleled in our history -- or that 
of any other industrial democracy. Short of major wars, mass incarceration 
has been the most thoroughly implemented government social program of our 

To deliver up bodies destined for profitable punishment, the political 
economy of prisons relies on racialized assumptions of criminality -- such 
as images of black welfare mothers reproducing criminal children -- and on 
racist practices in arrest, conviction, and sentencing patterns. Colored 
bodies constitute the main human raw material in this vast experiment to 
disappear the major social problems of our time. Once the aura of magic is 
stripped away from the imprisonment solution, what is revealed is racism, 
class bias, and the parasitic seduction of capitalist profit. 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.

As prisons take up more and more space on the social landscape, other 
government programs that have previously sought to respond to social needs 
-- such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families -- are being squeezed out 
of existence. The deterioration of public education, including prioritizing 
discipline and security over learning in public schools located in poor 
communities, is directly related to the prison "solution."

Profiting from Prisoners

As prisons proliferate in U.S. society, private capital has become enmeshed 
in the punishment industry. And precisely because of their profit potential, 
prisons are becoming increasingly important to the U.S. economy. If the 
notion of punishment as a source of potentially stupendous profits is 
disturbing by itself, then the strategic dependence on racist structures and 
ideologies to render mass punishment palatable and profitable is even more 

Prison privatization is the most obvious instance of capital's current 
movement toward the prison industry. While government-run prisons are often 
in gross violation of international human rights standards, private prisons 
are even less accountable. In March of this year, the Corrections 
Corporation of America (CCA), the largest U.S. private prison company, 
claimed 54,944 beds in 68 facilities under contract or development in the 
U.S., Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Following the global 
trend of subjecting more women to public punishment, CCA recently opened a 
women's prison outside Melbourne. The company recently identified California 
as its "new frontier."

Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (WCC), the second largest U.S. prison 
company, claimed contracts and awards to manage 46 facilities in North 
America, U.K., and Australia. It boasts a total of 30,424 beds as well as 
contracts for prisoner health care services, transportation, and security.

Currently, the stocks of both CCA and WCC are doing extremely well. Between 
1996 and 1997, CCA's revenues increased by 58 percent, from $293 million to 
$462 million. Its net profit grew from $30.9 million to $53.9 million. WCC 
raised its revenues from $138 million in 1996 to $210 million in 1997. 
Unlike public correctional facilities, the vast profits of these private 
facilities rely on the employment of non-union labor.

The Prison Industrial Complex

But private prison companies are only the most visible component of the 
increasing corporatization of punishment. Government contracts to build 
prisons have bolstered the construction industry. The architectural 
community has identified prison design as a major new niche. Technology 
developed for the military by companies like Westinghouse are being marketed 
for use in law enforcement and punishment.

Moreover, corporations that appear to be far removed from the business of 
punishment are intimately involved in the expansion of the prison industrial 
complex. Prison construction bonds are one of the many sources of profitable 
investment for leading financiers such as Merrill Lynch. MCI charges 
prisoners and their families outrageous prices for the precious telephone 
calls which are often the only contact prisoners have with the free world.

Many corporations whose products we consume on a daily basis have learned 
that prison labor power can be as profitable as third world labor power 
exploited by U.S.-based global corporations. Both relegate formerly 
unionized workers to joblessness and many even wind up in prison. Some of 
the companies that use prison labor are IBM, Motorola, Compaq, Texas 
Instruments, Honeywell, Microsoft, and Boeing. But it is not only the 
hi-tech industries that reap the profits of prison labor. Nordstrom 
department stores sell jeans that are marketed as "Prison Blues," as well as 
t-shirts and jackets made in Oregon prisons. The advertising slogan for 
these clothes is "made on the inside to be worn on the outside." Maryland 
prisoners inspect glass bottles and jars used by Revlon and Pierre Cardin, 
and schools throughout the world buy graduation caps and gowns made by South 
Carolina prisoners.

"For private business," write Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans (a political 
prisoner inside the Federal Correctional Institution at Dublin, California) 
"prison labor is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No 
health benefits, unemployment insurance, or workers' compensation to pay. No 
language barriers, as in foreign countries. New leviathan prisons are being 
built on thousands of eerie acres of factories inside the walls. Prisoners 
do data entry for Chevron, make telephone reservations for TWA, raise hogs, 
shovel manure, make circuit boards, limousines, waterbeds, and lingerie for 
Victoria's Secret -- all at a fraction of the cost of 'free labor.'"

Devouring the Social Wealth

Although prison labor -- which ultimately is compensated at a rate far below 
the minimum wage -- is hugely profitable for the private companies that use 
it, the penal system as a whole does not produce wealth. It devours the 
social wealth that could be used to subsidize housing for the homeless, to 
ameliorate public education for poor and racially marginalized communities, 
to open free drug rehabilitation programs for people who wish to kick their 
habits, to create a national health care system, to expand programs to 
combat HIV, to eradicate domestic abuse -- and, in the process, to create 
well-paying jobs for the unemployed.

Since 1984 more than twenty new prisons have opened in California, while 
only one new campus was added to the California State University system and 
none to the University of California system. In 1996-97, higher education 
received only 8.7 percent of the State's General Fund while corrections 
received 9.6 percent. Now that affirmative action has been declared illegal 
in California, it is obvious that education is increasingly reserved for 
certain people, while prisons are reserved for others. Five times as many 
black men are presently in prison as in four year colleges and universities. 
This new segregation has dangerous implications for the entire country.

By segregating people labeled as criminals, prison simultaneously fortifies 
and conceals the structural racism of the U.S. economy. Claims of low 
unemployment rates -- even in black communities -- make sense only if one 
assumes that the vast numbers of people in prison have really disappeared 
and thus have no legitimate claims to jobs. The numbers of black and Latino 
men currently incarcerated amount to two percent of the male labor force. 
According to criminologist David Downes, "[t]reating incarceration as a type 
of hidden unemployment may raise the jobless rate for men by about 
one-third, to 8 percent. The effect on the black labor force is greater 
still, raising the [black] male unemployment rate from 11 percent to 19 

Hidden Agenda

Mass incarceration is not a solution to unemployment, nor is it a solution 
to the vast array of social problems that are hidden away in a rapidly 
growing network of prisons and jails. However, the great majority of people 
have been tricked into believing in the efficacy of imprisonment, even 
though the historical record clearly demonstrates that prisons do not work. 
Racism has undermined our ability to create a popular critical discourse to 
contest the ideological trickery that posits imprisonment as key to public 
safety. The focus of state policy is rapidly shifting from social welfare to 
social control.

Black, Latino, Native American, and many Asian youth are portrayed as the 
purveyors of violence, traffickers of drugs, and as envious of commodities 
that they have no right to possess. Young black and Latina women are 
represented as sexually promiscuous and as indiscriminately propagating 
babies and poverty. Criminality and deviance are racialized. Surveillance is 
thus focused on communities of color, immigrants, the unemployed, the 
undereducated, the homeless, and in general on those who have a diminishing 
claim to social resources. Their claim to social resources continues to 
diminish in large part because law enforcement and penal measures 
increasingly devour these resources. The prison industrial complex has thus 
created a vicious cycle of punishment which only further impoverishes those 
whose impoverishment is supposedly "solved" by imprisonment.

Therefore, as the emphasis of government policy shifts from social welfare 
to crime control, racism sinks more deeply into the economic and ideological 
structures of U.S. society. Meanwhile, conservative crusaders against 
affirmative action and bilingual education proclaim the end of racism, while 
their opponents suggest that racism's remnants can be dispelled through 
dialogue and conversation. But conversations about "race relations" will 
hardly dismantle a prison industrial complex that thrives on and nourishes 
the racism hidden within the deep structures of our society.

The emergence of a U.S. prison industrial complex within a context of 
cascading conservatism marks a new historical moment, whose dangers are 
unprecedented. But so are its opportunities. Considering the impressive 
number of grassroots projects that continue to resist the expansion of the 
punishment industry, it ought to be possible to bring these efforts together 
to create radical and nationally visible movements that can legitimize 
anti-capitalist critiques of the prison industrial complex. It ought to be 
possible to build movements in defense of prisoners' human rights and 
movements that persuasively argue that what we need is not new prisons, but 
new health care, housing, education, drug programs, jobs, and education. To 
safeguard a democratic future, it is possible and necessary to weave 
together the many and increasing strands of resistance to the prison 
industrial complex into a powerful movement for social transformation.

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