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Profits from Poverty: The Prison-Industrial Complex

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Profiting from Poverty:
The U.S. Prison-Industrial Complex

by David Mericle
art/Eric Spitler

In recent decades, the United States prison system has evolved into an enormous repressive infrastructure that reflects the needs of American capitalism, not the realities of crime. Prison spending, like military expenditures, contributes nothing to society except misery and hatred, yet the two waste hundreds of billions of tax dollars every year because both serve the political and economic interests of capitalism. Fueled by racist right-wing politicians in both parties and the economic interests of some of the largest corporations in the United States, the prison-industrial complex will continue to expand well into the future.

The United States now incarcerates over two million people and has more than four million on probation or parole. According to the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, in the 1980s and 1990s, the size of the correctional population increased from 1.8 million to 6.3 million. This explosion in imprisonment is not typical -- the United States now has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world -- nor is it a response to a boom in crime. In these same two decades, the proportion of new prisoners in state prisons who had been convicted of violent crimes fell from one-half to one-fourth and the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses increased by 1,000%, according to a New York Times article headlined "As crime rate falls, number of inmates rises."

Mass imprisonment requires not only the criminalization of acts that would not traditionally result in prison sentences, but also the incarceration of people who would not typically be sent to prison such as the mentally ill, who represent 6-14% of the U.S. prison population. The United States imprisons primarily the poor and uneducated -- 70% of U.S. prison inmates are illiterate -- and adds a particularly ugly racist element. In 1995, a black man growing up in Los Angeles was twice as likely to end up in prison as in college. If he has 14 friends, the odds are that one is currently incarcerated. If he has three brothers, the odds are that one of the siblings will go to prison during his life. Part of the explanation of why black men in the U.S. are more likely to be incarcerated is that, according to a 1998 American Psychologist article, "blacks constitute 13 percent of illegal drug users yet receive 55 percent of the convictions and serve 75 percent of the prison time."

The correctional system serves to correct about as much as the Defense Department serves to defend. In fact, much as massive military expenditures induced military expansion abroad and in the process probably hurt U.S. security, the rapid escalation of imprisonment to a level unrelated to crime is actually counterproductive because it exposes millions to prisons that the Vera Institute of Justice calls "factories for crime." Consequently, justifications for mass incarceration rely much less on anti-crime arguments than on hatred and fear, mainly white racism against blacks.

Those responsible for the growth of the prison-industrial complex do not take the arguments of their apologists seriously -- Minnesota's Assistant Commissioner of Corrections Dan O'Brien admitted during a telephone interview with Criminal Justice Research Associates, "There is no evidence of a relationship between the incarceration rate and violent crime. We're in the business of tricking people into thinking that spending hundreds of millions for new prisons will make them safe." A rational discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of mass imprisonment is irrelevant because the prison-industrial complex is above reason. It does not exist because those in positions of power believe in it; it exists because it serves the interests of the ruling class and it will survive as long as this class interest remains.

The growth of the prison-industrial complex can be attributed to the widespread support among the ruling class and the right-wing political establishment for its repressive value and the revenues that massive prison expenditures generate for many large American corporations. Like military expenditures, prison-spending converts public tax money into unusually high private profits. Among the beneficiaries of the prison-industrial complex are dozens of private prison firms such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), Wackenhut Corrections Corporation; large construction and architecture companies; companies that provide prisoners with food, health care, job training, transportation, phone calls, and other services; consultants like bed-brokers; firms that use or have used prison labor such as Microsoft, IBM, Motorola, Compaq, Texas Instruments, Boeing, Honeywell, Revlon, Chevron, and TWA; leading investment banks like Merrill Lynch, Prudential Securities, Smith Barney Shearson, and Goldman Sachs; and companies such as Westinghouse Electric, 3M, GDE Systems Inc., and Alliant Techsystems Inc. that supply a wide range of goods ranging from guard and crime-fighting equipment to fences to prison cells. The result is that a vast network of US companies has a vested interest in maintaining and increasing prison spending, whether or not it is necessary and desirable. Added to this are rural towns and prison guards to whom American capitalism offers no economic alternative to the prison industry.

With momentum building for prison privatization, the economic advantages of the prison-industrial complex are rising for American capitalists. Although a U.S. General Accounting Office report found that "comparisons of operational costs indicated little difference and/or mixed results," propagandists for private prisons proclaim them more efficient than public prisons. Efficiency in this case means that non-union prison guards are paid minimal wages while private prison shareholders, lobbyists, and executives make hundreds of thousands of dollars, all of it taxpayers' money. The widespread support for privatization among Democrats and Republicans has resulted in a boom in the private prison population to over 120,000 and, according to a 1998 ABC News report, made private prisons a $30-$40 billion industry with companies now building large prisons purely on speculation. A CCA executive was confident enough to say, "If you build [prisons] in the right place, the prisoners will come.'

Writing on the military-industrial complex in the Monthly Review in 1966, Paul Sweezy and Paul Baran explained what differentiated it from other forms of government spending:

"Whereas massive government spending for education and welfare tends to undermine [the oligarchy's] privileged position, the opposite is true of military spending. The reason is that militarization fosters all the reactionary and irrational forces in society, and inhibits or kills everything progressive and humane. Blind respect is engendered for authority; attitudes of docility and conformity are taught and enforced; dissent is treated as unpatriotic or even treasonable."

Precisely the same is true of the prison-industrial complex. Prison spending goes to large corporations, not to the people. Furthermore, the threat of social unrest from minorities and the poor is reduced by keeping over six million people in the correctional population, and the threat from the rest of the population is diminished by the fear, racism, reverence for authority and other irrational intellectual byproducts of mass incarceration.

Beyond their function as a general tool of oppression, prisons are also used in the United States to silence and destroy political threats to American capitalism through false convictions that a public indoctrinated with manufactured fear and racism often readily accepts. As the prison-industrial complex has grown, it has diverted resources from government programs ranging from education to drug treatment. This is the heart of the connection between prisons and military expenditures: both direct government spending away from programs that improve people's lives and toward purely irrational and destructive outlets. They increase corporate profits and stimulate the economy not merely without empowering the oppressed but in fact by further repressing them. Ironically, spending on social programs would likely reduce crime, but instead the transference of funds to prisons only creates the need for more prisons.

Political support for the prison-industrial complex is guaranteed because it props up capitalism. In particular cases, for example, as said in a 1998 ABC News report, "members of the [prison] industry have already lobbied for stiffer criminal penalties." The head of the CCA was the single largest campaign contributor to Tennessee legislators. The correctional officers' union of California is the strongest in the state and, that report went on to say, "in much the same way that retired admirals and generals have long found employment with defense contractors, correctional officials are now leaving the public sector for jobs with firms that supply the prison industry." Aware of the economic and repressive need for prisons, politicians rationalize mass incarceration and win themselves electoral support with a shameless law-and-order ideology built on fomenting white racism. Many even argue that prisons must be made crueler to reduce crime; such is the nature of capitalist society that the political reflex is to increase the brutality of life on the inside rather than to reduce it on the outside.

The prison-industrial complex has quickly emerged as an important complement to the military-industrial complex. The political and economic realities that have maintained the military-industrial complex for half a century will ensure the existence of the prison-industrial complex well into the future. Only in the context of a larger struggle against capitalism can the prison-industrial complex effectively be opposed.

Email your feedback on this article to editor@impactpress.com.

Other articles by David Mericle: