The Prison Industrial Complex: Carnage Without Conscience

The Prison Industrial Complex: Carnage Without Conscience

Banner image source: Popular Resistance

Written by Joe Ponzillo
Published 4 February 2019

One of the defining characteristics of the American national narrative is that it is the land of the free – our national anthem even says so. Engraved on the monument to the Korean War is the epithet “Freedom isn’t Free.” The Declaration of Independence and Constitution both refer to freedom many times. In a sense, one might come to believe that freedom is a very important value to many people in this country.

Yet for a country that values freedom, there seems to be a strange contradiction in that virtually America came to be the largest penal state on the planet. Many readers will be shocked to hear such a thing, but it’s true. In terms of per-capita incarceration, the average US incarceration rate is greater than every other known incarceration rate on the planet, the notion it holds 5% of the worlds population and 25% of its prisoners notwithstanding. The real numbers are closer to 22% of prisoners and 4% of the world’s population, but at the end of the day, if people are hanging up on the semantic differences between being five times disproportionate as opposed to five and a half times, they’re missing the point.  The US also has about 4% of the women on the planet and about 30% of all incarcerated women. If people are splitting hairs over the particular nuance of how much the US over incarcerates they’re missing the point about the underlying obscenity of it all.

There is a phrase describing how prisons are funded and expanded called “The Prison Industrial Complex,” coined in a book by Dr. Angela Davis by the same name. I’m linking a copy of the book on a smaller retail site because ordering it from Wal-Mart, a company that has profited heavily from prison labor, is an irony not lost on me, but given that I’ve reported on strikes at Amazon, I’m not inclined to give them traffic either.  Perhaps the reality that such large retailers are dependent on prison labor and abusive labor are selling books about their abuses says something about how normalized those abuses are, but I’ll leave that leap to the reader.

The Prison Industrial Complex involves a perverse relationship between the private and public sector, using prisons as a solution to political, social, and economic problems and expanding the penal system writ large. In the process, we see the expansion of police militarization to the tune of billions of dollars, decades of expansion of incarcerated populations, draconian sentencing, and so on. It is a system that spends $182 Billion annually on industries related to incarceration. 18 States across the country spend more on incarceration than on schooling, and prison labor pays an average of $0.64 per hour on the high end, exploited for the benefit of dozens of multibillion dollar companies.

A common objection that arises while discussing the prison industrial complex is that the people in prison deserve to be there, by and large, and that prisons arise in response to complex problems in society. First, we should question the premise that prisons are a solution. The recidivism rate from 2005-2010 was over 75%, with many prisons actively serving as grounds for crime to be propagated further. Pablo Escobar’s main drug smuggler to the United States, Carlos Ledher, made connections to the cartel in prison in Connecticut. MS-13 emerged as the result of Salvadoran immigrants fleeing a US-backed civil war, starting as not much more than a social group for getting stoned and and ending with being thrown into jails en masse.

I could go on about how prison violence and the need for protection turns into well-funded organized crime, or how drug addiction is made worse in prisons, or about how sexual violence in prison is something that can make it hard to function as a normal member of society, or how incarceration afflicts people with many crippling diseases that leave them with unmanageable medical debt, or how in only 5 states ex felons have full protection against employment discrimination, or how the vast majority of people in prisons have undertreated mental health problems, or how almost of property crimes were committed to obtain money for highly addictive drugs. But that’s another story. Even if one concedes that somehow many of the people who are in prison do belong there, it doesn’t work. The demonstrable fact is that prisons are breeding grounds for gangs, diseases, poverty, and abuse, and that many of those directly contribute to crime rates. Ignoring the morality of the current rates of incarceration, the material fact of the matter is that prison makes people more likely to wind up behind bars. Yet despite mass recidivism and horrific abuse, the US increased spending on prisons by a factor of 3 over the past 30 years. This hasn’t solved a crime problem; it’s only made it lucrative for people to exploit the vulnerable. Private interests, meanwhile, reap billions from this system with billions more spent to fuel the nightmarish cycle. Placing people into systems which only serve to spit felons back out again and again while we refuse to address more fundamental concerns is a task at which even Sisyphus would scoff.  

Notably, incarceration isn’t driven primarily by violent crime. Violent crime has declined steadily since the early 1990’s, yet mass incarceration continues to skyrocket. The idea that the most violent offenders are the primary victims of this system is a myth, one often used to justify harsher punishment.


Some might argue that increased incarceration has been a net positive to society in that it has resulted in lower overall violent crime.Setting aside that this is a post hoc ergo propter hoc argument, it’s not true across the planet. The US has a far higher incarceration rate than other countries, and has a murder rate thats actually higher than countries with similar GDP.  It doesn’t make sense to attribute these things as if they’re causally related beause crime is a more complex function than that of any single variable, and by only looking at single variables the analysis is incomplete.

This article would also be woefully incomplete without mentioning one of the defining features of the prison industrial complex: institutional racism. Drug use among people of color and white people per capita is effectively the same, yet African Americans experience nearly six times the arrest and conviction rate for drugs that white people do. African Americans are nearly twice as likely to be stopped in a car despite having contraband in a vehicle at smaller rates than white people. Agents of the PIC attribute misdemeanor crimes like vagrancy, vandalism, or disorderly conduct to Black people at twice the rate that white people receive them. According to the ACLU, marijuana arrests are distributed at a ratio of nearly 4:1 for Black people versus white people. Exoneration data shows that Black people are wrongfully convicted at a rate of 12:1 in drug cases when compared to white people; many of these people plead guilty for crimes they didn’t commit so as to avoid harsher sentences. Prosecutors across the country find increasingly ridiculous rationales to prevent non-white jurors from being in criminal cases. As it stands now, 95% of elected prosecutors are white, and federal proescutors bring charges with mandatory minimums for Black people at twice the rate of white people. Judges issue Black men 20% longer sentences than white people for the same crime. Bail and bond amounts often exceed several thousand dollars greater for Black people than whites. In the rare cases when men are wrongly accused of rape, half the men who are exonerated are Black, despite Black people making up 16% of all instances of sexual abuse, and that occurs almost always in the context of black men being accused of rape against white women. The justice system and prison industrial complex are structured in a way that serves to disproportionately benefit the wealthy, and in the process disproportionately harms non white people.

And this is only looking at racism as it is experienced by African Americans, yet this impacts many people of color in the US legal system. ICE has used many undocumented people as unpaid prison labor,dozens of migrants have died in ICE custody, Latinos make up 11% the US population and 22% of drug felons. Latino children have had to appear in courts to represent themselves at immigration hearings, generally that doesn’t happen to people who are white, and in fac many of the abuses of the prison industrial complex are dolled out to people of color, while benefitting executive boards of companies which are in many cases overwhelmingly white, and while it is certainly true that economic class is a driver of incarceration, economic class and race are inexorably linked when it comes to things like housing segregation, predatory lending, racial underfunding of schools, the legacy of redlining, hiring discrimination, and the like. One cannot look only at class and criminal justice without also examining racism.

The Prison Industrial Complex remains one of the most insidious forces in the modern world. Millions of people with mental illness see their existence criminalized, many in prison are worked for the benefit of the wealthy at wages which would make most decent people feel shame, many go into prison as desperate people without many opportunities and leave as desperate people who have found themselves exposed to and irreperably damaged by violence, and many will find themselves in there again because the outside world lacks real means to reintegrate into society. It is one of the most profoundly cruel and ineffective systems that has destroyed millions of lives and enriched people at the very top. As a result countless communities are stuck in perpetual violence, poverty, and chaos because the system has only grown more demented.

I live in Saint Louis Missouri, a city in a state with an incarceration rate of 859 people for every 100 thousand in prison, higher than any other country on the planet, but not the highest in America. A drive down Highway I-170 takes one from The Galleria Mall, and an Ihop where a group of young African Americans were profiled by the police on suscpicion of theft despite immediately producing their receipts to the restaurant. After 2 minutes of driving one goes past a financial district called Clayton, with modern skyscrapers and opulent hotels. After another couple of minutes one passes another gaudy monument to consumerism known as The Plaza Frontenac, where people my age get dragged along to look at Sur La Table. After another 10 minutes of driving one can wind up in Ferguson, with a median income of $21,000/ year, where arrest warrants were almost exclusively put out to make people pay for fines for parking fees and misdemeanor tickets, where smaller businesses have faded signs from the 90’s, and the shiniest buildings are the police station and banks. I wonder if thats what freedom actually looks like, or if thats something we tell ourselves to feel better.