Do We Need to Rethink the Prison-Industrial Complex?

Perhaps no term within the growing cannon of leftist phraseology enjoys more widespread acceptance than the ‘prison-industrial complex,’ or ‘PIC.’ Given the number of atrocities occurring in prisons across the country—including solitary confinement, forced sterilization, and denial of necessary medication—it’s not difficult to understand why a term that portends to describe the state of the prison system would receive such heavy usage. Yet while definitions abound, they are also often simultaneously poignant and nondescript. For example, Critical Resistance, a national self-described abolitionist organization comprised of a range of scholars and activists including Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Dylan Rodríguez, uses the term to denote “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.” According to Critical Resistance, the PIC “helps and maintains the authority of people who get their power through racial, economic and other privileges” by way mass media, electioneering, and the exercising of private corporate influence within the prison system itself.

As a rhetorical tool, the notion of the PIC has been central in galvanizing public interest in the country’s astounding incarceration boom—and the 2.2 million people enveloped by it, over 60 percent of who are people of color—since the 1980s. In self-referentially positioning itself in relation to the more widely known ‘military-industrial complex,’ moreover, the PIC effectively calls attention to the state’s capacity to reproduce itself through a range of disciplinary institutions crucial to capitalism’s functioning. Though the PIC is useful in its ability to accessibly demonstrate the conjoined interests of capital and the state, some have argued that the term glosses over key historical, theoretical, and material conditions that can negatively affect our ability to understand the prison system and ultimately act against it.

French sociologist Loïc Wacquant is among the most brazen of the term’s critics. Though Wacquant obnoxiously dismisses the PIC as an “activist myth,” various elements of his critique should merit our attention, if for no other reason than their provocatively counterintuitive framing.

First and perhaps most surprisingly, Wacquant explains that only a miniscule percentage of incarcerated people actually work for private firms. In 2009, for example, only 0.3 percent of inmates nation-wide were employed by such companies. Even if this trend were to develop exponentially in the coming years, it would still fail to account for the fundamental features of the prison system, as no single economic sector relies principally or even significantly on prison labor, however disturbing this dynamic may be. Prisons likewise do not actually constitute a significant boon to the United States’ economy; in fact, inmates are generally employed at a net loss to the government (though their activity is heavily subsidized and regulated), and US corrections-based spending at local, municipal, and federal levels constitutes only a small fraction of the GDP.

None of this is to discount the disturbing reality of private prisons. And the private prison industry is growing: Corrections Corporation of America’s profits alone have increased by 500 percent in the past twenty years, and the three largest private prison corporations have spent over $45 million combined in lobbying efforts, giving some credence to Critical Resistance’s explication of the PIC. Yet despite increasing profit margins and appalling moral bankruptcy, private prisons are hardly the norm, and they likely won’t be anytime soon.

One must also wonder whether the specific demonization of the private prison industry implicitly naturalizes the much larger and much more encompassing public prison nexus in the United States, one which has grown 790 percent since 1980 and which is not immune from the grave abuses (sexualized violence, correctional officer misconduct, food rationing, etc.) frequently cited as byproducts of the private prison industry. Such an analysis can tend towards a conspiratorial view of history that, regardless of whether or not it ultimately rings true, misses the central dynamic undergirding state involvement vis-à-vis both institutions of social welfare and institutions of imprisonment, detention, and poverty under neoliberalism.

Wacquant identifies such a dynamic in Punishing the Poor as a “paradox of neoliberal rationality” in which “the state stridently reasserts its responsibility, potency, and efficiency in the narrow register of crime management at the very moment when it proclaims and organizes its own impotence on the economic front, thereby revitalizing the twin historical-cum-scholarly myths of the efficient police and the free market.” This trend is illustrated by dramatically changing state expenses—for instance, by 1995 US corrections budget appropriations exceeded funding for public housing by a factor of three, resembling the inverse relationship of 1980 funding allocations. In other words, explains Wacquant, the prison system has over time become the United States’ largest public housing initiative for the poor.

This reframing of the PIC thus positions the state in a slightly different light, portraying the heightened capacity for incarceration within a frankly more grotesque functionality. If, as opposed to the traditional PIC framing in which labor done in both private and public prisons is conceived as a major economic boon, Black labor (which alone disproportionally constitutes roughly 36 percent of the prison population) is even more ineluctably characterized as surplus labor under post-Fordism, then the state can simply endow itself with the power to hyper-criminalize without pretext in order to deal with those who both serve no use to the economy and frustrate the largely white middle class whose labor does provide such a benefit. The heightening of aggressive, ‘zero-tolerance’ policing functions associated with gentrification is case in point, as those who are shut out of the deteriorating welfare system and forced to turn to informal economies become even more vulnerable to warehousing or police brutality, thus aiding in the production of ‘renewed’ urban space for the gentrifying middle-class.

These critiques of the contemporary framing of the ‘prison-industrial complex’ are not simply a practice in detached pseudo-intellectualization; they are important because they frame the role of Black labor to the US economy in a fundamentally different way, one that can be instructive for current struggles and movements. Rather than assuming that the hyper-exploited production process occurring in prisons is central to the growth of the economy and the private corporations that contribute to it, for example, perhaps it is worthwhile to consider prison labor’s actual relative lack of productivity as symptomatic of a post-Fordist economy that deals with its “relatively redundant population of laborers…of greater extant than suffices for the average needs of the self-expansion of capital” (in the words of Marx) through mass warehousing. Contrary to the popular slogan then, ontologically speaking, Black lives cannot matter under neoliberalism because they have been cast as inessential to the quotidian functioning of the economy.

Any critique of the current iteration of the PIC, however, must seriously reckon with the not at all insignificant rise of privatized detention centers. Private prison companies are responsible for 62 percent of the beds used by the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement branch, and private firms such as the Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group operate nine out of ten of the country’s largest immigration detention centers. Both of these companies have lobbied the Department of Homeland Security on immigration policy, and thus constitute a formidable force in shaping the fate of undocumented migrants largely driven to cross the border due to free trade agreements and the drug war. For this reason, the PIC as depicted by Critical Resistance may more accurately describe a ‘security-industrial’ or ‘detention-industrial’ complex.

One might incorrectly read this imputation as implying that the recent success of Columbia Prison Divest’s campaign is ultimately inessential or futile. One might also infer that a call to reframe the prison-industrial complex may necessarily entail solely Keynesian or social democratic solutions, as opposed to the explicitly abolitionist stance put forth by radical groups such as Critical Resistance.

On the contrary, such a reframing affirms the importance of (for now) symbolic initiatives such as divestment from the private prison industry, and is in fact entirely compatible with the notion of abolition and the prescriptions for restorative and transformative justice platforms often associated with radical adherents to the traditional usage of the PIC. For one, if for no other purpose, the PIC is useful in its function as effective political propaganda that has and should continue to pique a widespread interest in, at the very least, prison expansion. The primary short-term goal of any abolitionist movement must be to call attention to injustice, and there is no reason why the PIC should be abandoned, even if its empirical grounding may be questioned and readjusted.

Likewise, the movement to divest from the private prison industry carries not merely symbolic import, but the potential to unify a range of (unfortunately) often-disparate divestment movements. For instance, Group4Securicor (more commonly referred to as G4S), which was targeted by Columbia’s private prison divestment campaign, operates in 125 countries and manages prisons and detention centers in Israel and the occupied West Bank, often in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention. One can thus read a refreshingly global and intersectional element into the prison divestment movement, one that makes use of the traditional and incomplete formulation of the PIC.

While the success of private prison divestment at Columbia should certainly be seen as a tremendous victory for all divestment movements, reframing the prison-industrial complex as suggested above could prove useful in the seemingly perennial and fraught struggle to build a unified Left in the United States. Such potential exists because this reframing of the prison system cuts across multiple dimensions of neoliberalism to explicitly address the rise of incarceration rates and prison expansion within the context of economic deregulation and the state’s reneging on social protections since the 1980s. It prompts us not to be satisfied when Obama mentions the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ once every seven years, to strive beyond incomplete iterations of abolition that might inadvertently limit themselves to ultimately reformist paradigms, and above all to form stronger connections between the prison abolition movement and the labor movement, between the immigration movement and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Of course, it would be presumptuous to claim that simply reconceptualizing a beloved piece of activist jargon will lead to such drastic and desperately needed unification within the Left. Yet if such unification is to happen, it will require that we understand the growth of the prison system as one of many consequences of neoliberal restructuring, whose existence is fundamentally inextricable from the multifaceted attack on poor and working-class people around the world.

Addendum: Do We Need to Rethink the Prison-Industrial Complex?

By Jacob Ertel

On August 10, CounterPunch published a brief piece I authored entitled “Do We Need to Rethink the Prison-Industrial Complex?” The article hoped to make a modest intervention with regard to how the notion of the PIC is often misappropriated (especially within student organizing circles) to singularly discuss the trend of prison privatization in the United States. In sum, I demonstrated that private prisons constitute a much smaller percentage of prisons in the United States than many believe, and argued that an analysis that centers the state’s warehousing of populations rendered disposable under neoliberalism—rather than the unconscionable yet proportionally miniscule super-exploitation of inmates for private coffers—could point towards some important directions and linkages between disparate movements on the Left.

In the article I unintentionally misrepresented Critical Resistance by construing the organization’s definition of the PIC as one that places undue emphasis on the private sector by overlooking the actual lack of productivity of incarcerated labor and the processes that undergird it. In fact, Critical Resistance has actually constituted a premier abolitionist organization within the Left since its inception in 1998. In conversations between myself and members of Critical Resistance following the article’s publication, it was clear that Critical Resistance is strongly aligned with the spirit of my analysis, and stands firm in pushing to broaden efforts that focus solely on the private imprisonment sector.

The work of scholar-activists in Critical Resistance, especially that of Ruth Wilson Gilmore (who in February wrote explicitly about this topic), actually informs the analysis posited in the article in question. This should be apparent to anyone versed in the various analyses of the US prison system. Naming accomplished scholar-activists associated with Critical Resistance was never intended as an invective, but as an honest inquiry into a perceived inconsistency.

By citing what I understood to be a vague definition of the PIC, I in no way intended to slander the work of Critical Resistance or misrepresent its membership, but to open a space for dialogue within the Left about the most politically effective frameworks through which to understand—and ultimately dismantle—the prison system. It is my hope that this point of clarification will enhance the quality of the discussion to which the original article hoped to contribute.