That 2.3 million Americans are currently incarcerated, and that another 4.5 million are currently under some form of correctional control is an over-cited, and perhaps poorly understood phenomenon of US modernity. So too is the fact that, of these individuals, a wildly disproportionate number represent African-American males, who at present incarceration rates have a one in three chance of spending a portion of their lives behind bars. Among some segments of the African-American male population in the US, spending time in prison has become a normative life event. Numerous examinations of this phenomenon have been produced over the past two decades or so, with a few even reaching wide circulation, for example Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow which remained a New York Times best seller for over a year after its release in 2010. Still, a theme that has been often inferred at but seldom addressed directly is any analysis of the US Prison-Industrial Complex (PIC) within a historical context of human beings as units of profit extraction, specific to African-Americans and their descendants in the US. My aim here is to try to engage some of these linkages by drawing on economic case studies, sociology, history, psychology and political analysis.

For the purposes of this analysis it will be crucial to define clearly what is meant by two terms, Prison-Industrial Complex (PIC) and commodity. The PIC is explained by AE Raza as an economic system which involves both the State and private corporations working in collaboration to profit by imprisonment. A commodity, according to Arjun Appadurai can provisionally be defined as object [...] of economic value. This value is never inherent, but is the product of judgments made about them by subjects.

The object/subject dichotomy presented here is crucial because ultimately what makes this analysis worth embarking on, is the fact that it exists in the opaque conceptual nexus which joins human beings and things. Corrupted structures of power are the only thing which can systematically grant an individual or a group the power to diminished the dignity of an entire population. This structures have undergirded the lives of African-Americans since the times of the slave trade, and it is my intention in the first section to illuminate how this praxis mutated over time into one of implied commodification.

Of course, it's very difficult to get politicians to care about something whose effects can't be measured. That's one of the bitter lessons of the '96 law: If the consequences of a law are indirect enough, it's very easy for people to forget that it is there.

Penal Proclivity

     Indeed, a nuanced scholarly inquiry into the invention of race, the slave trade, penology, African migration and the dynamics of globalisation could fill many libraries, many times over. My intention in the development of this timeline is to sketch a narrative of the African-American experience and its bond to discriminatory structures in the US. When it was politically and economically expedient to treat the persons as chattel, it was done. When that tack was no longer politically feasible, adjustments in the criminal justice and civic structures were initiated to preserve the status quo. When international crises and technological advances made the European industrial labour scarce and agricultural utility superfluous, capital spurred migration. Finally, when trade and labour barriers were toppled, and economics entered a global labour marketplace, that labour was discharged rapidly and without apology. To examine the argument that the War on Drugs and mass incarceration represent a continuation of this utilitarian view of African-American experience, now as wearehouseable (sic) commodities, we must first look more closely at the intersection of economics and race.

Turning to sociologist professor William Julius Wilson:

"The orthodox Marxist theory [...] postulates that because the ultimate goal of the capitalist class is to maximise profits, efforts will be made to suppress workers' demands for increase wages and to weaken their bargaining power by promoting divisions within their ranks. The divisions occur (among others) along racial lines to the extent that the 'capitalist class' is able to isolate the lower-priced African-American labour force by not only supporting job, housing, and educational discrimination against them, but also by developing or encouraging prejudices and ideologies such as racism."

Wilson's reading (circa 1975) of Marx can be adapted easily to the phenomena of biased criminalisation and imprisonment beginning in the early 1980s. Although it has been demonstrated that deindustrialisation has disproportionately affected African-Americans, it has wreaked havoc on rural communities throughout the US as well. Interestingly enough, insofar as neoliberalism has been implicated in the development of mass incarceration, so too can a particularly cynical version of Keynesian economics as well. Paul Street in a work entitled Color Blind: Prisons and the New American Racism, introduces the term correctional Keynesianism to describe what he calls the ultimate policy irony at the heart of America's passion for prisons.

Correctional Keynesianism essentially refers to the economic boom of prison construction and operation as a job and tax-base creator for 'white communities' that are generally far removed from urban minority concentrations. Sociologist David Ladipo calls the prison building boom a latter-day Keynesian infrastructure investment program for (often) blight-struck communities. Indeed, it has been phenomenally successful in terms of creating relatively secure, decent paid, and often unionised jobs.

This Keynesian infusion of state and Federal money into struggling communities has triggered nothing short of zealous competition wherein hundreds of tiny rural towns, desperate to state off economic ruin triggered by mass capital flight overseas reversed a long-standing tradition of 'not in my backyard' and jumped into cutthroat competition to win the prison sweepstakes.

In The Big House in a Small Town, Eric J. Williams looks at the cases of Beeville, Texas and Florence, Colorado; both rural US communities which actively lobbied for prison facilities in the wake of economic decay and capital divestment. In Florence, according to the chamber of commerce director, the new Federal Correctional Complex literally revived a town that was doomed to be a ghost town [...] Our population has doubled, Our water and sewer plants were given badly needed upgrades [...] It's almost like it's too good to be true (emphasis mine). According to 2000 Census data, Florence is 93% caucasians, with an African-American population of 0.3%. Williams says during his six months living in Florence he did not see any African-American aside from uniformed prisoners deployed in public works.

In Beeville there were pep rallies in support of building a super-maximum facility. In Florence a radio telethon was held in order to raise $100,000, from the community itself to purchase land that would then be donated to the federal government to build a federal facility. Elsewhere in Illinois, a town developed a rap song and purchased television advertising as a part of a public relations blitz for legislators deciding where to locate a prison. In Texas, students in a Sunday school class reportedly got on their knees and prayed that a new prison would open in their area. This fervour —bordering on fetishism — for institutions which can provide economic benefits to a community is far from limited to the prison industry. In his book Free Lunch, economist David Cay Johnston develops some of the myriad ways communises get into these politics of desperation development. Like prisons this often includes communities or municipalities buying land to donate, promising infrastructure upgrades or plain old cash subsidies; but the uniqueness of prisons is of course, the peculiar commodity required to utilise these purportedly desirable correctional structures.

In a challenge to the motivations of towns like Beeville and Florence, recent studies have demonstrated quite conclusively that the desired economic development of prison construction is rarely achieved, and that small towns without prisons actually demonstrate superior economic performance to ones who acquired them during the prison boom. One primary reason is that, while promising a certain number of jobs to local residents, prisons typically import much of their staff from elsewhere, especially higher level administrators and officials. According to Ruth Gilmore's research on prison towns in California, only 20% of jobs initially went to local residents, with that number then slowly climbing to 40%. Another 2002 study demonstrates that prisons tend to have weak economic connections to the communities they are sited in by way of business-to-business transactions, and that the often career-minded corrections officers are not necessarily inclined to buy homes and participate in the type of economic activities that would spur stability and growth in local economies. A last paradoxical reason has to do with another component of mass incarceration that ties its legacy to that of modern slavery and convict leasing; the re-emergence and expansion of prison labour.

Before continuing it worth noting that although the data seem to demonstrate prison construction as a feckless instrument of economic development for the small towns themselves, it does not de-legitimise the observation that prison booms result in profits from construction, support services and an arena for blue-collar employment, even if that employment does not happen in the host communities. Whether prison booms support communities is not relevant to the billions of dollars poured annually into the construction, staffing, and maintenance of the PIC.

Prison labour is perhaps the most visible artefact of modern slavery in the prison system, or at least the artefact which requires the least extrapolation. According to Joel Dyer, from 1988 to 1998 the number of prison and jail industries increased by nearly 500%. Utilising logic indistinguishable from the proponents of convict-leasing schemes, proponents of prison labour typically extol the value of penance though hard work, of offsetting the cost of incarceration, and in a new development to this line of thinking, the value of endowing prisoners with valuable work skills. This rhetoric notwithstanding, it is quite unmistakably a racket and a moral stone's throw — if not from slavery, then at least from peonage or feudal serfdom. Dyer suggests that a detailed aggregation of combined sales from prison industries is impossible to ascertain, but that the figure is at least $2 billion annually and could be as high as $3 billion.

The US government's UNICOR, also known as Federal Prison Industries is the best and largest example of this praxis, employing over 21,000 prisoners at a rate between 23 cents and $1.15 an hour. UNICOR and its captive labour pool sold 687.7 million worth of products to the US government in 2002. The praxis of prison labour has a certain folksy wisdom to it, but ironically it may serve to further disadvantage the blighted communities looking for prisons in the first place by displacing labour. Prisoners in California have served as booking agents for TransWorld Airlines, while Microsoft has used prisoners to assist in the shipping of Windows software. Honda pays $2 an hour to prisoners in Ohio to do the same jobs that member of United Auto Workers union were once paid $20 an hour to do. The crux of the moral question here delves into the philosophical question of what task society expects its prisons to perform. If prisons are in the business of rehabilitation rather than profit generation, there is a dilemma in that (w)here prison factories can turn a profit, there is less incentive to invest in more expensive ways to fill the time, such as counselling, drug treatment and literacy programs.

Ultimately the number of prisoners participating in for-profit, corporate activities is dwarfed by the overall incarcerated population, but along with prison privatisation it serves as an unambiguous exemplar of the degree to which prisoners can represent both a storable commodity, and a labour commodity.

Primary service privatisation represents in many ways the zenith (or perhaps more accurately, nadir) and crystallising moment for a so-called industrial complex. XD (formerly Blackwater) and Haliburton for example, are commonly viewed as corporations at the vanguard of the military industrial complex. Not because they are the first corporations to ever profit off of war, but because their increasing relevance (and profit margins) has been tied to the performance of the primary business of war, as opposed to support services. Likewise the Geo Group (formerly Wackenhut) and Corrections Corporation of America have been the winners in a similar corporate incursion into the business of the penitentiary. Together, the two corporations boast annual profits over $3 billion, and account for over 10% of the prison beds in the United States. For the purposes of understanding the prisoner as a commodity, the private vs. public distinction is a matter of relativity, is of limited value, and as Paul Wright notes: It is like comparing rotten oranges to rotten apples from the prisoner's perspective. That being said, examining the emergence of private prisons can help to illuminate more clearly the biased nature of incarceration protocols in the US.

Corporate prisons pay their corrections officers less than state facilities, compensate their executives astronomically more (the CEOs of GEO and CCA collectively earn nearly $10 Million annually), provide less rigorous training and are more frequently understaffed than public prisons; and as a result have seen more violence and mayhem than state run prisons. A George Washington University study found for example that private prisons experience 65% more prisoner-on-prisoner assaults than state-run operations. For publicly traded corporations like GEO and CCA, shareholder primacy dictates that profits are the primary goal, rehabilitation of prisoners or the security of inmates or staff only can enter the equation insofar as their impact on profit margins.

As Joel Dyer puts it:

"The longer a prison corporation holds an inmate, the more money the company makes. The worse they do the job of reforming the inmate, the more likely the prisoner will continue to recidivate and produce future profits for the company. This backward rewards system for the corporations of the prison-industrial complex has turned incarceration into a windfall, a valuable process that transforms prisoners serving a short sentence into annuities."

Dyer notes that from soap companies to taser manufacturers to food services, prison servicing contracts represent a massive marketplace for various support industries in the billions annually. One of the most egregiously exploitive examples of this is the prison telephone market, which generates revenues of over $1 billion by itself, mainly by price gouging families with exorbitant rates often five times higher than those you or I pay, who have no other alternative for communicating with loved ones. Worse yet, these contracts are not typically granted based on which provider can offer the lowest rates to inmates, but which one will offer the prison the largest share of the profits.

In August of 2011, two Pennsylvania judges, Mark Ciavarella Jr. and Michael Conahan were found guilty on racketeering charges in a case which became commonly known as Kids for Cash. Prosecutors demonstrated that that the two had accepted nearly $3 Million in kick-backs from private juvenile detention centres to send some 4,000 children away. The case captivated the nation, as an example of justice gone awry, skewed in the name of profiteering on the misery and the stolen liberty of the vulnerable. The brazen self-interest entertained by these two judges was atypical by any measure, but the underlying morality which undergirds this case is the lifeblood of the modern Prison-Industrial Complex, and has become thoroughly emblazoned into the ethos of the US.


The Prison-Industrial Complex vs the African-American Youth

Jamiles Lartey — December 13, 2013


Al Jazeera Is the US criminal justice system biased? (Nov 26, 2014)

The Atlantic Angola for Life - Documentary (Sept 21, 2015)