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I sit in the day room/lobby waiting to be released for lunch. I read a novel in which one character, a Pole, comments to another that the Germans consider Poles to be untermenschen, subhuman... Instead of storm trooper boots and brown shirts, those who command wear Tony Lamas cowboy boots, expensive suits, and ties—men who see in the U.S. prison establishment ways to both intensify control of the population and squeeze more profits out of late-stage capitalism....

Prison has always been the final gate in the repressive apparatus of a state...The United States is the world’s primary example of a country that deals with its social, economic, and cultural problems by incarceration. But this is its history. Prisons are the logical outcome of the country’s foundation on the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, and the "manifest destiny" of imperial settlerism—from sea to shining sea.. Marilyn Buck 1947 - 2010

I recently contributed a chapter to a multi-volume work on private prisons -- Prison Privatization: The Many Facets of a Controversial Industry (forthcoming Winter 2011 Praeger Publishing). One of the editors is the author of Merchandizing Prisoners: Who Really Pays for Prison Privatization?. My chapter offers - unsurprisingly -  a critique of private prisons.

My questions, my struggle, in writng were these:

Just how is the case against private prisons any different than the case against prison itself??

Where is the line to be drawn between the private prisons per se and the increasingly privatized profit-driven interests that have long marred Federal and state-run prisons?

And where is the line to be drawn between the profit driven enslavement/imprisonment of the past and that of the present moment?

There is no line.

There was never a line..

"It can also be said that the use of inmates as a form of cheap labor has been part of the capitalist system from the beginning, as owners seek to maximize profits however they can, including using the cheapest form of labor, whether it be slaves, immigrant labor, or inmates.In fact, taking advantage of those imprisoned (in various forms, including slavery) has been common among nations for centuries

The history of prison in the United States is simultaneously a history of private profit from a captive labor force -- it is a history of the enslavement of blacks, poor whites and now brown "undocumented immigrants". Now as then, vast profits are made from exploited inmate labor. Now as then, the profit is derived from an immense imprisoned population that is disproportionately people of color, disproportionately poor. Now as then, the interests against prisons and privatization are interests against raw capitalism, racism and classism, against slavery, brutalization and exploitation..

Prison is a slavery - called by many names...


The recent re-emergence of private prisons for profit simply offers a new twist on an old story. Private profit from imprisonment has a long-standing history in the U.S. From the outset, private interests have amassed great fortunes from imprisoned labor be they slaves, indentured servants or convicts.

It is important to recall that many of the first settlers of the "New World" were actually British, Scottish, Irish, French, German, and Dutch convicts sold into indentured servitude. Selling "criminals" to the companies exploring the Americas lowered the cost of maintaining European prisons (since they could remain relatively small), enabled the traditional elite to rid themselves of potential political radicals, and provided the cheap labor necessary for the first wave of colonization Indeed...there is a strong historical relationship between the need for policing the unruly working classes, fueling the military and economic needs of the capitalist class, and greasing the wheels of imperialism with both indentured servants and outright slavery.

Imprisoned black slave labor was the economic centerpiece of the plantation economy, and following the Civil War and the lie of 13th Amemdment, slavery was de facto perpetuated. The foundations of our current system of profit from inmate labor were cemented in place after the Civil War as Slave Codes became Black Codes, black men moved en mass from plantations to penitentiaries, and convict leasing systems emerged to provide private companies with neo-slave labor. This system allowed inmates - mostly blacks and poor whites - to literally be sold directly to private individuals and industries and transported to work in fields, logging, road, levee and railroad construction and in mines. The conditions of this sort of incarceration has rightly been described as worse than slavery – since the inmates were not valued  "property",  they were largely expendable and were frequently worked to death in addition to being subjected to brutal punishments, malnourishment and disease.

The loss of outside jobs and the inherent brutality and cruelty of the lease system sparked resistance which eventually brought about its demise. One of the most famous battles was the Coal Creek Rebellion of 1891. When the Tennessee coal, Iron and Railroad locked out their workers and replaced them with convicts, the miners stormed the prison and freed 400 captives; and when the company continued to contract prisoners, the miners burned the prison down. The Tennessee leasing system was disbanded shortly thereafter. But it remained in many states until the rise of resistance in the 1930s...Strikes by prisoners and union workers together were organized by the then radical CIO and other labor unions. They pressured Congress to pass the 1935 Ashurst-Sumners Act making it illegal to transport prison-made goods across state lines.


The profit motive as an under-pinning of our prison system has returned full blown by the mid - 20th century. The power of the labor unions in the U.S. succeeded in curtailing the most extreme practices noted above  by the mid -1930s and largely limiting the proliferation of prison made products.

By the late 1970s however, the declining power of the U.S. labor unions and the increased trend towards a corporate dominated global economy led to the easing of these restriction and paved the way for the rise of prison industrial complex. The Justice System Improvement Act of 1979, which produced the Prison Industries Enhancement Program and lifted the ban on interstate transportation and sale of prison-made products, permitting a for-profit relationship between prisons and the private sector, and prompting a dramatic – and still escalating - increase in prison labor.

Profiting from prisons was transformed yet again by what is often referred to as the prison industrial complex, and this "new plantation" supported by a host of policies that result in "The New Jim Crow". The rise of the so-called prison industrial complex and the corresponding explosion in U.S. incarceration rates has created new opportunities for profiting from mass incarceration. As before, there is both public and private profit from inmate labor – still overwhelming black, brown and poor whites.


We are approaching the proportion of black prisoners to white, during the era of the southern convict lease and country chain gang systems.Whether this human raw material is used for purposes of labor or for the consumption of commodities provided by a rising number of corporations directly implicated in the prison industrial complex, it is clear that black bodies are considered dispensable within the "free world," but as a source of profit in the prison world.

Much like the military industrial complex -- "The prison industrial complex is not a conspiracy, but a confluence of special interests that include politicians who exploit crime to win votes, private companies that make millions by running or supplying prisons and small town officials who have turned to prisons as a method of economic development."

Of course, those who profit from such arrangements will do what they must to insure a steady and ever-expanding supply of new labor. Moreover, the majority of prisoners are people of color and poor people.  This ensures that traditional (oppressive) racial and class power hierarchies remain intact. It is no surprise that the rise of the prison industrial complex is made possible by many varieties of legislation that guarantee to ensnare more and increasingly younger offenders, increase sentence length, and set up released inmates for failure and recidivism.

Within such a system, the concept of justice ceases to have any constructive meaning.

"The prison industrial complex is a self-perpetuating machine where the vast profits (e.g. cheap labor,  private and public supply and construction contracts, job creation, continued media profits from exaggerated crime reporting and crime/punishment as entertainment) and perceived political benefits (e.g. reduced unemployment rates, "get tough on crime" and public safety rhetoric, funding increases for police, and criminal justice system agencies and professionals) lead to policies that are additionally designed to insure an endless supply of "clients" for the criminal justice system (e.g. enhanced police presence in poor neighborhoods and communities of color; racial profiling; decreased funding for public education combined with zero-tolerance policies and increased rates of expulsion for students of color; increased rates of adult certification for juvenile offenders; mandatory minimum and "three-strikes" sentencing; draconian conditions of incarceration and a reduction of prison services that contribute to the likelihood of "recidivism"; "collateral consequences"-such as felony disenfranchisement, prohibitions on welfare receipt, public housing, gun ownership, voting and political participation, employment- that nearly guarantee continued participation in "crime" and return to the prison industrial complex following initial release.) ( Brewer and Heitzeg 2008)

The prison industrial complex now houses over 2.5 million persons in state or federal prisons and jails - a rate of 751 out of every 100,000, leaving the US with the highest incarration rate in the world. The PIC includes over 3,300 jails, over 1,500 state prisons, and 100 Federal prisons in the US. Nearly 300 of these are private for-profit prisons. The two largest private prison corporations in the US, GEO, formerly Wackenhut, and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), are multi-national corporations, managing prisons and detention centers in for the Bureau of Prisons, Immigration and Custom Enforcement, at least 13 states, and several foreign countries including Australia, Canada, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. Both are top performers on the New York Stock Exchange, and boast of investors such as Wal-Mart, Exxon, General Motors, Ford, Chevrolet, Texaco, Hewlett-Packard, Verizon, and UPS.

Prison labor provides profits for both private contractors such as Microsoft, Boeing, Honeywell, IBM, Revlon, Dell, Pierre Cardin, Compaq, Levy, TWA, Dial, Victoria's Secret, Starbucks, and Nordstrom as well as state correctional industry agencies, foreign correctional industry agencies, city and county jail industry programs and the Federal Prison Industries Program known as UNICOR. Profits total in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Cheap inmate labor, at as low as 21 cents per hour, produces now everything from blue jeans to auto parts, electronics and toys,computer circuit boards and packaging plastic eating utensils for fast-food restaurants. In addition, prison labor is the major supplier for the US military, ranking amongst the top 50 suppliers fot the Army alone.


"Prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services, 93% of paints and paintbrushes, 92% of stove assembly, 46% of body armor, 36% of home appliances, 30% of headphones/speakers, and 21% of office furniture, airplane parts, medical supplies, and much more. Prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for blind people....

The federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens..

Apparently, the military industrial complex and the prison industrial complex (PIC) have joined forces".

In addition to profits from neo-slave labor, the renewed trend towards prison profiteering includes takeover of existing public facilities by private operators, the contracting to private providers for the provision of some direct services to public facilities, contracting for private provider access to inmate labor to produce products for private profit, and the building and operation of new prisons by for-profit prison companies. The private prison is simply the most extreme example from a network that creates multiple pathways for private profit via mass imprisonment, and part of a confluence of special interests that includes the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP Program), privatized industry self-regulation via the National Correctional Industry Association, the private prison industries,most notably The GEO Group and CCA, a long list of corporations who are now free to exploit inmate labor, and the lobbying influence of The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).Certainly there is a clear argument to be made against the extreme abuses that arise when profit is the singular motive for corporations such as The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), recently scrutinized again here for their role in the passage of SB1070, Arizona's latest racist anti-immigration bill. And yes what a tangled web of corporate interests, political collusion and human suffering it is.


 title= If you oppose capitialism, globalization, corporatization, and militarization, you must also oppose mass incarceration and the increasing "prisonization" of U.S. society. They are part and parcel of the same morass of exploitation and brutalization, all in the pursuit of profit.They are furthered by the same fear-mongering, fueled by the same politics of polarization, and supported by the same repressive public policies. So pick a spot in the action categories below and get involved.  If you are new to this struggle, we welcome you.  If you're already part of the struggle, please help us reach out to others who aren't yet aware of the issues and their relevance to democracy, racial and economic justice, and human rights.

Boycott Refuse to purcahse products or invest in companies that rely on prison labor. Tell them why. Organize others . The college student campaign against Sodexho is an example to follow.

Support Groups Challenging the Prison Industrial Complex There is a plethora of organizations targeting multiple dimensions of the PIC. Join them, support them. A starting point --

The Sentencing Project
The Real Cost of Prisons Project
The Innocence Project
Families Against Mandatory Minimums
Racial Profiling Data Collection Center
Amnesty International USA
Human Rights Watch USA
Critical Resistance
Prison Activist Resource Center
Death Penalty Information Center
Angola 3 News
Solitary Watch
ACLU: The Racial Justice Program
Death Penalty Discourse Network
Incite! Women of Color Against Violence
Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois

Legislation & Public Policy Dismantling the PIC will require legislative in a number of areas - racial profiling and police use of force,  juvenile justice, school disciplinary policy and the school to prison pipeline, mandatory minimum sentencing and three-strikes laws,  crack versus powder cocaine disparities, felony disenfranchisment laws and a host of collateral consequences. The following resources offer excellent overviews and options for action.

Justice Policy Institute
National Criminal Justice Commission Act (Sen. Jim Webb)
NAACP - Disenfranchisement of Prisoners and Former Prisoners
Brennan Center for Justice - Criminal Justice System Reform

Educate your self and others Learn more. Talk with others. Form coalitions. Here are outstanding places to start.

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis

From the Convict Lease System to the Super-Max Prison, Angela Y. Davis    (pdf download)

Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System, by Laura Magnani and Harmon Wray

Originally posted to Abolition! on Sun Nov 07, 2010 at 03:03 PM PST.

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