The Prison Industrial Complex: The American Way of Destruction


Art by Kevin “Rashid” Johnson

Matt Tabbi did the math. From 1991 to 2010 the crime rate for major and minor crimes dropped 44%, yet in during this same period poverty rates went from about 8% to 15.5%.1 And, finally, during this same period in which crime went down and poverty went up the Prison Industrial Complex went out of the hands of government and into the private sector, while additional increases in those incarcerated and plunged into this corporate takeover of the prisons went from 1 million to 2.2 million inmates. As he describes it:

Our prison population, in fact, is now the biggest in the history of human civilization. There are more people in the United States either on parole or in jail today (around 6 million total) than there ever were at any time in Stalin’s gulags. For what it’s worth, there are also more black men in jail right now than there were in slavery at its peak. (ibid.)

When I saw the figure of 6 million I began to think of another world of exclusion and banishment – the holocaust. But this time it is being done by a supposed democracy: America. Have we unwittingly begun an American Holocaust? The banishment and exclusion of poverty and race as the final solution to corporatism: to the neo-fascism of State and Corporate power that seeks not only social control but total domination over the people of America? How far have fallen, how far?

Tabbi will form another statistic. One that shows the gradient and discrepancy between the poor and rich. One that shows the rich who commit crimes seem to be favored by the legal system while the poor are not only abused but broken by the very system that purports to meet out justice. “It’s come around to that point of view at the end of a long evolutionary process, in which the rule of law has slowly been replaced by giant idiosyncratic bureaucracies that are designed to criminalize failure, poverty, and weakness on the one hand, and to immunize strength, wealth, and success on the other. … We still have real jury trials, honest judges, and free elections, all the superficial characteristics of a functional, free democracy. But underneath that surface is a florid and malevolent bureaucracy that mostly (not absolutely, but mostly) keeps the rich and the poor separate through thousands of tiny, scarcely visible inequities.” (ibid.)

Michel Foucault in his Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison once described the processes of in Western Civilization that gave rise to our prison systems as “rituals of exclusion”, that began with disease – leper colonies, the plague, etc.; and, out of these modes of exclusion which separated the healthy from the unhealthy populace our “disciplinary projects” were modeled. As he described it the earlier leper colonies were about total exclusion and exile, while the plague victim was bound to a disciplined exclusion of arresting the disease and curing it:

The leper was caught up in a practice of rejection, of exile-enclosure; he was left to his doom in a mass among which it was useless to differentiate; those sick of the plague were caught up in a meticulous tactical partitioning in which individual differentiations were the constricting effects of a power that multiplied, articulated and subdivided itself; the great confinement on the one hand; the correct training on the other. The leper and his separation; the plague and its segmentations. The first is marked; the second analyzed and distributed. The exile of the leper and the arrest of the plague do not bring with them the same political dream. The first is that of a pure community, the second that of a disciplined society.2

The leper was cordoned off in a utopian community of exiled bodies, where they could be observed, written about, surveyed, and governed from afar – cut off from all human contact. The plague victim on the other hand was born into a world of confusion and disorder, where both poor and rich were thrown together into a ritual space of disciplined practices under the supervised gaze of the law and medicine.

Ultimately what grew out of these rituals of exclusion, through the constant division between the normal and the abnormal, which applied a marked and tabulated, binary branding and exile to the leper and a partitioning and cure to the plague victim was a new set of techniques and institutions based on a calculus for measuring, supervising and correcting the abnormal through a series of disciplinary mechanisms to which the fear of the plague gave rise.(Foucault, p. 199) Foucault describes two models of control. The first targeted individuals suffering from leprosy, the second people infected with the plague. Leprosy, according to Foucault, was treated with banishment  and isolation. The plague required a more complicated control technique. Unlike leprosy, the plague is highly contagious,  with infection rates growing exponentially. To control it, the state developed what Foucault calls disciplinary diagrams: it portioned spaced into a grid and used surveillance and regular inspection. Once a case was identified, a city magistrate would isolate or quarantine an individual house, thus suppressing pressing the spread of the disease.3

Fear is the key term in the mathematization and scientification of these disciplinary mechanism that formed the basis of our prison systems of exclusion. Many have described Foucault’s use of Bentham’s Panopticon as the perfect model of this disciplinary society. What is most important is that it enacted the scientific naturalists view of life. Using the Panopticon as a model discipline could be codified and regulated, brought into the sciences in which the excluded (poor, unhealthy, dissenters, agitators, misfits, eccentrics, outcasts) could be observed, mapped, assessed, brought under a regime of statistical measurement and classification in relation to normality and abnormal development, to distinguish aptitudes such as ‘laziness and stubbornness’ from ‘incurable imbecility’; among workers, it made it possible to note the aptitudes of each worker, compare the time he takes to perform a task, and if they are paid by the day, to calculate their wages. So that economics and sociology became in the hands of the rich and powerful tools of command and control that allowed the governance of society. (Foucault, p. 203)

As one historian tells us it was during the 1950s that social control became synonymous not with persuasion but with the imposition of state or class authority over the lower classes. Social control was equated with repression and coercion, with the formal and informal mechanisms that were intended to compel order der and obedience. It was with this negative connotation that social control first came to the attention of historians.4 Theorists like George Herbert Mead and E. A. Ross used it to promote a sharper appreciation of the role of subjective and qualitative values in binding social groups together. Rather than assuming that the good order of the society rested on the regulatory authority of the prison or the police, they sought to link social stability to shared values and principles. Social order became the product not of fiat and force but of ideas and sympathy. Accordingly, they were concerned  with other institutions of social control: the family, the church, and the school. In fact, they searched so broadly for the elements instilling social harmony that they conceived of social control in a manner that made it indistinguishable from socialization. They found social control everywhere and applauded its presence. (Oxford, KL 2233)

This notion of social control would arise out of the sociological writings of Lester F. Ward, Edward A. Ross, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber. Their work would provide a solid foundation for conceptualizing social control, in later chapters additional theoretical background will be provided as particular substantive phenomena are introduced, including norms, sanctions, socialization, groups, culture, the professions (especially medicine), and the criminal justice system (police, courts, and corrections).5

In our own time most of this the social control mechanisms have become not only second nature but so embedded in our governing systems that they have been normalized even by the citizenry. We live in an age of hyper-vigilance that feeds the incessant creep of legal controls that arise out of a sense of fear and terror that is constructed by both corporate, political, and academic world-views and media systems. It assumes the worst and looks for enemies under every rock, in every nook and cranny. Second generation biometric technologies introduce a range of ethical questions which are not yet fully resolved, primarily because of how potentially intrusive they are, but also because they can operate without the awareness of those being targeted.

With the spread of surveillance as a technological phenomenon or as one that simply speaks of ‘social control’ and ‘Big Brother’. But this puts all the stress on tools and tyrants and ignores the spirit that animates surveillance, the ideologies that drive it forward, the events that give it its chance and the ordinary people who comply with it , question it or who decide that if they can’t beat it, they’ll join the game. In a world of barcodes and RFID tags we discover that its no longer just about classifying and selling products, but also to finding out exactly where they are at any given moment within a just-in-time management regime. This goes for that last viable commodity the human person as well. We have all become commoditized, digitized packages bound to a temporal regime of control and management that is for the most part invisible to even our political and social fields of reference. We are blind to its power over our lives because we are immersed in this new environment like fish in the sea.

One concept introduced by sociologists is social sorting which is as always a part of the global control systems way of filtering and excluding in a sort of transparent virtual ethnic cleansing. More and more minorities both in racial and religious sense are screened and excluded from free movement in this global system. As one scholar Oscar Gandy puts it social sorting achieved by contemporary consumer surveillance constructs a world of ‘cumulative disadvantage’.6

It’s this sense of exclusionary social sorting of the rich against poor that has become prevalent in such statistics as Tabbi sees in his book The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap introduced at the beginning of my post. Our prison systems are no longer for criminals, but are rather exclusion zones for the marked poor and abused in our society, for those condemned to a life of poverty and drugs. Angela Davis has long made the point of this divide, and how it has affected the racial tensions and repression by the State against the black community in particular. She will describe the form of social control that has become intensified in our time as a “consequence of racialized surveillance”:

Increased punishment is most often a result of increased surveillance. Those communities that are subject to police surveillance are much more likely to produce more bodies for the punishment industry. But even more important, imprisonment is the punitive solution to a whole range of social problems that are not being addressed by those social institutions that might help people lead better, more satisfying lives. This is the logic of what has been called the imprisonment binge: Instead of building housing, throw the homeless in prison. Instead of developing the educational system, throw the illiterate in prison. Throw people in prison who lose jobs as the result of de-industrialization, globalization of capital, and the dismantling of the welfare state. Get rid of all of them. Remove these dispensable populations from society. According to this logic the prison becomes a way of disappearing people in the false hope of disappearing the underlying social problems they represent.7

This sense of banishment and disappearance is happening at both the local and national levels in America. As Banished: The New Social Control In Urban America   will tell us the new techniques of banishment possess a number of novel characteristics. In particular, they are justified in terms of the very limited goal of displacement. They are also quite broad—so much so that they criminalize the mere presence of the banished in some urban spaces. Furthermore, the new techniques infuse criminal law with civil legal authority. They diminish the rights-bearing capacity of those they target, even as they create new crimes and criminal cases. Together, the new techniques broaden the range of existing criminal offenses; increase the power, authority, and discretion of the police; and decrease the rights-bearing capacity of their targets. In this sense, they represent a return to status-based prohibitions against vagrancy.8

As Beckett and Herbert will describe it the popularity of banishment comes from the corporate downtown business organizations and other anticrime organizations—to address concerns about disorder. These tools certainly enable the police greater license to monitor and arrest, and prosecutors more opportunity to charge individuals for criminal offenses. At the same time, the legally hybrid nature of these tools and the weak rights protections they offer make it difficult for defendants and their attorneys to contest them. (Banished, KL 1973)

Another chronicler of this horrid anti-democratic development in America Stephen Graham notes that even the language of policing has been updated with such concepts as  ‘target lists’, ‘screening’, ‘biometric visas’ and so on revealing a massive global proliferation of deeply technophiliac state surveillance projects. Many like the e-Border programme signals the startling militarization of civil society – the extension of military ideas of tracking, identification and targeting into the quotidian spaces and circulations of everyday life. Indeed, projects like this one are more than a state’s responses to changing security threats. Rather, in a world marked by globalization and increasing urbanization, they represent dramatic attempts to translate longstanding military dreams of high-tech omniscience and rationality into the governance of urban civil society. (Although the programme has been discontinued due to its inability to perform its specific mission, it still brings with it that future software tracing will at some point be implemented)9

Yet, one of the biggest factors for prison expansion and convictions beyond poverty and race is money. As Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration explains in detail:  Prison expansion is the lifeblood of the private prison industry. In recent years the debate over privatization of prisons has been focused primarily on the relative costs and performance of private prisons compared to those operated in the public sector. But increasing attention has been paid to the role the industry appears to play in fostering growth in the number of people behind bars—political contributions made to politicians who set criminal justice policies—and the leadership position various industry executives filled over many years with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a powerful lobby for prison privatization and “get tough” penal policies. Corporations with a stake in the expansion of private prisons invested $3.3 million in candidates for state office and state political parties in forty-four states over recent election cycles.10

According to journalist Matt Taibbi, Wall Street banks took notice of this influx of cash, and are now some of the prison industry’s biggest investors. Wells Fargo has around 100 million invested in GEO Group and 6 million in CCA. Other major investors include Bank of America, Fidelity Investments, General Electric and The Vanguard Group. CCA’s share price went from a dollar in 2000 to $34.34 in 2013. Sociologist John L. Campbell and activist and journalist Chris Hedges respectively assert that prisons in the United States have become a “lucrative” and “hugely profitable” business. (see wiki)

As  Saskia Sassen will tell us profit-driven private prisons are not the same as government prisons. … When prisons become a corporate business whose logic is not unlike the logic of a motel owner— fill those beds— the goals are opposite from those of government prisons: to imprison more people and to keep them there for longer periods. … the proliferation of private for-profit prisons has coincided with far longer sentences for trivial acts and a further increase in the rate of incarceration. There are decision makers at each step of the process, but they are caught in a sticky web of systemic logics. Finally, the profits of private prisons are represented as a positive addition to a country’s GDP even as they are a government cost; in contrast, government-run prisons are only represented as government debt.11

This sense of the corporate State solving its social problems by constructing new legal forms of banishment, exclusion, and incarceration through political measures to control  poverty, race, and dissent is at the center of the American Empire’s anti-democratic system of governance. We are no longer a democracy “for the people and by the people“, we have in the end become an Oligarchic enterprise that serves the rich white elites of the new Global Empire of Capital. Will we wake up? Will we ever challenge such power? All I can do is continue to spread the truth till I, too, am silenced. Until then I will keep on keeping on… dissent is American as apple pie… may our voices awaken the sleepers to action. As Chris Hedges reiterates in his new book Wages of Rebellion the world has been turned upside down. The pestilence of corporate totalitarianism is spreading over the earth. The criminals have seized power. It is not only the political dissenters like Assange, Hammond, Abu-Jamal, Manning, and Hashmi they want. It is all who dare to defy the destructive fury of the global corporate state. The persecution of these rebels is the harbinger of what is to come: the rise of a bitter world where criminals in tailored suits and gangsters in beribboned military uniforms— propped up by a vast internal and external security apparatus, a compliant press, and a morally bankrupt political elite— hunt down and cage all who resist.12

Further notes in relation to Gilles Deleuze and others and Social Control can be found in these posts:

1. Taibbi, Matt (2014-04-08). The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap . Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2. Foucault, Michel (2012-04-18). Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Vintage) (pp. 198-199). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
3. Luis Alberto Fernandez. Policing Dissent: Social Control and the Anti-Globalization Movement (Kindle Locations 1713-1716). Kindle Edition.
4. The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society (Kindle Locations 2237-2240). Kindle Edition.
5. Chriss, James J. (2013-04-17). Social Control: An Introduction (p. 19). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
6. Oscar Gandy, Coming to Terms with Chance.(Ashgate; Har/Ele edition (December 28, 2012))
7. Davis, Angela Y. (2011-01-04). Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture (Open Media Series) (pp. 22-23). Seven Stories Press. Kindle Edition.
8. Beckett, Katherine; Herbert, Steve (2009-10-15). Banished: The New Social Control In Urban America (Studies in Crime and Public Policy) (Kindle Locations 1297-1302). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
9.  Graham, Stephen (2011-11-01). Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism (Kindle Locations 107-113).  . Kindle Edition.
10.   (2009-06-01). Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration (p. 4). New Press, The. Kindle Edition.
11. Sassen, Saskia (2014-05-05). Expulsions (Kindle Locations 1017-1026). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.
12. Hedges, Chris (2015-05-12). Wages of Rebellion (p. 200). Nation Books. Kindle Edition.

3 thoughts on “The Prison Industrial Complex: The American Way of Destruction

    • Thanks for the info… yea, a lot of information in this whole sector… along with my studies in Social Exclusion in economics, politics, race, sex… etc. This book I began writing has turned into sort of retracing of many themes…


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