Eisenhauer warned us about the Military-Industrial Complex. He warned us that we would all become captive to the desires of a small number of companies. Well, now we have another unholy public-private alliance to fear: The US Prison-Industrial Complex.
Imagine my (non) surprise to learn that when you turn prisons over to private corporations, they’ll ensure (i.e. lobby) that they get a constant flow of prisoners.
This is just the latest episode in the decades-long takeover of the prison industry by private interests. Reagan’s “tough on crime” policies, as Michelle Alexander has written, caused spiraling incarceration rates, which in turn spawned a cottage industry of prison management companies looking to make a buck off the influx of inmates. CCA, for instance, has watched revenues grow by 500% in the past two decades.
Of course, this is a highly racist system which targets African-American men as fodder for the machine. By hypercriminalizing actions that young African-American men are taking in their communities (disproportionate sentencing for rock vs. powder cocaine for instance), you can clear the ghettos as effectively as the Nazi’s did at Łódź in 1943. Never mind that the system we’re all defending (capitalism) is as responsible for the creation of those ghettos as much as the Nazi eugenics laws were in creating the Jewish ghettos.
- There are more African American adults under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.
- As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.
- A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.
- If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.
And the icing on the cake? What makes this all worthwhile for the Prison-Industrial Complex? What they get out of all this hypercriminalization? All those prisoners make an excellent captive workforce!
What began in the 1970s as an end run around the laws prohibiting convict leasing by private interests has now become an industrial sector in its own right, employing more people than any Fortune 500 corporation and operating in 37 states. And here’s the ultimate irony: our ancestors found convict labor obnoxious in part because it seemed to prefigure a new and more universal form of enslavement. Could its rebirth foreshadow a future ever more unnervingly like those past nightmares?
America’s prison-industrial complex closely resembles nothing more than the laogai of Communist China.
Laogai, which translates from Mandarin to mean “reform through labor,” is the Chinese system of labor prison factories, detention centers, and re-education camps. Mao Zedong created the system in the early 1950s, modeling it after the Soviet Gulag, as a way to punish and reform criminals in a manner useful to the state, producing thought reform and economic gain.
Instead of punishment and reform in a manner “useful to the state,” we’re doing it to be “useful to the corporation.” Our prisoners may be fed better, but in the end, it’s still a new slave-labor workforce one our founders warned us about.
Prisoners, whose ranks increasingly consist of those for whom the legitimate economy has found no use, now make up a virtual brigade within the reserve army of the unemployed whose ranks have ballooned along with the U.S. incarceration rate. The Corrections Corporation of America and G4S (formerly Wackenhut), two prison privatizers, sell inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM.
These companies can, in most states, lease factories in prisons or prisoners to work on the outside. All told, nearly a million prisoners are now making office furniture, working in call centers, fabricating body armor, taking hotel reservations, working in slaughterhouses, or manufacturing textiles, shoes, and clothing, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day.
The use of these prisoners resembles nothing more than Nazi Germany’s use of slave labor during World War II. Remember Oskar Schindler? He setup a prison factory in Poland to make enamelware and he took full advantage of cheap slave labor (he paid the Nazis, they kept the money).
Are we really sure this is where we, as a nation, want to go?