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(en) The prison industrial complex - organise #59

From Al <klasbatalemo@yahoo.ie>
Date Sun, 22 Dec 2002 04:54:14 -0500 (EST)

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

Any study of the prison industrial complex in America
quickly reveals that forces with a financial
interest in a big prison population have helped 
to cause and perpetuate the prison boom.

The American state holds two million people in prison on any given day ­ four
times the number in 1980 ­ because there's money in it. This represents the
highest per capita incarceration rate in the history of the world. In 1995 alone,
150 new US prisons were built and filled.
The prison industrial complex is rapidly becoming an essential component of
the US economy. More than five million people are behind bars, on parole,
probation, or under other supervision by the criminal justice system. The
influence of the prison industrial complex penetrates deep into the political and
social life of America. Legislators pass harsh sentencing laws virtually written by
shadowy prison corporations ­ like the Corrections Corporation of America ­ who
endlessly lobby for tough laws and the privatisation of prisons. The prison guards'
union sponsors candidates who support tough laws and the economic exploitation
of prisoners in the name of rehabilitation. Police departments base part of their
budgeting on the proceeds from drug-related arrests. Thousands of people go to
prison, or stay there longer, in the pursuit of profit.
Some commentators point to the disproportionate imprisonment of blacks and
Latinos and declare prisons a modern form of slavery: this is a similar criticism to
that of the Black Panther Party, who argue that racial minorities in America are an
internal colony, a pool of downtrodden, second-class citizens valued only for the
low-wage labour they supply.
Prisons are big business
Prisons are becoming big business in four ways. Firstly, state correctional
departments are turning their prisons into factories. Secondly, corporations are
forming partnerships with prison authorities to provide goods and services for
their customers. Thirdly, prisoners are increasingly seen as a captive market
(literally) that can be exploited as consumers. Lastly, the prison regime is
increasingly being colonised by the corporations, as justice is privatised.
Back to the farm
The industrialisation of the prison system is increasingly common. One example is
the California Prison Industry Authority, set up in 1983. A semi-autonomous state
agency, the PIA uses inmate labour to manufacture a wide variety of products
that are sold to state agencies such as the Department of Corrections (CDC), the
Department of Motor Vehicles, state hospitals and California State University.
About 7,000 prisoners, in 23 of California's 30 prisons, sand and upholster
furniture, grind eyeglass lenses, and sew shirts and jeans. Inmate workers
butcher beef and make hamburgers at the PIA's meat processing plants. The PIA's
labour costs are extremely low
(obviously) and the PIA is not
required to pay holiday pay or provide
for industrial injuries, sick leave,
health insurance or other benefits.
The PIA pays rent to the Department
of Corrections for factory and
warehouse space at prices well below
market rates and the PIA pays no
local, state or federal income taxes.
State agencies are required by law to
buy from the PIA and abuse of this
monopoly is endemic.
The PIA claims that inmates learn
valuable skills that reduce re-
offending, while producing valuable
products that lower public spending.
These arguments are used to justify
massive spending on prisons in
California, about £5bn a year, or 18%
of the state budget (compared to only
$4.4bn spent on California's schools).
Even so, audits show that the PIA lost
over $33m up to 1996, overcharged
customers by $12m and did little to
reduce re-offending rates.
Prisons are also a leading rural
growth industry. With traditional
agriculture being pushed aside by
agribusiness, many rural American
communities are facing hard times.
Economically depressed areas are
falling over each other to secure a
prison facility of their own.
Prison labour is like
a pot of gold.
Service at a price
For private business, prison labour is
like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union
organising. No unemployment
insurance or industrial injury
payments. No language problem unlike
investing abroad. New leviathan
prisons are being built with thousands
of eerie acres of factories inside the
walls. Prisoners do data entry for
Chevron, make telephone reservations
for TWA, raise hogs, shovel manure,
make circuit boards, limousines,
waterbeds and lingerie for Victoria's
Secret ­ all at a fraction of the cost of
`free labour'.
Prison industries often directly
compete with private industry. Small
furniture manufacturers complain they
are being driven out of business by
prison companies that pay around 25
cents per hour and have the inside
track on Government contracts. In one
case, US Technologies sold its
electronics plant in Austin, Texas,
making 150 workers unemployed. Six
week later, the electronics plant
reopened in a nearby prison.
The criminal must pay
Prisoners are both captive workers and
captive consumers. The major
telecomms corporations, AT&T and
Bell, make big profits out of prisoners.
The two million inmates in the US are
ideal customers: phone calls are one of
their few links to the outside world.
Most of their calls must be made
collect and they are in no position to
switch to long-distance carriers.
A pay phone at a prison can
generate as much as $15,000 a year ­
about five times the revenue of a
typical pay phone on the street. It is
estimated that inmate calls generate
$1bn or more in revenues each year.
The business is so lucrative that one
company, MCI, installed its inmate
phone service, Maximum Security,
throughout the California prison
system at no charge. As part of the
deal, it offered the California
Department of Corrections a 32%
share of all the revenues. MCI
Maximum Security and North
American Intelecom have both been
caught overcharging for calls made by
inmates. And prisons are beginning to
charge inmates for basic necessities
from medical care to toilet paper or to
use the law library. Many states are
now charging `room and board': Berks
County jail in Pennsylvania charges
inmates $10 a day.
Private money, private justice
Like the military/industrial complex,
the prison industrial complex is an
interweaving of private business and
Government interests. Its public
rationale is the fight against crime. Its
two-fold purpose is profit and social
control. Fear of crime and the
demonisation of criminals serve a
similar ideological purpose: to justify
the use of tax dollars for the
repression and incarceration of a
growing percentage of the population.
Though it is serial killers and rapists
who cause headlines, most of those
locked up are poor people who commit
non-violent crimes out of economic
need. Still, the building and
maintenance of prisons is big business
and a change of policy would hit
profits. Investment houses,
construction companies, architects,
and support services such as food,
medical, transportation and furniture
all stand to profit by prison expansion.
Three strikes? Not even one!
These trends have been accelerated by
the explosive growth in private prison
companies. The rationale for
privatisation is that Government
monopolies, such as old-fashioned
departments of corrections, are
wasteful and inefficient, and the
private sector, through competition for
contracts, can provide much better
service at a much lower cost. Like PFI
in Britain ­ inspired by the prison-
building programme in America ­ a
private company will either run the
prison for a Government agency, or
build and operate its own. Private
prisons are built and run more cheaply
than state prisons but not because the
private sector is more efficient: most
of the savings come from the use of
non-union labour.
Today, at least 27 states make use
of private prisons and approximately
90,000 inmates are being held in
prisons run for profit. The Correctional
Corporation of America, one of the
largest private prison owners, already
operates internationally, with more
than 48 facilities in 11 states, Puerto
Rico, the United Kingdom and
Australia. Under contract by
Government to run jails and prisons,
and paid a fixed sum per prisoner, the
profit motive mandates that these
firms operate as cheaply as possible.
Correctional officers in private
prisons usually earn lower wages than
officers employed by state prisons,
while receiving fewer benefits and no
pension. Prison owners are also raking
in billions by cutting corners.
Substandard diets, extreme
overcrowding and abuse by poorly-
trained personnel have all been
routinely documented. It is here that
capitalist business principles take over
and begin to distort the ugly processes
of law-making, arrest, trial and
Not even the roads are safe
Private companies transport thousands
of inmates across the United States
every day with minimal oversight.
Federal regulations concerning the
interstate shipment of cattle are much
stricter than those concerning the
shipment of prisoners.
The firms save money by employing
non-union guards and making multiple
pickups and deliveries on each trip.
Prisoners may spend as long as a
month on the road, visiting dozens of
states, sitting for days in the backs of
old station wagons and vans, locked
up alongside defendants awaiting trial
and offenders on their way to prison.
The turnover rate among the
transport guards and drivers is high;
the pay is relatively low; and training
for the job rarely lasts more than a
week. Violent criminals are being
shipped from state to state in the
custody of people ill-equipped to deal
with them.
America's first line of defence ­
against itself
As the Cold War winds down, defence
industry giants like Westinghouse are
lobbying Washington for their share of
the domestic law enforcement market.
The corporations are moving into
every aspect of law enforcement, often
offering bribes and inducements to
Government agencies in exchange for
lucrative contracts.
Since 1980, spending on
corrections at the local, state, and
federal levels has increased about
fivefold. What was once a niche
business for a handful of companies
has become a multibillion-dollar
industry with its own trade shows and
conventions, websites, mail-order
catalogues and direct-marketing
The prison-industrial complex now
includes some of the nation's largest
architecture and construction firms,
Wall Street investment banks that
handle prison bond issues and invest
in private prisons, plumbing, catering
and health-care companies. As the
prison industry has grown, the line
between public and private interests
has blurred. Prison service officials
find lucrative employment with firms
that supply the prison industry.
The prison-
industrial complex
now includes some
of the nation's
largest firms.
The flight of capital
The anti-globalisation movement has
become wise to the fact that capital
flows to wherever it can make most
profit, often to the hurt of the people
who have helped it grow rich and
powerful. It rails against sweatshops
in Thailand and Indonesia but ignores
the internal colonies on its own
The American state wages a half-
hearted war against drug production
in the Third World. Why? Because the
financial interests of major
corporations ­ donating millions to
right-wing politicians and their
campaigns ­ have a vested interest in
the arrest and punishment of millions
of Americans of colour for drug use
and possession. Public policy has, as
so often in America's past, become
the plaything of private interests.
Capitalism is continually
forced to seek ways to intensify
exploitation. Casualisation and
flexibilisation run parallel to each
other, whether in the prison-factories
of Tennessee or factory-prisons of
China, defended by a fearsome system
of violent repression and punishment
in America and abroad.
Prisoners are fighting back with
strikes and union-inspired militancy.
But until the dispossessed workers of
America can find common cause with
the millions of working class people
forced to labour as virtual slaves in
the rural gulags of the penal system,
nothing will change.
For some, poverty is the prison, for
others mindless consumption. For the
rest, there is always the prison-
industrial complex ­ and 25c an hour.

>From Organise!, thrice yearly magazine of the
Anarchist Federation (Britain/Ireland), now available
in PDF format at:




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