Essay on the prison industrial complex

Submitted By aste448
Words: 2803
Pages: 12

What is and how do we make sense of the ‘prison industrial complex?


The United States has the highest prison rate in the world, incarcerating 743 people per 100,000 of their national population (Fulcher, 2011). The U.S makes up five percent of the worlds population, but incarcerates twenty five percent of the worlds prisoners; Since 1978 the number of prisoners in the US has tripled (Schlosser, 1998). 
The increase of incarceration can be traced back to the abolition of slavery. The development of war on drugs and rigid sentencing guidelines lead to an incarceration binge, in which African Americans were disproportionally represented. Furthermore, the vast increase in prison population meant prisons were becoming dangerously overcrowded; more and more prisons were being built, but when the citizens starting complaining about higher tax rates, the state had to quickly find another solution. Thus, the privatisation of prisons and the prison industrial complex (PIC) emerged. 
There is a numerous amount of literature written on the PIC. Because of the broad theories and ideas surrounding the PIC, this essay will largely focus on the rationale of the Rockefeller drug laws, and the PIC as a tool of social control and oppression of the Africans, without seeming overtly racist. The way in which the PIC was created to benefit a capitalist society (particularly the key stakeholders of the PIC), while exploiting African Americans, using subtle forms of oppression and institutional racism will also be discussed.

The Prison Industrial Complex is a set of interest groups and institutions, fuelled by the convergence of bureaucratic, economic and political interests, in which the federal and state correctional institutions, politicians and private organisations have taken a special interest in prisons, regardless of the actual need (Schlosser, 1998). It’s two key elements are profit and social control. 
According to Angela Y. Davis (2003), immediately after slavery was abolished in 1865, a new criminal justice system (CJS) was being developed to “restrict the possibilities of freedom for the newly released slaves” (p. 29). In 1973, less then a decade after slavery was ended, Nelson Rockefeller created a ‘war on drugs’, in which the ‘Anti-Drug Act’ created a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for the possession or sale of 5 grams of crack cocaine, the same sentence was established for 500 grams of powdered cocaine. It was believed that because powdered cocaine was pure, it was more expensive and used by the middle-upper class; the majority of blacks used crack cocaine instead (Wytsma, 1995). As a consequence of the disparity in sentencing blacks and the ‘ghetto’ were over-policed, specifically targeted for crack arrests, and disproportionately incarcerated. More than 90 percent of those charged and who receive long sentences for the possession of crack cocaine are black (Wytsma, 1995). 
In 1982 U.S prison population had doubled since the passing of the Rockefeller drug laws and prisons were dangerously overcrowded (Fulcher, 2011). Prior to the emancipation from slavery, the majority of prison population was made up of ‘Whites’; in 2010, 37.9% of U.S prisoners were Blacks, while contributing to only 12.6% of the national population (Rastogi & Johnson, 2010). Not only did the war on drugs dramatically increase the influx of prisoners into the system, but it also increased the duration of time people were sentenced to in prison for drug crimes. More specifically though, the CJS sought to control an entire race through incarceration; It became a modern tool of oppression against the Africans, used to perpetuate white hegemony (Marable, 1983). 


Institutional racism, the racialisation of crime and criminal profiling of Blacks has been embedded within our societies and while overt racism is no longer legitimate, the ending of slavery did not actually eliminate racism. Everyday African Americans are subjected to a deeply…