Privatizing Hell: The Economic Motives for Incarcerating America

In a society driven by “bottom line” economics, Americans are more apt to commodify everything from their bodies and their relationships to nature in its totality. The incessant need to bring the market into daily life and our base existence has culminated in a transformation of social relations between the people and their institutions. The drive for economic wealth and prosperity has corrupted state institutions originally meant to positively serve all citizens.

Since Capitalist mechanisms influence all facets of our existence, the prison system, once a small institution in the United States, took on a life of its own after the deindustrialization phase of the 1980s and has since expanded tremendously, at a great financial return to private and governmental interests.

The incessant demand for capital, coupled with the collapse of major industries in the United States and the decline of unions, led to a predominately uneducated workforce, comprised primarily of minorities, who were unemployed with marginal skills beyond heavy industrial labor training. This vacuum of highly skilled laborers and the demand for more complex skills created a manufactured human surplus which inevitably led to social instability, leading the state to increase the prison population and begin privatizing the prison system.

One cannot overlook the similarities between the Prison-Industrial Complex and the Military-Industrial Complex. In both systems, corporations lobby the government to be awarded lucrative contracts to do work that the state should do for itself. As a result, corporations ranging from AT&T to Nestle Food Services all provide the equipment and services needed to run prison facilities. State run prisons have been privatized to the extent that they are a source of profit for major corporations who supply these prisons with everything from food to office supplies.

This drive for profit ultimately created the Prison-Industrial Complex, where human beings are no longer given equal protection under the law and are reduced to a state controlled labor force. The modern nation state today has returned to slavery by perverting the law and reconstituting the entire purpose of “crime and punishment.” Today, punishment is not about rehabilitation or the penalty for some crime, but more often than not, it is a transaction of cheap labor benefitting the market at reduced costs to corporations.

It is an established fact that the legal system in America favors a small elite, upper class, comprised of mostly wealthy white citizens, over the rest of the population. Thus, at its core, the legal system in America is not only broken but ultimately prejudiced against most citizens based on race, class and sexual orientation amongst other factors.

The idea of punishment, engrained into the minds of Americans through dramatic and reality television shows like COPS and Law & Order and heavily publicized legal cases which create an illusion that prisons are a necessary and integral part of society.

Counter-intuitively, many Americans believe crime is out of control and prisons are necessary to counteract the pervasive evil in our society. This is contrary to the current data on crime and violence which show a decrease in crime and an increasing incarceration rate. In a 2004 New New York Times article entitled “Despite Drop in Crime, an Increase in Inmates,” author Fox Butterfield points to the latest DOJ statistics that showed an steady increase of the prison population despite a 16% decrease in violent crime, 36% decrease in murder arrests and 25% decrease in arrests for robbery from 1994 to 2003.

Thus, prisons are now a default punishment for crimes in general, regardless of how small the offenses like possession of small amounts of Marijuana or even carrying condoms. This led The Sentencing Project, a Non-Profit focused on reforming the justice system to conclude in their report “Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship” that “While incarceration is one factor affecting crime rates, its impact is more modest than many proponents suggest, and is increasingly subject to diminishing returns.”

Director Michael Moore in his documentary “Capitalism: A Love Story” spotlights a privatized for-profit juvenile facility in Pennsylvania called PA Child Care. This scheme between one of the owners of the facility, Robert Powell and two local judges, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, created a “kids for cash” system where the more incarcerated children were sent to the facility, the more money they earned. By the time the scheme was exposed and the perpetrators were brought to justice, over 6,500 juveniles had been wrongly convicted and sentenced for crimes that did not warrant incarceration. This is capitalism taken to the end, whereby the logical conclusion of the system is pure profit, no matter the human or environmental cost.

In her famous book “Are Prisons Obsolete?” professor and activist Angela Davis writes a chapter on the Prison-Industrial Complex highlighting the economic motivations that have transformed the legal system in America. She states “The prison industrial complex is fueled by privatization patterns that, it will be recalled, have also drastically transformed health care, education and other areas of our lives.”

The racist structures that perpetuate the prison system coupled with the supply of unemployed black males and centered in urban areas leads to a reality where prisons become labor camps with a large, exploitable labor force. There is a devastating convergence between the ideologies of racism and the capitalist motives of growth, expediency and profit.

The exploitation of prison labor is clearly discernible with the new prison systems that are factories as well as prisons. In a Mother Jones article entitled “What do Prisoners Make for Victoria’s Secret?” author Caroline Winter details the various products inmates make. The products range from lingerie for Victoria’s Secret and JC Penny to military uniforms and parts for airplanes.

The wages prisoners receive range from 19 cents to minimum wage for work that would earn a union worker $25 to $30 an hour. This dangerous development is all too appealing for the corporate interests eager to break the last vestiges of union demands and exploit a cheap and abundant labor force.

According to the statistics of the Department of Justice, the total prisoner population has gone from approximately 500,000 in the early 1980s to over 2 million inmates today. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, beating out the nations criticized for human rights violations. It is completely justifiable to assert that the US incarceration system is a violation of International Human Rights laws, for example violating certain provisions in the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which the US is a signatory of. This dangerous trend constitutes a conflict of interests where State interests collude with private market forces. This dangerous allegiance, much like the Military Industrial Complex, brings the nation closer to a police state where laws disproportionately benefit the wealthy and powerful.

In the final analysis, it is fitting to counter the classic biblical phrase “The kingdom of God is at hand” by crying out “The kingdom of hell is here; the prisons!” Hell actually exists in concrete structures where our comrades go to rot in solitude. America is a land of the imprisoned, where injustice is cast as justice and the Devil wears black robes. The Prison Industrial Complex is proof of the failure of the so called “American Dream.”

Willie Williams, an inmate who wrote a poem for Struggle Magazine entitled “Slave to Inmate” writes, “Given names, Master, and a shack with mud floors to live in; Given numbers, guards, and a brick building with concrete floors and bars to live in.” Williams testifies that racism is alive and well, simply mutated from old style chattel slavery to the exploited victims in the dungeons of capitalism.

Thus, it is fitting to end with the words of Minnesota hip hop artist Brother Ali who says “Welcome to the United Snakes; Land of the Thief, Home of the Slave.”

Christopher Helali is a labor activist and member of the Industrial Workers of the World. Read other articles by Christopher.