Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex
Class warfare from above
by Christian Parenti
CovertAction Quarterly, Spring / Summer 2000
What drives incarceration and the massive build-up in American
criminal justice? Are specific corporate interests taking control
of criminal justice policy, as is often the case with military
policy? Has the Military-lndustrial Complex, with the end of the
Cold War, transmognfied into the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC)?
This "prison as pentagon" argument has assumed the
mantle of common sense among many left pundits and activists.
The PIC explanation generally cites three ways in which incarceration
directly bolsters capitalism. They are: the privatization of prisons
and prison-related services, the exploitation of prison labor
by private firms, and the broad Keynesian stimulus (i.e., job
creation) of criminal justice spending.
All of these features are important, but none of them-alone
or together-explains why we are headed for what Jerome Miller
calls a ``gulag state." Perhaps a more useful analysis of
the cops-courts-and-big house buildup requires a broader, more
historically rooted class analysis that looks not just at bad
corporations but at the structure of American capitalism more
Critics of the Prison Industrial Complex focus much of their
attention on prison labor: We hear that incarceration is increasingly
driven by profit hungry firms looking for cheap labor. In making
this point speakers or writers will reel off a sinner's list of
familiar implicated corporate names: Microsoft, Starbucks, Victoria's
Secret and TWA. The phenomenon looks to be a mile wide, but in
reality it's only an inch deep.
Most of the typically named culprits have engaged prison labor
only via subcontractors who, in turn, often have only sporadic
contracts with prisons. The moral stain remains: Leasing convicts
is leasing convicts. But we need to re-calibrate our understanding
of what's going on and look closely at the facts. Nationwide only
2,600 prisoners work for private firms 2 Why is this? Because
capitalists don't like the invasive, slow, overbearing environment
of prisons. Guards may approve of "making convicts pay"
but in practice they regularly interrupt production to strip-search,
count, and lock away the convict employees. Nor are many big firms
willing to risk the bad press associated with exploiting prisoners.
For example, Montgomery Ward's charter pledges that the company
will not use child, slave, or convict labor. Finally, why hire
convicts at minimum wage-corporations have to pay prisons minimum
wage even if the inmate employees only receive pennies per hour-when
there is an overabundance of desperate, often militarily disciplined,
workers in the free world.
But that's just the private sector, what about the State?
After all, most convict laborers are employed by state-owned "prison
industries" such as the California Department of Corrections
Prison Industries Authority (PIA) or the Federal Government's
Unicor, which employs about 20,000 inmates. Impressive numbers,
and one would be excused for thinking that someone must be making
money hand over fist. However Unicor-like the many parallel ventures
owned by the states-is an economic basket case that would shortly
collapse if ever forced to compete with the private sector.
Unicor products provided to the Department of Defense, on
average, cost 13 percent more than the same goods supplied by
private firms. U.S. Navy officials say that, compared to the open
market, Unicor's "product is inferior, costs more and takes
longer to procure." The federal prison monopoly delivers
42 percent of its orders late, compared to an industry-wide average
delinquency rate of only 6 percent. A 1993 government report found
that Unicor wire sold to the military failed at nearIy twice the
rate of the military's next worst supplier.
"The stuff was poor quality," said Derek Vander
Schaaf, the Pentagons Deputy Inspector General, adding: "If
you can't compete at 50 cents an hour for labor, guys, come on."
Most state owned prison industry authorities (PlAs) are just
as bad: twenty-five percent of them reported net losses in 1994.
But even this unflattering number is optimistically distorted,
because many PlAs that boast profits in their annual reports fail
to disclose the massive subsidies they receive. For example, California's
PIA claims to be in the black, but state auditors tell a different
story: In 1998 the PIA employed 7,000 of the state's 155,000 prisoners
in everything from dairy farming to computer refurbishing, and
operated with the usual pampering of guaranteed markets and obscenely
low wages. But, like Unicor, the PIA was unable even to meet its
costs. Despite posting a "profit" the PIA is on life
support, receiving "operating subsidies" and capital
outlay funding from the state worth more than $90 million.
I he same story can be found in state after state. Why the
inefficiency? In part because convicts resent being used as virtual
slaves and thus drag their feet, steal supplies, and commit sabotage
nonstop. One former federal inmate told me that his "cellie"
ended each workday at a Unicor shop with a celebratory calculation
of how much equipment and material he had destroyed, thrown or
stolen. As the former prisoner put it, "It was all waste,
all the time."
Another player in the matrix of interests referred to as the
prison industrial complex is the fast-growing and powerful private
prison industry which now controls around 10 percent of all U.S.
prison beds. Though private jailers are generally profitable,
they don't lower the costs of incarceration for state governments.
What savings are achieved through corner cutting- that is: removing
all amenities and services and hiring unqualified guards-is usually
absorbed by the company as profit. Already this modus operandi
of the bottom line is showing itself to be detrimental for the
long-term profitability of some big private jailers, as we will
Through assiduous cultivation of state officials, the private
jailers are increasingly active in shaping criminal justice policy,
but their partnerships with state governments also face problems.
Recent events have unveiled private jailers as cheats, liars and
major political liabilities.
The biggest of the most recent blemishes on the private gulag's
image was the mass escape at Corrections Corporation of America's
Youngstown, Ohio, prison. That joint-supposed to be a medium security
lockup-was a hyper-violent overcrowded facility illegally packed
with maximum security inmates from D.C.
CCA's invincibility crumbled with the news that six very angry
young men from Washington, D.C., had cut open the prison's chain-link
fence, crossed an electrified barrier, plowed through yards of
razor wire and were now at large among the good people of Youngstown.
For almost a week, regular police, tactical squads, canine
teams, and helicopters combed an ever widening circle around the
prison in search of the runaways. One by one the cops busted the
desperate, exhausted escapees, some of whom had been badly wounded
by the razor wire. The last runaway inmate, Vincent Smith, was
finally taken down in the backyard of Susie Ford's house. A 54-year-old
grandmother of three living on the outskirts of Youngstown, Ms.
Ford got the news live-when her frenetic sister telephoned advising
her to turn on the television. "That's our building! That's
our building!" Indeed it was. And the Ford sisters watched
their screens in amazement as police swarmed through the shrubs
This and a slew of other "problems" have finally
undermined the once unstoppable CCA. A former Wall Street darling,
and dubbed "a theme stock for the nineties," CCAs stock
price has tumbled to half its peak value.
Other private lockup firms are facing the same crisis. Recently
the number two private jailer, Wackenhut Corporation, saw several
of its facilities rocked by riots. In mid-November last year,
at the Taft Federal Correctional Institution, hundreds of inmates,
angry about lousy food, smashed windows, televisions, and tables
in the federal system's only full-sized private prison. Thirty
minutes of tear gas, rubber bullets and flash bang grenades ended
the uprising. More serious was the August rioting in two of Wackenhut's
New Mexico penitentiaries. In one of those clashes a guard was
shanked to death by ten inmates. On top of all that 12 former
Wackenhut employees are under indictment in Austin, Texas. And
much like CCA, the company ended the year with its stock heading
south-down 60 percent from the previous season.
So private prison has grown fast but its boom days may be
over as politicians-even Republicans- are turning against for-profit
lockups p2 Thus it would seem that private prisons are not pushing
criminal justice policy in the way that arms manufacturers do
with defense policy
WORKING THE CRACKDOWN
There is one way in which criminal justice as a whole is coming
to resemble the military-industrial complex. While the estimated
spending on prisons overall is $30 billion annually, the overall
tab on police, courts, prosecutors, probation, parole, bail bonds,
bounty hunting, drug treatment and prison is estimated to be as
high as $150 billion annually. That's roughly half the Pentagon's
budget, not counting the billions in military spending that are
hidden within the Department of Energy So there is definitely
a broad Keynesian stimulus effect from the crackdown; the criminal
justice system is host to a raft of parasitic job categories that
range from stenographer and janitor, to judge and executioner.
But other than prosecutors nationwide and prison guards in California,
few of these interest groups are very organized or do much to
create new law and order politics.
What about economically cast-off regions, places that once
subsisted thanks to military bases or now dead smokestack industries?
We hear that many such regions are resurrected, phoenix-like,
by the prosperity of prison spending. A closer look at the new
prison towns complicates that picture.
That this has proven to be an illusion is no better illustrated
than in California's Central Valley In the last 15 years, California
spent $4.2 billion building 23 new prisons. A recent analysis
of the economic impact of the eight prisons surrounding Fresno
reveals a junkyard of broken promises and falsely optimistic economic
projections. First and foremost, the vast majority of the 8,000
new prison-related jobs haven't gone to residents in the economically
depressed little prison towns. Nor has the $2 billion spent on
prison construction in California over the last 15 years, or the
half-billion dollars annually shelled out to meet prison payrolls,
translated into a wave of new houses, restaurants or stores in
the states' impoverished lock-up regions.
In Corcoran-where more than half of the town's population
is incarcerated in a massive complex of two penitentiaries, which
may add a third one soon-800 job-seekers took civil-service placement
tests for just two prison staff positions. The town's unemployment
rate is still 15 percent just as it was a year before the first
prison opened in 1988. According to estimates from the state and
the prison guards' union, only 7 to 9 percent of the prison jobs
in the Central Valley go to people living in prison towns.
Thanks to the massive freeways and California's all-powerful
car culture, most staff and guards commute from the region's major
cities: Fresno, Visalia, and Bakersfield. In short, prison cannot
CLASS WAR FROM ABOVE
While all of the specific interests mentioned above help explain
part of the crackdown, they don't go far enough. Beyond the interlocking
corporate interests and the question of job creation and regional
economic development there lies the broader and historically deeper
question of class and racial control.
In many ways the criminal justice build-up is an organically
evolving means of managing the class and racial polarization of
a restructured American economy At the heart of the matter lies
a basic contradiction: Capitalism needs and creates poverty, intentionally
through policy and organically through crisis. Yet, capitalism
is also always threatened by the poor. These surplus populations
help scare working people into obedience and keep wages low. But
at the same time the poor (who in a white supremacist system are
disproportionately people of color) scare the upper middle classes
(who are mostly white). At times the impoverished classes, the
dangerous classes, even rebel, demanding justice, burning down
the ghetto, or worse yet, organizing themselves into coherent
coalitions that can leverage the state for economic redistribution
and racial equality
From the New Deal in the 1930s through the culmination of
the War on Poverty in the 1970s (that's right-it all really came
to fruition under Nixon), an ever larger portion of America's
cast-off populations were absorbed through ameliorative and co-optive
social reforms. Spending on health care, education, urban development
and welfare were all expanded. At the same time corporate America
came under increased regulation in the areas of health and safety,
labor arbitration and environmental pollution.
People of color, particularly in agricultural regions, were
largely excluded from many of these reforms and managed the old
fashioned way-via brute force. Nonetheless, by the late sixties
America's burgeoning social democracy had begun to cause trouble
for the owning classes. By the early seventies profits began to
shrink and unemployment began to rise but wage demand still increased.
In fact labor was in a more militant mood than ever. By the early
seventies wildcat strikes had shut the nation's postal system,
coal fields, truck industry and railways.
From capital's point of view government anti-poverty programs
were, shall we say, spoiling the working classes. During one nationwide
strike in which 12 unions beat General Electric it was figured
that strikers had collected $25 million in welfare. And, despite
recession in the early seventies, the ratio of quits to layoffs
In short, workers were losing their fear of unemployment and
bosses because the nation's incipient social welfare system was
taking up the slack and supporting them: the War on Poverty was
subsidizing the war against capital.
Reagan put an end to all that with: severe recession in the
early eighties engineered to put labor back in its place; conservative
courts, and a mass assault on all forms of government subsidies
to poor and working people (from low-income housing programs,
to job training to welfare). All this helped to tip the scales
back in capital's favor. Now profits are in recovery while the
people, particularly people of color, bleed.
But how to control the new surplus populations?
In retrospect the ever evolving answer is clear: Racialize
poverty via the code of crime, and then hound the victims with
police narc squads, SWAT teams, and quality of life enforcement;
send the INS to raid their homes; and lock up as many as possible
for as long as possible.
Thus criminal justice regulates, absorbs, terrorizes, and
disorganizes the poor. It also bolsters white supremacy by demonizing,
disenfranchising and marginalizing ever larger numbers of brown
people. But unlike social democratic/welfare co-option-that other
way of managing poverty-anti-crime repression doesn't have the
deleterious side effect of economically empowering or at least
cushioning the poor and subsidizing their struggles. Nor does
the new model of control let loose dangerous notions of racial
equality and social inclusion, as did the rhetoric surrounding
the New Deal War and the War on Poverty
Finally one last caveat: The politicians who produce these
laws and other policies do not necessarily do so for the structurally
beneficial impacts they will have. Rather, the average get-tough
pol is simply looking for a compelling issue that speaks to voters'
anxieties without actually saying anything revealing or dangerous
about class power and privilege. On such a journey there seems
to be no better horse to ride than the trusty stead of crime coded
racism. But the inevitable outcome of such electioneering is legislation
that is also useful in bolstering and reproducing an unequal society.