Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex

Imprisonment has become the response of first resort to far too many of the
social problems that burden people who are ensconced in poverty. These
problems often are veiled by being conveniently grouped together under the
category "crime" and by the automatic attribution of criminal behavior to people of color. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to

Prisons thus perform a feat of magic. Or rather the people who continually
vote in new prison bonds and tacitly assent to a proliferating network of
prisons and jails have been tricked into believing in the magic of
imprisonment. But prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human
beings. And the practice of disappearing vast numbers of people from poor,
immigrant, and racially marginalized communities has literally become big

The dividends that accrue from investment in the punishment industry only amount to social destruction.

The seeming effortlessness of magic always conceals an enormous amount of
behind-the-scenes work. When prisons disappear human beings in order to
convey the illusion of solving social problems, penal infrastructures must
be created to accommodate a rapidly swelling population of caged people.
Goods and services must be provided to keep imprisoned populations alive.
Sometimes these populations must be kept busy and at other times --
particularly in repressive super-maximum prisons and in INS detention
centers -- they must be deprived of virtually all meaningful activity.
Vast numbers of handcuffed and shackled people are moved across state
borders as they are transferred from one state or federal prison to another.

All this work, which used to be the primary province of government, is now
also performed by private corporations, whose links to government in the
field of what is euphemistically called "corrections" resonate dangerously with the military industrial complex. The dividends that accrue from investment in the punishment industry, like those that accrue from
investment in weapons production, only amount to social destruction.
Taking into account the structural similarities and profitability of
business-government linkages in the realms of military production and
public punishment, the expanding penal system can now be characterized as a
"prison industrial complex."

The Color of Imprisonment

Almost two million people are currently locked up in the immense network of
U.S. prisons and jails. More than 70 percent of the imprisoned population
are people of color. It is rarely acknowledged that the fastest growing
group of prisoners are black women and that Native American prisoners are
the largest group per capita. Approximately five million people --
including those on probation and parole -- are directly under the
surveillance of the criminal justice system.

More than 70 percent of the imprisoned population are people of color.

Three decades ago, the imprisoned population was approximately one-eighth
its current size. While women still constitute a relatively small
percentage of people behind bars, today the number of incarcerated women in
California alone is almost twice what the nationwide women's prison
population was in 1970. According to Elliott Currie, "[t]he prison has
become a looming presence in our society to an extent unparalleled in our
history -- or that of any other industrial democracy. Short of major wars,
mass incarceration has been the most thoroughly implemented government
social program of our time."

To deliver up bodies destined for profitable punishment, the political
economy of prisons relies on racialized assumptions of criminality -- such
as images of black welfare mothers reproducing criminal children -- and on
racist practices in arrest, conviction, and sentencing patterns. Colored
bodies constitute the main human raw material in this vast experiment to
disappear the major social problems of our time. Once the aura of magic is
stripped away from the imprisonment solution, what is revealed is racism,
class bias, and the parasitic seduction of capitalist profit. The prison
industrial system materially and morally impoverishes its inhabitants and
devours the social wealth needed to address the very problems that have led
to spiraling numbers of prisoners.

As prisons take up more and more space on the social landscape, other
government programs that have previously sought to respond to social needs
-- such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families -- are being squeezed out
of existence. The deterioration of public education, including
prioritizing discipline and security over learning in public schools
located in poor communities, is directly related to the prison "solution."

Profiting from Prisoners

As prisons proliferate in U.S. society, private capital has become enmeshed
in the punishment industry. And precisely because of their profit
potential, prisons are becoming increasingly important to the U.S. economy. If the notion of punishment as a source of potentially stupendous profits is disturbing by itself, then the strategic dependence on racist structures and ideologies to render mass punishment palatable and profitable is even more troubling.

Prison privatization is the most obvious instance of capital's current
movement toward the prison industry. While government-run prisons are
often in gross violation of international human rights standards, private
prisons are even less accountable. In March of this year, the Corrections
Corporation of America (CCA), the largest U.S. private prison company,
claimed 54,944 beds in 68 facilities under contract or development in the
U.S., Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Following the global
trend of subjecting more women to public punishment, CCA recently opened a
women's prison outside Melbourne. The company recently identified
California as its "new frontier."

Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (WCC), the second largest U.S. prison
company, claimed contracts and awards to manage 46 facilities in North
America, U.K., and Australia. It boasts a total of 30,424 beds as well as
contracts for prisoner health care services, transportation, and security.

Currently, the stocks of both CCA and WCC are doing extremely well.
Between 1996 and 1997, CCA's revenues increased by 58 percent, from $293
million to $462 million. Its net profit grew from $30.9 million to $53.9
million. WCC raised its revenues from $138 million in 1996 to $210 million
in 1997. Unlike public correctional facilities, the vast profits of these
private facilities rely on the employment of non-union labor.

The Prison Industrial Complex

But private prison companies are only the most visible component of the
increasing corporatization of punishment. Government contracts to build
prisons have bolstered the construction industry. The architectural
community has identified prison design as a major new niche. Technology
developed for the military by companies like Westinghouse are being
marketed for use in law enforcement and punishment.

Moreover, corporations that appear to be far removed from the business of
punishment are intimately involved in the expansion of the prison
industrial complex. Prison construction bonds are one of the many sources
of profitable investment for leading financiers such as Merrill Lynch. MCI
charges prisoners and their families outrageous prices for the precious
telephone calls which are often the only contact prisoners have with the
free world.

Nordstrom department stores sell jeans that are marketed as "Prison Blues" made in Oregon prisons.

Many corporations whose products we consume on a daily basis have learned
that prison labor power can be as profitable as third world labor power
exploited by U.S.-based global corporations. Both relegate formerly
unionized workers to joblessness and many even wind up in prison. Some of
the companies that use prison labor are IBM, Motorola, Compaq, Texas
Instruments, Honeywell, Microsoft, and Boeing. But it is not only the
hi-tech industries that reap the profits of prison labor. Nordstrom
department stores sell jeans that are marketed as "Prison Blues," as well as t-shirts and jackets made in Oregon prisons. The advertising slogan for these clothes is "made on the inside to be worn on the outside." Maryland prisoners inspect glass bottles and jars used by Revlon and Pierre Cardin, and schools throughout the world buy graduation caps and gowns made by
South Carolina prisoners.

"For private business," write Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans (a political prisoner inside the Federal Correctional Institution at Dublin, California) "prison labor is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No health benefits, unemployment insurance, or workers' compensation to pay. No language barriers, as in foreign countries. New leviathan prisons are being built on 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 labor.'"

Devouring the Social Wealth

Although prison labor -- which ultimately is compensated at a rate far
below the minimum wage -- is hugely profitable for the private companies
that use it, the penal system as a whole does not produce wealth. It
devours the social wealth that could be used to subsidize housing for the
homeless, to ameliorate public education for poor and racially marginalized
communities, to open free drug rehabilitation programs for people who wish
to kick their habits, to create a national health care system, to expand
programs to combat HIV, to eradicate domestic abuse -- and, in the process,
to create well-paying jobs for the unemployed.

Since 1984 more than twenty new prisons have opened in California, while
only one new campus was added to the California State University system and
none to the University of California system. In 1996-97, higher education
received only 8.7 percent of the State's General Fund while corrections
received 9.6 percent. Now that affirmative action has been declared
illegal in California, it is obvious that education is increasingly
reserved for certain people, while prisons are reserved for others. Five
times as many black men are presently in prison as in four year colleges and
universities. This new segregation has dangerous implications for the
entire country.

By segregating people labeled as criminals, prison simultaneously fortifies
and conceals the structural racism of the U.S. economy. Claims of low
unemployment rates -- even in black communities -- make sense only if one
assumes that the vast numbers of people in prison have really disappeared
and thus have no legitimate claims to jobs. The numbers of black and
Latino men currently incarcerated amount to two percent of the male labor
force. According to criminologist David Downes, "[t]reating incarceration as a type of hidden unemployment may raise the jobless rate for men by about one-third, to 8 percent. The effect on the black labor force is
greater still, raising the [black] male unemployment rate from 11 percent
to 19 percent."

Hidden Agenda

The focus of state policy is rapidly shifting from
social welfare to social control.

Mass incarceration is not a solution to unemployment, nor is it a solution
to the vast array of social problems that are hidden away in a rapidly
growing network of prisons and jails. However, the great majority of
people have been tricked into believing in the efficacy of imprisonment,
even though the historical record clearly demonstrates that prisons do not
work. Racism has undermined our ability to create a popular critical
discourse to contest the ideological trickery that posits imprisonment as
key to public safety. The focus of state policy is rapidly shifting from
social welfare to social control.

Black, Latino, Native American, and many Asian youth are portrayed as the
purveyors of violence, traffickers of drugs, and as envious of commodities
that they have no right to possess. Young black and Latina women are
represented as sexually promiscuous and as indiscriminately propagating
babies and poverty. Criminality and deviance are racialized. Surveillance
is thus focused on communities of color, immigrants, the unemployed, the
undereducated, the homeless, and in general on those who have a diminishing
claim to social resources. Their claim to social resources continues to
diminish in large part because law enforcement and penal measures
increasingly devour these resources. The prison industrial complex has
thus created a vicious cycle of punishment which only further impoverishes
those whose impoverishment is supposedly "solved" by imprisonment.

Therefore, as the emphasis of government policy shifts from social welfare
to crime control, racism sinks more deeply into the economic and
ideological structures of U.S. society. Meanwhile, conservative crusaders
against affirmative action and bilingual education proclaim the end of
racism, while their opponents suggest that racism's remnants can be
dispelled through dialogue and conversation. But conversations about "race relations" will hardly dismantle a prison industrial complex that thrives on and nourishes the racism hidden within the deep structures of our society.

The emergence of a U.S. prison industrial complex within a context of
cascading conservatism marks a new historical moment, whose dangers are
unprecedented. But so are its opportunities. Considering the impressive
number of grassroots projects that continue to resist the expansion of the
punishment industry, it ought to be possible to bring these efforts
together to create radical and nationally visible movements that can
legitimize anti-capitalist critiques of the prison industrial complex. It
ought to be possible to build movements in defense of prisoners' human rights and movements that persuasively argue that what we need is not new prisons, but new health care, housing, education, drug programs, jobs, and education.
To safeguard a democratic future, it is possible and necessary to weave
together the many and increasing strands of resistance to the prison
industrial complex into a powerful movement for social transformation.

Angela DavisAngela Davis' long-standing commitment to prisoners' rights dates back to her involvement in the campaign to free the Soledad Brothers in the late 1960's, which led to her own arrest and imprisonment in 1970. A "Free Angela Davis" campaign during her 16-month incarceration helped lead to her acquittal in 1972.

1310Davis continues to be active in prison issues to this day as a member of Advisory Board of the Prison Activist Resource Center in Oakland,1310California. She was also an organizer of the 1998 "Critical Resistance"1310conference held in Berkeley. Davis is a professor in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her most recent book is Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, (Pantheon Books).

AMP Section Name:Human Rights
  • 187 Privatization

Stay Informed