Prison Industrial Monster

In 1961, Eisenhower’s well known speech warned the public of the Military Industrial Complex. It refers to policy and monetary relationships which exist between law makers, national armed forces, and the military industrial base that supports them, which includes political decisions, contributions, lobbying and oversight of the industry.

Big government seems to have its tentacles in just about every aspect of our lives, including and largely so, in the market. There is no free market, though I still see that term tossed around especially by anti-capitalists. The free market would be ‘free’ from government regulation, taxation, and manipulation. The state’s role in the market is to profit and benefit the state. The state is devoid of any kind of morality therefore nothing it does is for the good of the people, though the talking heads like to use false philanthropic rhetoric to persuade people otherwise. The only form of capitalism to which the state contributes is crony capitalism and the funders are us, the tax victims.

Prison labor has been used in this country since the beginning like chain gangs, working jobs that help with the maintenance and function of the prison, and producing products for the state, such as license plates. After the civil war, convicts were leased out to private firms as state governments could not afford prisons and the workforce needed to be supplemented in the absence of slaves.

Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR or FPI) was created in 1934. It uses prison labor from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. FPI is restricted to selling its products and services to federal government agencies and has no access to the commercial market. That same year, federal prison officials lobbied to create a work program. The convict lease system was abolished during the Progressive Era but re-emerged in the late 70s when Congress passed a law allowing private companies to hire prisoners; the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP). Prison Industry Enhancement. Yeah, this will be good.

Private prisons are not responding to a market demand, they are artificially creating one. The CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) and GEO (formerly Wackenhut) have both engaged in state initiatives to increase sentences and create new crimes. The CCA sent a letter to 48 states offering to buy public prisons in exchange for a promise to keep them at 90% occupancy for 20 years.

This is the rise and growth of the prison industrial complex. The convict lease system has created free to cheap labor to major corporations such as: IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, Wal-Mart, Chevron, Bank of America, Starbucks, and many more. Corporations are firing their workforce, shutting down business and moving factories to prisons.

Private prisons enjoy a monopoly over a service that is created by laws and sentencing policies. They receive tax money and preferential treatment. They exploit captive labor. There are no strikes, unions, unemployment insurance, vacation or comp time. They have a constant stream of full time workers. If prisoners do not like the pay of a few cents per hour and refuse to work, they are locked up in isolation. This may not be the case everywhere, but it is prevalent.

Of course, prison work programs sound so philanthropic. After all, it establishes employment opportunities for inmates that approximate private-sector work, placing inmates in a realistic work environment, paying them a comparable wage for similar work, and teaching them a marketable skill. Except, they are not paid fair market wages, and though they may have acquired marketable skills, ex-cons are not at the top of the hiring list, unfortunately.

In a nutshell:

The U S of A has 25% of the world’s prison population

1930s – Uniform States Narcotic Drug Act

1971 – War on Drugs – term popularized during Nixon’s reign though it is a continuation of laws enacted in 1914

1979 – Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP)

1984 – Sentencing Reform Act. Effective in 1987

1986 – Anti Drug Abuse Act

1989 – Office of National Drug Control Policy implemented

1980 – ~ 500,000 incarcerations
Currently – over 2.2 million incarcerations
Nearly half are non violent crimes
Nearly 1 million in work programs


I suppose this should come as no surprise that the public-private prison system has spawned yet another ugly multi-tentacled monster on steroids that gorges on crony capitalism while farming captive labor workers via the penal system; by incarcerating non-violent offenders who could be contributing to the market rather than filling cells; by stealing money via taxes from the working class to help fund the prisons; and creating a disadvantage for honest businesses.

Creating more laws that criminalize more people to fill beds in prisons and create a cheap workforce is a crime in itself. Peaceful, productive people are kept out of the workforce and used to support the Prison Industrial Complex. Tax victims are still supplementing prisons, while the prisons reap the benefits and profits. Of course, this is just a small peek in the tiny keyhole. There are many, many factors contributing to this industry.

A solution to the over crowding and perceived need for private prisons would be to stop caging drug ‘offenders’. Those who steal should pay restitution to their victims rather than be incarcerated. However, these solutions do not support the state and therefore may seem impossible to do. Jury nullification is a great weapon against the drug war. Pressure and influence on local governments to repeal or decriminalize unjust laws is another avenue. There is hope as we see other states legalizing and decriminalizing cannabis-nullifying federal drug laws. The monster must be slain one tentacle at a time.

6 thoughts on “Prison Industrial Monster

  1. Great post Lisa. May need a few numeric corrections though.

    The US of A has 25% of the world’s prison population but not 25% is in prison.

    We are the highest with 0.743% or our population being in prison.


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