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What is the Prison Industrial Complex?

"Prison Industrial Complex" (PIC) is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to what are, in actuality, economic, social, and political "problems."

Through its reach and impact, the prison industrial complex helps secure the authority of people who get their power through racial, economic and other structural privileges (e.g. White people, American citizens, people with property, people with money) by defending current power distributions. It benefits government and industry, as well as those individuals who already hold power in our society. The processes by which this unequal power is garnered and maintained include: creating dominant media images that perpetuate stereotypes of people of color, poor people, queer people, immigrants, youth, etc., as criminal, delinquent or deviant; earning huge profits for companies that provide goods and services to the prison industrial complex; facilitating political gains; increasing the influence of prison guard and police unions; eliminating social and political dissent by people of color, poor people, immigrants, and others who make demands of self-determination and reorganization of power in the United States.

The United States currently locks up more than 2 million people in cages, and holds in total about 6.6 million people under some form of correctional supervision (imprisoned, on probation, or parole). The State and the media have joined forces to paint a picture of danger lurking around every corner in an attempt to rationalize the use of tax dollars for the repression and imprisonment of a growing number of our family members, colleagues and friends. And like all industries in a capitalist system, the prison industrial complex requires an ever-increasing quantity of raw materials (in the form of prisoners) to maintain itself, regardless of actual crime rates.1

Some people believe that prisons, policing, and surveillance make us safer, that the more people we lock up, the more closely we watch "suspicious" people, the safer we become, despite repeated findings that show no clear link between the numbers of people locked in cages and the "crime" rate.2 Others, many of them critics of the prison industrial complex, say that "our criminal justice system is broken" and needs repair. In fact, the opposite is true. It is my belief that the prison industrial complex does exactly what it is designed to do: disappear and kill precisely those people who present the greatest threats to State power (people of color, the poor, social and political dissenters, non-citizens, and youth). 3

To create a social environment that would meet the needs of the bulk of people trapped by the prison industrial complex, the current balance of power would have to shift substantially. Historically, those in power have been loathe to relinquish it and have had a substantial investment in maintaining the systems that maintain their power. The prison industrial complex maintains the current systems of power by responding to social and economic concerns (i.e. economic, racial, gender inequities) with policing and imprisonment. Physically controlling people by denying them basic freedoms and holding them in cages is an incredibly effective way of preventing people from upsetting the status quo. Prisons also have the effect of disappearing people from their communities, rendering them invisible, socially dead, and silencing their voices. While it is important to avoid romanticizing prisoners by depicting them all as political dissidents, it is also critical to point out that the material conditions from which the majority of prisoners come are those of great social disenfranchisement.

Since the prison industrial complex is such a big and broad system, it's often helpful to break it up into pieces. What follows is an examination of the core elements of the prison industrial complex, although its tentacles extend well beyond these basic features.

To put it most simply, criminalization is the process through which certain actions become illegal. Actions become crimes only after they have been culturally or legally defined as such through processes such as legislation, court rulings, or institutional policies. Ideas about what is "criminal" extend far beyond specific actions, however. Criminalization is also what happens when entire groups of people, or of particular social circumstances (the homeless, youth, queer people), are targeted by law enforcement for surveillance, punishment and control. The criminalization of homelessness, for example, includes the control of homeless people through laws that make everything from public urination to sleeping in the park to participation in informal economies [for example, street vending in major cities like New York] illegal and punishable.

The criminalization of women who use drugs includes powerful new laws that can send pregnant women to prison if a doctor or hospital reports evidence of drug use during their pregnancies. In some states, policies that impose a lifetime ban on access to cash assistance and public housing for people convicted of drug-related crimes also criminalize poor women. Rather than treating addiction as a health problem, doctors are turned into informants, and patients into criminals.

The criminalization of youth of color includes the direct incorporation of police forces into school security, as well as laws in many cities that bar young people from congregating in groups (as small as three) on the street,4 and media images that portray young people of color as out-of-control "super-predators."5 Basic social activities become overlaid with a shroud of suspicion.

The criminalization of non-citizens and immigrants contributes to racial profiling, unwarranted stop and search of non-citizens and immigrants as well as deportation, detention and imprisonment.

The process of criminalization is an important piece of the prison industrial complex. It is one of the tools that make it possible for police and the courts to target not only specific actions, but specific groups of people while maintaining a public body that believes that "criminals" are a threat to them and their families. More often than not, it is people of color who are most aggressively targeted, despite the fact that people of color do not commit crimes at a higher rate than white people. As just one example, a 1996 study found that although Black and White motorists traveling on Interstate 95 in Maryland committed traffic violations at about the same rate, 74.7% of all the motorists who were stopped were Black, although Blacks made up only 17.5% of all the motorists along that stretch of highway during the period of the study.6 In this sense, criminalization is about attaching additional, loaded meanings to the acts committed by specific groups of people.

Criminalization also contributes to the myth that social, political, and economic problems are really "law enforcement" problems-that safety of all kinds, including economic security, can be ensured by watching, controlling, and caging certain groups of people who suffer most under structural inequalities such as poverty or racism. By establishing an idea of what and who is "criminal" and solidifying that idea through use of media and government policy, the prison industrial complex maintains social and physical control over those people identified as criminals-the poor, people of color, people with mental illnesses, queer people, political dissidents, non-citizens.

The health of the prison industrial complex depends in no small part on the solidity of the myths of crime and punishment delivered by the media. From Hollywood to lead stories in The New York Times, to radio and television news, to Law and Order, Oz, America's Most Wanted, or 48 Hours, crime is big business for the media.

The media have played a pivotal role in cementing who and what we understand as "criminal," what suitable responses are to "criminal" acts, as well as creating and amplifying feelings of fear and vulnerability among their audiences.7 According to a 1996 ABC News poll, for instance, 76% of the public said they develop their opinions about crime as a result of news stories, while only 22% based their opinions on information gained through personal experience.8 This statistic is particularly stark when we remember that news broadcasts consist of reports of events happening rather than ideas that are contextualized or that explore the circumstances under which events happen.

In a process similar to that of criminalization, who we see in the media as "criminals" and what acts we see as "criminal" acts are mediated by the priorities of corporations and politicians who use media outlets as a means to disseminate their messages.9 The overwhelming number of films, television and radio programs, newspaper stories, magazine stories (and entire publications) dedicated to issues related to the prison industrial complex, and the consistency of the images used to depict crime, violence, and punishment dictate, in large part, which people and situations become targets of suspicion-mainly people of color and poor people. Media consumers are simultaneously fed images and ideas of what the appropriate responses to "those" people and situations should be: surveillance, aggressive policing, harsh sentencing, and imprisonment. The prevailing media images of "crime" and "criminals" consistently place Black and (to a slightly lesser degree) Latino men at the center of illegal activities, further targeting these groups for criminalization and punishment. Additionally, because the prevailing and consistent media images of responses to "criminal" actions are police brutality or harassment and imprisonment, they further limit what options we believe are available.

Surveillance, or the close observation of an individual or group under suspicion, is one of the primary tactics of the prison industrial complex. Physical and electronic monitoring, including video, audio, mail and e-mail surveillance is used to keep track of people's communications and physical actions. Used in some cases as a scare tactic, particularly in the case of political dissidents, the threat of surveillance is sometimes employed to encourage people to censor their statements and actions. One of the most common forms of surveillance is the use of informants to gain access to groups being surveilled. They build relationships with people for the express purpose of securing information about (and sometimes disrupting the activities of) those under suspicion.10

Groups of people who are exposed to public scrutiny by virtue of their lack of access to individualized private spaces (e.g. homeless people, street vendors, and young people) are particularly vulnerable to surveillance by police and business owners, and are often targeted by law enforcement.11 Immigrants have long been the subjects of surveillance and suspicion in the US at borders and immigration stations, through contact with the INS, and through their employers, for instance.12 The expanding use of neighborhood watch programs and community policing also falls under the area of surveillance, as community members are encouraged by local police forces to watch their neighbors with suspicion and report any unusual activities to law enforcement.13 And since September 11, 2001, law enforcement's use of surveillance has grown substantially, particularly under the protection of the USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act) passed in October 2001.

Surveillance is vital to the prison industrial complex in targeting specific individuals and groups of people and legitimating the criminalization and punishment tactics employed against them. Surveillance, particularly electronic surveillance is also touted as an effective "crime fighting" tool. In fact, no relationship has been established between use of surveillance and lowered crime rates.

The use of surveillance as a tool of law enforcement highlights the unequal distributions of power and wealth upon which the prison industrial complex is based. Who gets watched, who is understood as suspicious, and who gets swept into the prison industrial complex as a result of that watching all contribute to the fear that is so crucial to legitimating the centrality of the prison industrial complex in "solving" the problems generated by these inequities.

The choices police make about which people to target, what to target them for, and when to arrest and book them, play a major role in who ultimately gets locked up. As we have seen, those choices are also made within the larger picture of a system of policing that is set up to target poor people, people of color, immigrants, and people who do not conform to socially acceptable behavior on the street or in their homes (i.e. police frequently target women, queer people, people of color, and young people simply based on their appearance or behavior). While, ostensibly, the police are on the street to stop or solve "crime," their mere presence is a means of enforcing social control. Furthermore, policing routinely incorporates violence to maintain its systemic power as well as the individual power of police officers.

Throughout political histories of resistance in the United States, the fight against police brutality is often at the forefront. Not only do police use the threat of violence-the guns on their hips, the billy clubs on their belts-to control people, they frequently use force to make stops, inquiries, and arrests. When people die at the hands of the police, more often than not, the State concludes that the use of force was reasonable, giving remarkable power to individual officers and the institutions that train them. Police violence also comes in other forms. Harassment of people on the street or "stop and frisk" practices-stopping people without suspicion to frisk them for drugs or weapons-are tools often used to control and monitor poor people and people of color. And though some proponents argue that police abuse is an isolated problem that can be blamed on the actions of rogue officers, it is in reality a systemic problem that is inherent to the way the policing system in the United States is built and maintained. The consistency of the problem within varied communities across the entire country as well as the ineffectuality of review boards and the lack of attention to the issue by all levels of law enforcement (from the municipal to the federal) illustrate the systemic nature of the issue.14

In recent years, the militarization of the police has increased dramatically. Not only has the character of law enforcement come to resemble more closely that of the U.S. military, but it has also begun to be equipped with the same technologies. SWAT (special weapons and tactics) teams are perhaps the most dramatic example of the intersection of law enforcement and military technologies and practices in domestic law enforcement. From providing training in tactics and instruction in using certain types of equipment to the cooperation between the military and domestic law enforcement at the U.S./Mexico border, militarization of law enforcement has meant that the US has become another theater within which the military can operate and has meant that residents of the United States are potential military targets to be eliminated.15 The model that the military uses for problem solving (eliminating targets) is simply not appropriate to the role that the police theoretically provide (serving the needs of the communities in which they work).

The court system is incredibly overburdened, with thousands of people across the country that cannot afford bail awaiting their trials and court dates in jail-sometimes for a year or more. Public defenders, lawyers who provide services to people who cannot afford attorneys, are often handling immense caseloads. For instance, the recommended annual caseload for a public defender should not exceed 150 felonies, or 400 misdemeanors, or 200 juvenile cases. But in Pittsburgh, PA, for example, attorneys were handling between 600 and 1,100 cases per year.16 When cases do go to trial, juries are picked through a strategic process where each side tries to eliminate people who might be inclined toward one or the other side-often prosecutors remove those people who have had any bad experience with law enforcement or might be inclined to empathize with the person or people standing trial. Jury cases are rarely heard by the "peers" of the people standing trial.

Because the court system is just one stop in the entire system that puts people in cages, it reflects the problems that begin in other parts of the system. As people of color and poor people are targeted for surveillance and police repression, more of those same people end up in the courts. The entire prison industrial complex is shaped by structural inequalities, so it follows that the courts target people of color and poor people just like every other part of the prison industrial complex. Of course, the impact of racism, classism, and enforcement of social norms also weighs heavily in determining how people are treated by and in the system. Two examples are demonstrative here. First, Black people are arrested for drug offenses at higher rates than White people despite the fact that Black people constitute about 13% of the national population and about 13% of the drug users. Further, while Blacks represent only about 13% of the drug users nationally, Black people represent 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and of that number 55% of those convicted of drug offenses, and 74% of those sent to prison.17

Second, discrepancies in the application of the death penalty are stark. For instance, Black people are executed at a substantially higher rate than White people, particularly when the case in question involves a White victim. Using Maryland as an example, according to the Uniform Crime Report, in 1998, despite the fact that 81% of the state's homicide victims were Black, 84% of death sentences resulted from cases involving White victims. The difference in sentencing between the poor and those with some wealth is also glaring. According to Amnesty International, 95% of all people sentenced to death could not afford their own lawyer.

Lastly, the rich have crucial advantages when it comes to the court system. Those who can afford to hire their own attorneys are less likely to be imprisoned. They can afford bail, which allows them to leave jail and conduct their own investigations and better prepare for trial. They can afford better attorneys, better expert witnesses, better private detectives, and more "respectable" alibis. Those who cannot afford bail and come straight to court from jail are more likely to be imprisoned. Additionally, poor people are not only found guilty more often than people who are not poor, they are also recommended for suspended sentences and probation less frequently than people with more money.

Prisons are the ultimate expression of the prison industrial complex and its most discussed element. In their very design, prisons are intended to create environments of complete surveillance and total physical control. Prisons are also designed to isolate. The trend in prison construction seems to be toward minimizing contact between prisoners, so that people who are locked up have little opportunity to interact with people other than guards, further contributing to the dehumanizing effects of imprisonment. Additionally, the increasing trend toward super-maximum prisons (prisons that control prisoners through extreme social isolation, severely restricted movement, and an environment with limited stimulation) and the use of solitary confinement and control units within all prisons (and some jails), remind us of the true purpose behind imprisonment-punishment and control.18

The United States imprisons more people than any other country in the world, both in raw numbers and in the percentage of people locked up per capita. The number of people locked up in this country has also skyrocketed in recent years. The over 2,000,000 people the United States currently imprisons is over 4 times the number of prisoners in 1980. During that same period, the rate of increase in women prisoners has been particularly staggering-the number of women in U.S. prisons has tripled since 1980.19

Of all U.S. prisoners, about 67% are people of color, although people of color make up only about 30% of the U.S. population. This is not because more people of color commit crimes. As we have seen, it is because at its foundations, the prison industrial complex is a racist system that targets people of color. For instance, White people are less likely than people of color to be arrested, less likely to be charged with a crime, and less likely to serve time if they are found guilty. Additionally, in 2000, White people in the United States were imprisoned at a rate of 235 people per every 100,000 in the population, compared to 1043 people of color per every 100,000 in the population.20

Despite the fact that prisons are incredibly detrimental both to the communities from which prisoners come and the communities in which prisons are located, they continue to be pawned off on poor communities as economic miracles. Public officials often portray prisons as "clean industries" and promise hundreds of good jobs to economically desperate towns. Often sited the way polluting industries are, prison building also targets the poor and communities of color,21 but neither lifts towns out of poverty. Prisons destroy the environment by using large quantities of local natural resources. The towns where prisons are located are required to pay for the roads, sewers, and utilities that service prisons. Often prison construction takes land out of productive use. Furthermore, despite the promise of jobs, the bulk of prison jobs do not go to residents of the host towns, and employees of the prisons rarely move there after being hired. Because the vast majority of prison employees end up commuting, the host towns' local businesses see little, if any, of the prison employees' money.22

Yet, the industry continues to grow despite flailing economic times. Severe cuts have been made to social safety nets, job markets are shrinking, and many of this country's neediest people are facing increasingly limited access to resources. This environment, combined with increasing surveillance and social control of political dissidents and non-citizens and immigrants, a media feeding-frenzy on crime and punishment, and continued prison construction, for example, create the perfect conditions for more of the targeted populations to get swept up in the net of the prison industrial complex.

Most of us want the same thing: safe, stable communities. The issue is how do we get there? What steps should we take to ensure we meet that goal?

The U.S. prison industrial complex is not a broken system in need of repair. It is a system that works. Over the course of its development, it has actually become even more effective in its purpose-controlling and disappearing those people who present the greatest potential challenges to the U.S. power structure. By saying that I do not mean to say that mistakes are never made in policing, the courts or imprisonment. Many mistakes are made each day. What I do mean is that if we truly desire social justice, we must not fight to improve this killing machine. We must eliminate it.

Taking steps toward creating a world not controlled by the prison industrial complex will entail a substantial shift in our common sense understandings about what makes us safe and secure. While acknowledging the very real harms that are done to people each day, we must push ourselves to broaden our options in responding to those harms. Creating a wider spectrum for economic and political participation; making affordable, quality housing for everyone a priority; or understanding substance use as a health issue can help us challenge some of the assumptions on which the prison industrial complex is based.

Many people would like to see quick, easy solutions to our current crisis. Starving the prison industrial complex of its power and material resources will require much more than a quick fix, however. It will mean trying to resolve conflicts without involving the cops, or opening our own homes as safe havens for our friends and family members in need, or creating job and housing opportunities for people coming home from jails and prisons rather than shutting doors to them, or making it economically impossible for corporations to invest in prison construction or labor. Unfortunately there is no single answer that meets the needs of all our communities. What seems certain is that we need to begin to believe that a world beyond surveillance, policing and imprisonment is possible and turn those beliefs into reality. The reforms for which many have worked so tirelessly have not lessened the negative impacts of the prison industrial complex. In fact, many reforms have only made the prison industrial complex stronger and more durable.23

Even today, when so many rely so heavily on the prison industrial complex for problem solving, alternatives are being tested. No other country in the world relies on imprisonment as heavily as the United States as a solution to conflicts between people. Within the United States, neighbors are setting up alternative neighborhood watches (or shifting the agendas of existing ones) to support each other and provide safe living environments without involving local cops or sheriffs. Conferencing circles and mediation are increasingly being used to resolve disputes. The best of these alternatives happen separately from the current prison industrial complex. The worst of them substitute one type of punishment for another.24 For example, some organizations that work closely with survivors of sexual violence have begun to reject intervention by the police while developing their own community-based alternatives for safety and conflict resolution.25 Alternative schools have been established that provide practical alternatives to the juvenile justice system.26 Creative means of establishing affordable housing are happening across the country to provide safe havens for people in need.27

I certainly don't have all the answers. I also can't predict what a world without the prison industrial complex will be like, since it has been such an entrenched fixture during my lifetime. I believe, however, that it is possible and essential to build a new world piece by piece even as we tear down the prison industrial complex. As the saying goes, "Once there were no prisons. That day will come again."


1. Goldberg, Eve, and Linda Evans. 1998. The Prison Industrial Complex and the Global Economy. Agit Press.

2. For instance, New York Times. 1998. "As Crime Rate Falls, Number of Inmates Rises." January 19; Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. 2000. "Texas Tough? An Analysis of Incarceration and Crime Trends in the Lone Star State"; Justice Policy Institute. 2003. "Deep Impact: Quantifying the Effect of Prison Expansion in the South.".

3. The Black Codes of 1866, the 1919 "Palmer Raids" (sweeping up political leftists and radicals without warrants or warning), the Smith Act of 1940, Executive Order 9066 in 1942 (authorizing the internment of Japanese Americans), and 1996's Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) and Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Conciliation Act are just a few of the many examples of the history of systematic attacks on people of color and the poor that paved the way for the contemporary prison industrial complex.

4. For one example of such a law, see California's Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act of 1998 (also known as Proposition 21).

5. Males, Mike A. 2001. Kids with Guns: How Politicians , Experts, and the Press Fabricate Fear of Youth. Common Courage Press, Philadelphia, PA. Available online at:

6. Harris, David. 1999. Driving While Black: Racial Profiling on our Nation's Highways. ACLU Special Report. See For a look at racial disparities among juveniles, see Annie E. Casey Foundation. 1997. "Pathways to Juvenile Detention Reform 8: Reducing Racial Disparities in Juvenile Detention.."

7. For instance, a Los Angeles Times poll found that 80% of people polled attributed an increased fear of being a victim of crime to media coverage of violent crime. See Dorfman, Lori, and Vincent Schiraldi. 2001. "Off Balance: Youth, Race, and Crime in the News" for more information.

8. Ibid.

9. For a good example of manipulation of the media for political ends, see Vitiello, Michael. 1997. "Three Strikes: Can We Return to Rationality?" The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, Vol. 87, No. 2, pp. 395-481. This chronicles the essential role media coverage of the Polly Klass case played in passing California's "Three Strikes" Law.

10. Although the use of informants has a long history in the United States, readers might be most familiar with the use of informants under the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). For more information on COINTELPRO, see Churchill, Ward, Jim Vander Wall and Brian Glick. 1990. The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI's Secret Wars against Domestic Dissent. Boston: South End Press.

11. For more information, see National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty . 2002. "Illegal to be Homeless: The Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States."

12. For a useful timeline of U.S. immigration history, see Mears, Katie, 2001, "Major Events in U.S. Immigration History." Available at:

13. See for examples.

14. For more information on the widespread nature of police brutality in the United States, see Human Rights Watch. 1998. "Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States."

15. For more information on the militarization of the police, see Morales, Frank. 1999. "The Militarization of the Police." Covert Action Quarterly, #67; Dunn, Timothy J. 2001. "Border Militarization Via Drug and Immigration Enforcement: Human Rights Implications." Social Justice 28(2), pp. 7-30; and Platt, Tony. 1982. "Crime and Punishment in the United States: Immediate and Long-Term Reforms from a Marxist Perspective." Crime and Social Justice (18).

16. ACLU website:

17. Human Rights Watch, 2000. Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs.

18. Filmmaker Josue Moise documented the uses of super-maximum imprisonment brilliantly in his 2001 film, Supermax Wisconsin.

19. Bureau of Justice Statistics

20. Bureau of Justice Statistics

21. United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice. 1987. "Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States."

22. King, Ryan S., Marc Mauer, and Tracy Huling. 2003. "Big Prisons, Small Towns: Prison Economics in Rural America," Washington D.C.: The Sentencing Project.

23. Davis, Angela Y. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? Seven Stories Press.

24. Canada and New Zealand offer some interesting models. Circles have been used to good effect in the Yukon of Canada and among the Ojibway community in Hollow Water, Canada. There are also good examples of alternative practices among the Maori in New Zealand. People should use care in understanding why these practices might work among people of aboriginal descent and why they might not transfer well to people of European descent before taking them up. Unfortunately, circles and mediation have also begun to be co-opted by police forces and the courts in the United States as a way of relieving traffic in courtrooms, but rely on the same logic of punishment to resolve disputes.

25. Incite! Women of Color Against Violence ( and Communities Against Rape and Abuse ( are two good examples.

26. Maya Angelou Public Charter School in Washington, DC is a great example (

27. Homes Not Jails and Coalition for the Homeless, for example.


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