Glossary: The Prison Industrial Complex

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The Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) is a term used to describe various components driving mass incarceration in the United States. It is the preoccupation with punishment rather than prevention and rehabilitation. The development and infrastructure of prisons have become a privatized industry run for the purpose of turning a profit. Under the promise of lowering crimes and protecting the public, state and federal governments issue contracts to private companies, like Corrections Conglomerates of America (CCA) and GEO Group, to manage and staff prisons. These private companies are paid a fixed amount to house prisoners. Their profits are accrued from spending the minimum amount on each prisoner and pocketing the remaining funds. Hence, the objective is to house the maximum numbers of inmates for extended periods of time as inexpensively as possible.

The PIC is aided by the dissemination of stereotypes by the media regarding Black and Latin@ communities and the criminalization of lower-income people. This intertwined system of oppression is also preserved by the increased presence of police in schools and communities of color and regressive immigration policies. Critical Resistance is an organization working to challenge the dominant narrative that prisons are necessary for public safety. Critical Resistance’s work demonstrates how crime is related to social, economic and political disenfranchisement and illuminates the inequalities and oppressions perpetuated and maintained by the PIC.

Ultimately, Critical Resistance aims to abolish prisons and find community-based solutions to crime and violence. In her book Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis, a co-founder of Critical Resistance, explains that attempts at prison reform do little to address the underlying socio-economic factors which spur the growth of prisons. I find Audre Lorde’s analysis in “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” from Sister Outsider, useful in depicting the limitations of trying to improve a system that is inherently unjust and designed solely for profit-making and increasing power. Lorde states:

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those…who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.

by Odia Barker

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  1. The universal model of capitalist business enterprise is buy cheap and sell dear. Private prison companies do it by spending amounts equal to subsistence on the physical survival of inmates and obtaining by guile, bribery, or other means contracts of the highest possible value. The difference is gross profit, and in a world that has been trained to accept the proposition that it is impossible to be too merciless toward an inmate that profit is fat, indeed.



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