Debunking The Myth of the Prison-Industrial Complex

As part of my review of Loïc Wacquant’s Prisons of Poverty, I mentioned that Wacquant devoted some space to debunking what he considers to be a myth: the theory of the prison-industrial complex. I thought I’d mention a bit more about it.

For Wacquant, there are four main reasons the expression “prison-industrial complex” does not provide an accurate explanatory frame:

1. It focuses exclusively on the “prisonfare” part of the dual approach that the neoliberal state uses against “problem populations”, completely missing the “workfare” part of the disciplining of such populations and the necessary counterpart to mass incarceration.

2. The idea of prison-industrial complex emphasizes privatization and the rise of the private prison sector with corporations such CCA or Wackenhut. In other words, the logic of such privatization is profits, along with the use of inmates by other corporations, such as Microsoft. But imprisonment, in the US and other countries, is still mostly a public affair. Privatization is not a necessary condition of mass incarceration but a side effect of it. As Wacquant notes, “banning adult imprisonment for profit did not prevent California from becoming a leader in the drive to mass incarceration” (85). Similarly, the exploitation of inmates by corporation affects only about 1% of inmates.

3. The expression “prison-industrial complex” is, of course, reminiscent of another industrial complex: the military-industrial complex. This is not random, but for Wacquant, this parallel obscures major differences. The American military is highly centralized whereas the whole incarceration system is more of a capillary nature (to use Foucault’s expression). The US penal system is widely dispersed and decentralized, and therefore less subject to uniform policy.

4. The framing of prison-industrial complex also tends to hide from view the major transformations that have taken place regarding prisons and the oversight that courts have exercises, sometimes forcefully regarding the issue of overcrowding, for instance. It also obscures the work of the prison reform movement to introduce, albeit in a limited fashion, a welfarist logic to the carceral world.

In other words, when I mentioned that Wacquant debunks the idea of a prison-industrial complex, I did not mean that he denies the existence of mass incarceration, but rather that he finds the framing misguided as explanatory construct.

3 thoughts on “Debunking The Myth of the Prison-Industrial Complex

  1. I’d have to (and will) read Wacquant’s analysis, but let me quibble with a few of the assertions above as I read them.

    First, the Prison-Industrial Complex (also referred to as the Corrections-Industrial Complex) is not necessarily referring to privatization only. The “axis of evil,” to borrow the phrase, consists of the private sector that benefits from prison construction (be it state-funded or private-funded), politicians and government agencies eager to ensure their existence, and professional organizations such as the ACA, various prison guard unions, and so on, who benefit from more jobs. Privatization is one component of the PIC, but a small one, ultimately.

    Second, the military system is highly organized, but so are state governments (and politicians) as a whole. In that sense, these various capillaries (or archipelagos) of prisons function in a highly centralized unison, and punishment as political capital can never be underestimated.

    Third, while I agree there is a certain conspiratorial nature to the framing that makes prison reform and other attempted changes seem a futile exercise, those who support the PIC framework would suggest that the failure of prison reform as a whole is directly attributable to the PIC. To put it another way, if the PIC weren’t as powerful as it is, prison reform may have been enacted decades ago.

    While there is evidence in the U.S. that some states have released inmates during the Great Recession, it should also be noted that most of these inmates are still under some form of techno-corrections once they leave (GPS tracking, intensive supervision parole, etc.). And when you consider the fastest growing segment of carceral supervision today in the U.S. is probation, one wonders if Corrections-Industrial Complex isn’t the better term.

    Like mold, it continues to grow despite near-record low levels of crime.

  2. Wacquant’s analysis relies on a crude mis-reading of the prison industrial complex, at best. The most widely used definition of the PIC has been developed by Critical Resistance and is posted below. As you can see, it is neither economistic, nor narrow. Professor Wacquant would do well to not commit haphazard theoretical hit jobs on the labor that many activists have done in order to articulate our reality, so as to change it.
    The United States uses prisons and policing as a failed “solution” to social, political and economic problems. We call this system the “prison industrial complex,” or PIC. As a result our communities are being destroyed.
    The PIC depends upon the oppressive systems of racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia. It includes human rights violations, the death penalty, industry and labor issues, policing, courts, media, community powerlessness, the imprisonment of political prisoners, and the elimination of dissent.
    The United States currently imprisons around 2 million people. About 6.5 million people are presently under some form of supervision within the criminal justice system. Women represent the fastest rising prison population. Since 1980, the number of women imprisoned in the U.S. has risen by almost 400 percent. Racism continues to be a major factor in the United States, illustrated by policies and programs that sustain white supremacy. Racism, as it is used through criminal laws that target people of color, is essential to the PIC, not accidental.

    The PIC is also fueled by dramatic and racist reporting about “crime,” “delinquency,” and “rebellion,” creating a culture of fear. As a result, people (primarily people of color, youth, and the economically disadvantaged) are locked in cages for longer and longer in the interests of “public safety.” The way the many parts of the PIC interact is exactly what makes it so powerful and destructive. In order to fight this system, we have to recognize what drives and shapes it.

    • Actually, none of the points you make address the reservations that Wacquant has regarding the use of the PIC. Nor does he disparage the work done by prison reform activists.

      He does not engage in a hit job but rather shifts the frame to look as mass incarceration with a different set of lenses along with some data (for instance, decentralization and very low levels of privatization).

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