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.