The term “prison–industrial complex” (PIC), derived from the “military–industrial complex” of the 1950s, describes the attribution of the rapid expansion of the US inmate population to the political influence of private prison companies and businesses that supply goods and services to government prison agencies for profit. The most common agents of PIC are corporations that contract cheap prison labor, construction companies, surveillance technology vendors, companies that operate prison food services and medical facilities, prison guard unions, private probation companies, lawyers, and lobby groups that represent them.
Here is an excerpt from a journal article on the prison-industrial complex:
There is a serious carceral crisis in the U.S.—one created by several decades of tough-on-crime policies that ultimately ensnared more than 7.1 million Americans in the nation’s criminal justice system and led to the actual imprisonment of a staggering 2.3 million of them for record lengths of time. Importantly, this crisis, too, is responsible for record job losses, increased unemployment, and the impoverishment of several generations of children.
[. . .]
By the 1960s, and as Lyndon Johnson was launching the country’s “war on crime” with his Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), politicians and businessmen began discussing how to link work and imprisonment in newly productive ways. What initially were conceived of as job training programs in the nation’s ever-expanding penal system soon became experiments in “Free Venture”—new collaborations between the public and private sectors, and plans to “modernize prison industries by encouraging them to adopt free world business practices.” The goal? Eventually to have the “proceeds from the sale of prison-made goods and services cover . . . the total cost of production” of anything made behind bars in America.
Corporate attempts to re-access prison labor were, however, still hampered by New Deal-era laws. So, as prison populations began to soar, the business community stepped up pressure on legislators to reconsider such barriers. In 1979, with the passage of the Justice System Improvement Act, they were once again able to tap into a seemingly limitless supply of prison labor and the profits it promised.
This major corporate victory, like others during this period, depended on the fact that in 1973 the nation’s most conservative businesses and tough-on-crime politicians had come together. They found a common voice in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a powerful new political lobby committed to beating back unions, locking people up, and accessing cheap labor in ways that businesses had not been able to do for nearly a century.Thompson, H. A. (2012). The Prison Industrial Complex: A Growth Industry in a Shrinking Economy. New Labor Forum, 21(3), 39–47. https://doi.org/10.4179/NLF.213.0000006
Here we see a confluence of many interests rather than just one or a few actors. Of course, an organization such as the American Legislative Exchange Council is an actor, but it is just one actor.
One common view is that the prison-industrial complex (PIC) is an intentional, goal directed operation–that there is a clear design behind it. Cleary, there are, in fact, particular actors with particular goals. But from a systems theory perspective there can be no single, grand design or designer, or primary purpose behind this thing that has evolved. There is no single Prime Mover. We can point to particular corporations or sectors of the economy such as for-profit prisons or particular people or political parties, but all of these efforts to pin blame inevitably simplify this issue. This also means that the problem is very hard to solve. For instance, we can say that the prison-industrial complex benefits capitalism, but what is capitalism? The term is a vast oversimplification. Or we can say that the PIC was created by powerful white Americans to maintain power over everyone else. But we always deal with assemblages that have come together for no single, clear purpose. This is a Kafkaesque problem. In Kafka’s The Trial, the functionaries are all doing their particular jobs and nobody is aware of (or responsible for) the process as a whole. As Foucault showed, tasks are distributed so widely that no one can be blamed for the unpleasant outcome.
In other words, we can argue that in incarcerating millions of African American and Latino men, along with poorly educated white men, the American criminal justice system is doing exactly what it was designed to do; it is not broken or dysfunctional at all; it creates and maintains a permanent underclass while also generating wealth for capitalists. Much of this argument is true; however, the only problem is that there is no “intelligent design” behind this monster. It has evolved with no purpose other than reproducing itself.
It is more comforting to attribute the cause of the PIC to particular actors because we can then target those actors. For example, we can try to abolish for-profit prisons. Or we focus on changing laws such as mandatory minimum sentences, “three strikes” laws, etc. Or we can try to change the laws regarding employment and voting for convicted felons. There is no shortage or potential solutions, but the problem will always reveal new complexities. Ultimately, we will find a rhizome that cannot be easily untangled.
In looking for causes or agents, we could point to things like the 1979 Justice System Improvement Act, but then we have to ask what factors (or fa/actors) made the passage of that act possible. Or we could point to particular prosecutors or judges, but then we have to ask who granted authority to these people. Who trained, hired, and promoted these people? It’s an endless regress.
This fact, however, is not an excuse for doing nothing. We shouldn’t hide behind the complexity. We can intervene even if there is a possibility that we will make the problem worse. Contrary to popular belief, Luhmannian systems theory is neither pessimistic nor optimistic about solving social problems.
With highly complex or rhizomatic problems like the PIC (and climate change, gun violence, world poverty, etc.) tinkering with reforms tends to be ineffective. The system can quickly heal any small wounds inflicted on it. Radical measures are called for. A good start would be the release of every nonviolent offender. The War on Drugs should also be ended. All drugs should be legalized and regulated like alcohol and cigarettes.