The Prison Industrial Complex/Rhizome

One common view is that the prison-industrial complex (PIC) is an intentional, goal directed operation–that there is a 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, 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.

Abjection and Liminality

According to Kristeva (1982), entities which transgress the psycho-cultural boundaries between subject and object, particularly those which appear simultaneously part of the living body-subject and yet not, inhabit a ‘space of abjection’ and generate an uncanny unease for those who encounter them. From this perspective, which seeks to yoke Mary Douglas’s ‘matter out of place’ (1966) to Lacanian theory, the psychic repulsion experienced with regard to the ambivalent and fetishized object prompts efforts to ‘cast it out’ from the self, in order to more firmly establish oneself as fully within the symbolic order.

Medicalization

By medicalization we mean defining behavior as a medical problem or illness and mandating or licensing the medical profession to provide some type of treatment for it. Examples include alcoholism, drug addiction and treating violence as a genetic or brain disorder. This redefinition is not a new function of the medical institution: psychiatry and public health have always been concerned with social behavior and have traditionally functioned as agents of social control.

Operational autonomy and prosecutorial discretion

Prosecutors are the most powerful officials in the criminal justice system. Their routine, everyday decisions control the direction and outcome of criminal cases and have greater impact and more serious consequences than those of any other criminal justice official. The most remarkable feature of these important, sometimes life-and-death decisions is that they are totally discretionary and virtually unreviewable. Prosecutors make the most important of these discretionary decisions behind closed doors and answer only to other prosecutors.

Autonomy and Surveillance

The slaves were allowed to leave the master’s property with a pass, and any white person could ask to see the pass. The plantations were not inclosed by razor-wire fences or high walls; they weren’t prisons. If the slave owners had made their properties like prisons, they would have placed a much greater burden on themselves. But by giving slaves a pass and giving any white person the right to ask to see the pass, the slave owners delegated power to those whites. Surveillance was thus extended throughout the exterior of the slave owner’s property, even as far as the northern states.

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