Prison Industrial Complex: In Depth


Crooked Judges and Prisons for Profit

The custom of judges profiting from the penal system refuses to die, and as long as a criminal justice system is part of an economic system rooted in exploitation and profits—like capitalism—criminal justice will always be for sale.

Just like the many judges over the centuries who take bribes, fix tickets, and rule in favor of the rich, English judges in the 1600s profited tremendously from the trade in indentured servants and in criminalizing the poor. For example, in Bristol — where the indentured servant trade was centered — judges owned plantations in the English colonies, so the more poor people they convicted, the more free laborers they had for their plantations.

Today, in the U.S., judges are no less crooked and the criminal justice system is no less tied up in profits and exploitation, especially with the recent trend of privatizing prisons.

In 2011, two Pennsylvania judges were caught making millions of dollars from a “cash for kids” scheme: They sentenced thousands of children to a private juvenile prison owned by their friends, who paid them off. Just like the crooked judges in Bristol, England, these judges made sure that children who committed even the most minor offenses, such as writing a prank note, were sent to the private prison.

But privatizing prisons has become a multi-billion-dollar industry in this country, so Pennsylvania—along with every other state—has contracts with private companies to build and imprison rising numbers of “criminals.” From 1990 to 2009, the number of inmates in privately-owned prisons has skyrocketed 1,600%, and the numbers of people being shipped off to these profit-dependent warehouses continues to rise.

The number of people being imprisoned in general has been rising, too; the United States has more people in prison than any other country in the world, whether you measure that in total numbers or as a percentage of the population. The reason is that incarceration — just like in England in the 1600s and 1700s — has become a way to control and exploit our population.

Just like England did back then, our country has been insanely busy passing hundreds and hundreds of laws criminalizing women, immigrants, political dissidents, and the poor. New laws over the past two decades have criminalized people for losing their homes to crooked banks and becoming homeless, criminalized people for losing their jobs and becoming “vagrants,” criminalized people for being born female and trying to take control of their own reproduction, criminalized women for defending themselves against their attacker, criminalized people because of where they are born (i.e., immigrants), criminalized people for their religion, criminalized people for getting happy on pot instead of merlot or gin, criminalized people for protesting Wall Street crooks getting away with massive crimes, criminalized people for writing a political protest in chalk on the sidewalk, and criminalized people for protesting the criminalization of masses of people across the country.

But by far, the single biggest factor behind America’s inhumane, arbitrary, and rising levels of imprisonment is race. Racial “profiling,” racial targeting, racial attacks, racial policing, racial sentencing, racial incarceration: all across America, the law enforcement and criminal justice systems target people of color — and most especially, young black males — for intimidation, harassment, brutality, and imprisonment. What’s more, the privatized prison industry has been making billions of dollars from perpetuating and expanding the incarceration of America’s non-white populations.

The U.S. today has 2.3 million people behind bars. That’s a little more than the entire population of Houston, Texas. Of those 2.3 million people, 60% are people of color, even though people of color only make up 22% of the total population. The number of people being held in private prisons has jumped from 7,000 in 1990 to 130,000 today, and most of them are people of color.

For example, in the three states with the highest prison populations — Arizona, California, and Texas — both public and private-profit prisons have many more people of color behind bars than whites, even though whites make up the majority of the general population. In Arizona, 65% of the inmates in private prisons are people of color, while 60% of the inmates in public prisons are people of color. In California, 89% of the inmates in private prisons are people of color, while 75% of the inmates in public prisons are people of color. In Texas, 71% of the inmates in private prisons are people of color, while 66% of the inmates in public prisons are people of color.

Policing started becoming militarized in the 1980s; instead of the neighborhood beat cop trained to keep the peace, police departments started outfitting paramilitary SWAT teams trained to storm the enemy and shoot to kill. The money pouring into cities and towns to fight Reagan’s “War on Drugs” was mostly money for the military industrial weapons and munitions industry, and police were no longer being trained at police academies: now they were also being trained by the U.S. military so they could learn to use all their brand-new tanks, grenade launchers, and Huey helicopters.

Over the past decade, Tasers, drones, and sophisticated surveillance equipment have been added to the list of standard policing methods. And instead of community policing, most police forces are now being trained to control populations through paramilitary raids, assaults, and round-ups. Law professor Michelle Alexander writes in her book, The New Jim Crow:
“In countless situations in which police could easily have arrested someone or conducted a search without a military-style raid, police blast into people’s homes, typically in the middle of the night, throwing grenades, shouting, and pointing guns and rifles at anyone inside, often including young children. In recent years, dozens of people have been killed by police in the course of these raids, including elderly grandparents and those who are completely innocent of any crime.”

Just as the enormous profits to be made from the buying and selling of human beings helped fuel the indentured servant trade, profits are abounding everywhere you look in today’s American prison industrial complex. Private corporations are making millions, judges and politicians are getting rich from kickbacks and bribes, and the weapons and miscellaneous militarized industries are profiting even more mightily.

And just as poor people were forced into indentured servitude in order to provide unpaid labor for the colonies, prisoners are providing unpaid labor for hundreds of companies and local governments. Prison labor — a form of slave labor — has been used throughout our nation’s history for public and private profit. Most people think of the chain gangs of the South, thinking this practice was just carried out here and there by a few corrupt Southern states. In fact, throughout the 20th century, prison labor was used to build railroads and highways, pick cotton and other crops, work in mines, and make clothing.

Today, private companies use tens of thousands of prisoners across the country for “out-sourced” labor. The prisoners are paid a wide range of salaries — for example, 19 to 42 cents an hour at the State Correctional Institution in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania — minus what they owe in fines or victims’ compensation. Others are paid considerably more; for example, MicroJet paid prisoners $7.00 an hour for jobs that union workers were being paid $30.00 an hour. Prison labor produces jeans, lingerie, soap, dentures, furniture, locker room equipment, brooms, bedding, toilets, uniforms, airplane components, and hundreds of other products. They process food, package software, and were even used by Wal-Mart to build one of their distribution centers in Wisconsin. The hundreds of corporations that use cheap prison labor include Wal-Mart, Microsoft, JC Penney, Victoria’s Secret, Costco, Dell, Nintendo, and Starbucks.