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Volume 4, Number 2
Fall 2006

The Prison Industrial Complex


Earl Smith(1)


Angela Hattery

Wake Forest University

Corporations that appear to be far removed from the business of punishment are intimately involved in the expansion of the prison industrial complex. 
-- Angela Y. Davis, 1998, "Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex." Colorlines Magazine  (Davis 1998).


Incarceration has become a multi-billion dollar industry  (2)  that relies on incarcerating more than 2 million citizens on any given day in the United States.  We are, in fact, addicted to incarceration (3).   But why?  This paper utilizes the concept of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), first coined by either Eric Schlosser (1998) or Angela Davis (1998) in order to examine the complex configuration comprised of the US prison system, multi-national corporations, small private businesses and the inmate population in the social and political economy of the 21st century United States (4) .   Second, we rely on the theoretical framework provided by Erik O. Wright in order to examine the ways in which the PIC operates within the system of capitalism and thus benefits from the exploitation of labor.  We examine the ways in which inmates, primarily African American men, provide a pool of highly exploitable labor that allows all types of industries from agriculture to multi-national corporations like Microsoft to turn record profits. Specifically we argue that the current system of incarceration in the United States mimics the slave plantation economy of the south. 

The Growth of Prisons:  Institutions and Population

   The number of prisons has grown, as has the number of Americans incarcerated.  In 2005 more than 2.3 million (5)  Americans (or .7% of the US population) were incarcerated, in nearly 1700 state, federal, and private prisons, with many more under other forms of custodial supervision including probation and parole (Harrison 2005). (See Table 1 and Graph 1).

 Table 1
Distribution of 1,668 State, Federal and 
Privately-Operated Correctional
Facilities in 2000*

# of Facilities
Total: 1668
84 (5%)
1320 (79%)
264 (16%)
   Maximum Security
  Medium Security
  Minimum Security 
Daily Population
  Under 250
  1,500 +
  % Occupied
Inmate/Staff Ratio
*Note: This is 204 more than in 1995

 Furthermore, despite the fact that we think of certain other countries as being dominated by incarceration, in relative terms, compared to other countries, the United States incarcerates a higher proportion of its population than all other developed countries and many in the developing world (Mauer 2003). (See Tables 2 and 3 and Graph 2).

Table 2
Number of Sentenced Prisoners Under
State or Federal Jurisdiction, 2003


Table 3
Number of Sentenced Prisoners Under
State or Federal Jurisdiction, 2003



Graph 2
Incarceration Rates by Nation

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The Role of Drug Laws in the Growth of Prisons

    Why do we incarcerate so many of our citizens?  There are many answers to this question, and we will be exploring a variety of these reasons throughout this paper. Yet, the most straightforward answer is the changes in drug laws (King 2006; Western 2006).  In summary, the "War on Drugs" officially began in 1972 with a formal announcement by President Richard Nixon.  The "War on Drugs" officially heated up under the administration of President Ronald Reagan who added the position of "Drug Czar" to the President's Executive Office.  The "War on Drugs" did not so much criminalize substances as that had been happening across the early part of the 20th Century.  What it did do was put into place rigid sentencing guidelines that required (1) longer sentences; (2) mandatory minimums; (3) some drug offenses were moved from the misdemeanor category to the felony category; and (4) the institution of the "Three Strikes You're Out" policy (Mauer 2003; Roberts 2004).

  • Longer sentences:  Today most of the crack cocaine defendants receive an average sentence of 11 years (King 2006).
  • Mandatory Minimums: The most frequently cited example is the sentencing guidelines for possession of crack-cocaine.  As part of the “War on Drugs”, a conviction of possessing 5 grams of crack now mandates a 5 year minimum sentence  (Meierhoefer 1992).
  • Felonizing Drug Offenses:  Small possession convictions, particularly of crack cocaine, were re-categorized from misdemeanors to felonies in the 1986 Drug Abuse Act  (King 2006).
  • "Three Strikes You're Out:"  This law requires life-sentences for convicts receiving a third felony conviction.  Coupled with the re-categorizing of some drug possession offenses (i.e. crack cocaine) as felonies the result has been that many inmates serving life sentences are there for three drug possession offenses; in effect, they are serving life sentences for untreated addiction. (Haney 1998).
One of the clearest outcomes of these changes in drug sentencing is the rapid increase in the number of inmates (recall the data in Figure 9.1: Growth of Prisons).  And, along with the increase in the number of inmates has been the rise in the number of prisons built to house them.

   Again, we use an international comparison in order to contextualize the situation in the United States.  Currently 450,000 of the more than 2 million inmates (45%) in state and federal prison are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses.  In contrast, this is more people than the European Union, an entity with a 100 million more people than the United States, has in prison for all crimes combined. States and the federal government continue to spend about $10 billion a year imprisoning drug offenders.

   And, because inmates incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses are disproportionately likely to be African American the impact on the African American community is devastating (Roberts 2004). 

Race and Incarceration 

    Of the 2.6 million Americans who are incarcerated, one million or 43% are African American men.  In other words, more than forty percent of all American prisoners, men and women, are African American men.  Controlling for gender, African Americans comprise nearly two thirds (62%) of the male prison population, yet they make up just 13% of the US male population (Roberts 2004). (See Graphs 3 and 4, and Tables 4 and 5).

Graph 3
U.S. Population by Race 2005

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Graph 4
Prison and Jail Inmates by Race and Gender

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   Table 4
Sentenced Prisoners Under State
or Federal Jurisdiction per 100,000 Residents
by Race, Hispanic Origin and Age, 2003
Rates for Males


Table 5
Sentenced Prisoners Under State
or Federal Jurisdiction per 100,000 Residents
by Race, Hispanic Origin and Age, 2003
Rates for Females

55 + 

   In terms of probability, 90 out of every 1000 men will be incarcerated in their lifetimes.  When we break the data down by race only 44 out of every 1000 (4%) white men will be incarcerated but 285 out of every 1000 (28.5%) African American men will be incarcerated in their lifetimes (6)  (Harrison 2005).  Put another way, nearly 1 in 3 African American men will be incarcerated during their lifetimes (7)
Probability of Incarceration for Men By Race
  • 90 out of every 1000 men will be incarcerated in their lifetimes
  • 44 out of every 1000 White men
  • 160 out of every 100 Hispanic men
  • 285 out of every 1000 African American men

   As with any accumulation of disadvantage, such as the steep rise in incarceration for African American men, comes an accumulated advantage for someone else.  For example, whites, implicitly or explicitly, benefit from the sending of hundreds of thousands of African American men to prison.  One big advantage that can be measured empirically is that these high levels of incarceration effectively remove these men from the competitive labor force and upon release they are disenfranchised in the political system. 

   Second, advantage can accrue to communities.  For example, the prison boom, both in terms of the number of prisons built, and the escalating numbers of citizens sent to prison, and the locating of prisons in deindustrialized communities and rural communities is an economic advantage that accrues to whites in the form of jobs—as prison staff—and in terms of building contracts and other services that are necessary when a town builds a prison.  These advantages by and large do not accrue to African American communities. 

   Furthermore, the prison boom has been coupled with an unprecedented collaboration with the capitalist economy in the United States such that in 2006 dozens of national and multinational corporations, as well as small townships and even colleges and universities, do business in or with prison industries.  And, by and large, the individuals working to create the products are African American men who earn below market wages.

Theoretical Framework 
The Purpose of Prison: 
Rehabilitation or a Tool of Capitalism?

    Interestingly, whereas prison used to be a hidden institution, tucked away in the backwaters of American society, today they are found everywhere. This deliberate implementation over the last 2 decades of sentencing policy can be seen as using prisons as catchments for the undesirables in our society (8) .   Furthermore, prisons provide a "captive" population, one that is highly vulnerable, and one that has increasingly been exploited for its labor.  Wisconsin sociologist Professor Erik Olin Wright put it thus: 

In the case of labor power, a person can cease to have economic value in capitalism if it cannot be deployed productively.  This is the essential condition of people in the 'underclass.'  They are oppressed because they are denied access to various kinds of productive resources, above all the necessary means to acquire the skills needed to make their labor power salable.  As a result they are not consistently exploited.  Understood this way, the underclass consists of human beings who are largely expendable from the point of view of the logic of capitalism.  Like Native Americans who became a landless underclass in the nineteenth century, repression rather than incorporation is the central mode of social control directed toward them.  Capitalism does not need the labor power of unemployed inner city youth.  The material interests of the wealthy and privileged segments of American society would be better served if these people simply disappeared.  However, unlike in the nineteenth century, the moral and political forces are such that direct genocide is no longer a viable strategy.  The alternative, then, is to build prisons and cordon off the zones of cities in which the underclass lives. (9) (Wright 1997:153).
   According to Wright, prisons can be seen as a form of modern day genocide, a strategy for removing unwanted, unnecessary, un-useful members of a capitalist society.  It is a system whereby the privileged can segregate or cordon-off these unwanted members of society without the moral burden of genocide.  It is easy to see how prisons accomplish this goal:  they remove individuals from society and they permanently (in many states) disenfranchise them from the political realm.  Prisoners and ex-convicts become virtual non-citizens, unable to challenge the economic, social or political power structures.  And, the very fact of cordoning off some individuals means that the goods and riches of society are accessible only to those citizens who are not cordoned-off.  As Baca Zinn and Thorton Dill note, every system of oppression has as its reflection a system of privilege (Zinn, Hondagneu-Sotelo, and Messner 2005).  That which cordons some off, "cordons" others in. 

   We note here that many first time readers of Wright interpret his comments as suggesting that he is advocating the cordoning-off of poor, primarily African American citizens, those with few skills that can be utilized by capitalism, from the opportunity structure.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  As a neo-Marxists, Wright is arguing that this desire to rid the society of individuals who have no skills to contribute to the insatiable and every expanding capitalist machine resulted in genocides such as that of the Native Americans in our own country and the Holocaust in Europe.  Today, with genocide being deemed morally objectionable, capitalism seeks new ways in order to accomplish this same goal.  And, he argues that in the United States, prisons have provided a mechanism to meet this goal.

   We argue that while Wright was astute in his observations that prisons provided a mechanism for removing the "unexploitable" labor from society, we argue that this formerly “unexploitable” class of Americans has now been redefined as highly exploitable by national and multinational corporations.  Taking the lead from prison labor that has been around for a century or more, from agricultural labor at prison farms like Parchman and Angola, to the license plate factories that were popular in the middle part of the 20th century, dozens of Fortune 500 companies have moved at least part of their operations into prisons.  As the data will demonstrate, this transition to prison labor allows corporations to significantly cut their labor costs and thus presumably increase their profits, much like plantations, ship builders, and other industries did during the 200 plus years of slavery in the United States (10).

   Furthermore, we argue that this relationship between the capitalist economy and the prison system that characterizes the prison industrial complex (PIC) creates a feedback loop.  The more prisons that are built for profit, rather than rehabilitation, the more people who must be incarcerated.  Prisons only make money when the cells are occupied.  Similarly, the more prisons provide labor for corporations, the more prisons will be built.  Thus, we suggest that the PIC and its attendant industries contribute to the increased rates of incarceration in the US and the continued exploitation of labor, primarily African American labor.

The Economics of the PIC: 
The Case of the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA)

   The economic benefits a prison brings to a community, except for the possible increases associated with census discrepancies, are debatable.  Though a few jobs are created, prisons are actually very expensive to run.  And, though the government pays part of the cost of incarceration, the inmates themselves seldom contribute to the cost of their own incarceration (11) .  They don't pay rent. They don't pay for food and they obviously don't contribute toward upkeep and maintenance.  This structure is a physical space that while providing housing for the convicted, receives little in return directly from the inhabitants themselves. 

   The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) builds and staffs prisons.  Currently they have 67,000 beds (approximately 62,000 inmates) in 63 facilities – - from California to Oklahoma to Montana to the District of Columbia-- and have plans to build more.  The CCA also provides food service and recreational services to their prisoners, at a cost.  This private corporation, founded in 1983, trades on the New York Stock Exchange (CXW) and employs approximately 15,000 personnel. 

   And, it is quite expensive to house a single prisoner in a jail or prison.  Rough estimates indicate that it costs most states more to house a prisoner per year than to educate a citizen in college for that same year.  At an average cost per year to house a single prisoner at $23,183.69, when multiplied by approximately 2 million prisoners nationally, one arrives at the figure of $46.3 billion dollars per year for incarceration in the United States.

   Hence, there has to be another method to pay for, both in the public or private facility, the built environment of the prison?  Even the most basic economic analysis would note that the prison loses money when there are empty cells.  Thus, just like college campuses must enroll enough students to fill the dorms, prisons rely on being at "full capacity."  Thus, as some others have also suggested (See (Mauer 2002), part of the explanation for the rise in incarceration rates is the fact that building and expanding prisons means that we must continue to fill them.  We must impose harsher and longer sentences and we must continue to funnel inmates into prisons.  And, we argue here that this funnel is not being filled with white collar offenders such as Bernie Ebbs (WorldCom), Ken Lay (Enron), or Martha Stewart, but rather by vulnerable, unempowered populations, primarily young, poor, African American men.

   Second, and perhaps more interesting is the rise of prison industries.  Whereas many prison farms, like Parchman and Angola, are self-sustaining (the inmates grow all their own food and produce all of the textiles, etc. that are needed within the prison), a new phenomenon is the entrance of prisons into the global economy.   Prisons that were once producing goods only for their own consumption are now producing goods for multinational, multi-billion dollar corporations such as McDonalds, Microsoft, and Victoria's Secret.  In some cases the prisons are paid a pittance and then charged, by the prison, for the costs of their incarceration.  In other cases, the prisoners are not paid a wage, instead a portion of their "wages" is paid directly to the prison.  Finally we note that as a result of paying prisoners a sub-minimum wage (often less than $1 per hour), the corporations are able to pocket extraordinary profits made by saving labor costs.  We turn now to an examination of the wide range of prison industry that range from the manufacture of license plates for the state department of motor vehicles to the sewing of lingerie for Victoria's Secret.

   The use of prisoners to make products has changed from the days that they made license plates (12) for the state where the prison is located, to being deeply embedded in the production and service economy of the nation.  Private commerce that utilized prisoners as labor has been underway for centuries in Anglo societies, dating back to the 1600s and before (Hallett 2004).  This fits with the findings of Oshinsky showing that on the backs of prison labor Post-Bellum capitalism flourished (Oshinsky 1997).

   During the 20th century, penal capital moved from the raw convict leasing system characterized by Oshinsky to a service economy that mirrors the larger United States economy (Oshinsky 1997).   From an economic perspective, this penal capital allows a middleman like Signature Packaging in Washington State that moves products such as Starbucks to win contracts and outbid other packagers because they use prison labor.  They do not have to pay market wages, they do not pay health insurance or vacation benefits nor do they have to worry about severance pay or lay-offs.

   One aspect of the Prison Industrial Complex that has perhaps received less attention is the role that the use of prison labor plays in the post-industrial political economy of the United States at the beginning of the 21st Century.  Various legislation that began in the 1970s and was “beefed up” in the mid 1990s opened up the ways in which prison labor could be used in both public and private industry. 

   There are at least 4 different industries in which prison labor may be used.  We will briefly summarize these 4 different ways, provide examples of each, and conclude this section with a discussion of the outcomes of this form of economic production for inmates, prisons, and local communities.

1. Factory Work

   In many instances, for example in the case of the manufacture of license plates, factories are set up inside the prison and inmates work, for low wages, usually 40 or 50 cents an hour.  The product is then shipped out to the “client.”  Though this particular type of prison labor has been around for a long time, it has expanded significantly in the last 5 years.  Today, many states and counties have “corrections businesses” that allow them to produce goods on the inside and sell them to other state and local government agencies as well as to non-profit organizations.  For example, in Iowa, students attending public schools may very well sit at desks made by felons.  Furthermore, colleges like Grinnell have purchased all of their dorm furniture from the Iowa "Inmate Labor Program."

The bed that you sleep in, the dresser that you fill with your stuff, the desk that you study on all come from the Grinnell Group, a suite of furniture made by prison laborers being held by the State of Iowa and working for pennies on the hour. It's not slave labor, but it's really close [emphasis ours]. Prisoners are given the choice of working for Iowa Prison Industries for almost no pay or virtually never leaving their cells. Working for the prison doesn't really teach much in the way of real-world vocational skills, nor does it allow inmates to take care of their families on the outside. The only real purpose of Iowa Prison Industries is to make money for the state of Iowa through virtually forced labor (13)
   Examples like this illustrate one of the ways in which state prisons have gotten into the "for profit" business of factory work.  In many states, such as Mississippi (14), a single prison produces all of the uniforms for inmates, corrections officers, and law enforcement officers, as well as holsters, and equipment for the entire staff of the state's department of corrections.  By utilizing prison labor to produce all of their supplies the state is able to keep costs low for the entire department of corrections.

2. Manual Labor

  The practice of partnering with the state and local DOT (Department of Transportation) has also been popular for many years.  As you drive along interstate highway systems you may see inmates digging ditches, picking up trash, mowing, and doing other sorts of highway labor.  As with "factory labor" this form of inmate labor is expanding.  Inmates now use heavy construction equipment, such as jack-hammers, in various projects, including the construction of tunnels in Pennsylvania.  [These same inmates managed to take the jack-hammers "home" and use them to tunnel out of their home, the Western Pennsylvania Penitentiary in Pittsburgh!] 

   This form of inmate labor has been popular for decades, because the work is often back-breaking, it is difficult to find laborers, and if unionized would be very expensive.  It is also reminiscent of, and most likely based on, the chain gangs popular in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially in the south.   Many municipalities, counties, and states post significant savings to the tax payers by relying on inmate labor for these sorts of projects.  This use of prison labor is not, however, without controversy.

   In communities that have recently suffered significant declines in manufacturing jobs, local residents are becoming more vocal in their critique of these practices.  In a rural Iowa community, for example, critics of this practice note that inmates have “taken” the jobs of countless citizens.  In a community which has seen a decline in agricultural manufacturing (meat packing) this loss of jobs is serious and local citizens, many of whom are now unemployed or under-employed, resent the fact that jobs they could take are now being filled by prison inmates.

In the case of the State liquor warehouse, 12 workers just lost good-paying jobs to prisoners who are paid 37 cents an hour. Currently, 500 state government jobs and 190 private sector positions are being filled by prisoners (15).
Though prisons may bring some jobs into a community, especially jobs as corrections officers, this gain is off-set by the fact that the inmates may themselves be competing with local citizens for jobs in the free market.

3. Direct Marketing to Local Communities

   For much of the last century, some prisons were engaged in industries that provided goods for local markets.  For example, prison farms like Parchman in the Mississippi Delta and Angola in Louisiana have for decades targeted a portion of their prison grown agricultural produce (mostly vegetables and more recently goods like catfish) to local merchants for sale and consumption in local communities. 

   More recently, after loosening the laws that prohibited the direct competition between prisons and free enterprise, this prison enterprise has expanded to include goods that are produced in factory settings.  At the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, a medium security state prison located in Pendleton, Oregon, that houses about 1,500 inmates, prisoners were engaged in textile factory work making the denim uniforms for all the inmates in the entire Oregon State Prison system (16) .   The popularity of their denim grew and they now market their clothing line, sewn in the Prison Blues Garment Factory, appropriately named “Prison Blues”® for purchase over the internet! (17)

   At first glance this form of inmate labor seems nothing but positive.  As extolled on the Prison Blues website, inmates learn a marketable trade that they can take with them when they re-enter the "free world."  Also, they keep busy during the day, and they earn some money which is used to pay for their expenses in prison as well as for financial obligations such as child support that they have with the state.

   However, we argue, that industries like this, be they agricultural or manufacturing or service, by definition, as with public works, take job opportunities away from local citizens.  For example, the economy is quite depressed in the agricultural regions of the Mississippi Delta and the fact that the State of Mississippi, through the MSDOC, has a strong hold in the farm-raised catfish market means that local farmers have less of an opportunity to make a living with this agricultural commodity ("Profitability Remains Elusive for Mississippi Catfish Farmers," 2004) (18) Furthermore, by paying wages that are significantly below market value, products produced by inmates can be sold at lower prices (and for a higher profit margin) often running “free world” business that pay a living wage out of the market.  Thus, the exploitation of inmate labor can contribute to unemployment and lower wages in local communities.

4. Service Sector Work

   Perhaps the most recent change in inmate labor, and the one that seems to be the most controversial and disturbing, is the use of inmate labor for a variety of service sector work that is sub-contracted through "middle-men" for some of the nations leading manufacturers.  There are estimates that in any given day the average American uses 30 products that were produced, packaged, or sold out of a prison!  Through this type of service sector work, prison industries have truly infiltrated the global market.

…other corporations benefit from the easy-hire, easy-fire and low-wage policies of prison employees. In Michael Moore's movie “Roger and Me,” he broke the story of TWA using prisoners to book flights. Other companies such as McDonald's, Boeing, Microsoft, Sprint, Victoria's Secret (how was your bra made?), Compaq, Toys R Us, and Revlon use prison labor for packaging, telemarketing, manufacturing, and distributing their products. Chances are, on any given day, you are the beneficiary of the work done by between ten and fifteen prison laborers. (19)

Every year, inmates at Twin Rivers Corrections Unit in Monroe, Washington are busy during the Holiday Season because inmates there package Starbucks Coffee and Nintendo "GameCubes" for sale by retailers all over the nation.

Twin Rivers, part of a four-unit prison that houses mentally ill inmates, high- security felons, and participants in the state's Sex Offender Treatment Program, is also home to one of three facilities operated by Signature Packaging Solutions, one of 15 private companies that operate within the state prison system and use inmate labor to supplement their outside workforce (Barnett 2002).

   Prisoners are engaged in everything from making electronic cash registers for McDonalds to sewing lingerie for Victoria's Secret, to taking airline reservations for TWA to packing Starbucks coffee.  As noted previously, one can easily come to the conclusion that this is a positive movement in the evolution of prisons because it provides work, it teaches job skills that are transportable, and it allows inmates to earn some money while they are on the inside.  However, critics, including many inmates at the Twin Rivers Corrections Unit, are skeptical of the underlying reasons for this evolution in prison industries.  They do not necessarily believe it is indicative of a rehabilitative movement in prisons, but rather is driven entirely by companies seeking another way to maximize their profits.

Others suspect that DOC's motives are more pecuniary than pure-hearted, noting that by shaving nearly 50 percent off the top of an inmate's paycheck, the department slashes its own expenses while subsidizing the companies in the program, which aren't required to pay for inmates' health insurance or retirement. "They figure that if somebody's sitting around, doing their time and doing nothing, they don't make any money off them," Strauss says. …Richard Stephens, a Bellevue property rights attorney, is suing DOC on the grounds that the program is unconstitutional, allows businesses that use prison labor to undercut their competitors' prices, and unfairly subsidizes some private businesses at the expense of others... Private businesses are “paying prison workers less than they're paying on the outside, but they aren't reducing the markup to the consumer" they're pocketing the profits. Another key difference, Wright notes, is that prisoners can just be sent back to their cells whenever business goes through a lull; "on the outside, they have to lay off workers. It's much more difficult," Wright says (Barnett 2002).

   The use of inmate labor allows middle level companies like Signature Packaging to under-bid their competitors by cutting their labor costs.  And prisons benefit as well because by engaging their inmates in this sort of economic production and then charging inmates for their own incarceration, they are able to keep the costs of running the prison down.  Wright, an inmate at Twin Rivers, sums it up:

They need to know that they are buying these products from a company that is basically getting rich off prisoners." Wright, sent to Twin Rivers for first degree murder in 1987, believes parents would be disturbed to know that their child's GameCube was packaged by a murderer, rapist, or pedophile.  These companies spend a lot of money on their public image," Wright says, "but then they're quick to make money any way they can (Barnett 2002).

The PIC and the Exploitation of African American Labor

   Specifically, we have argued that the Prison Industrial Complex and its attendant "prison industries" mimics the slave mode of production.  That in the end, wealthy whites (primarily men) are profiting by not paying a living wage to African American inmates (also primarily men).   Thus corporations are engaging in an exploitive labor practice, termed by Marx as the extraction of surplus value.  By not paying what the labor is worth when inmates are working on farms, building furniture, assembling products for giant multi-national corporations like Microsoft and McDonalds, corporations make additional profits.  And, when large corporations from Microsoft to McDonalds engage in this practice they also receive an unfair advantage over their competitors.  Finally, we must note here that the whole scene is reminiscent of the "plantation economy" of 17th, 18th, 19th century America.  The slaves were Black chattel. They had no rights and they were a captive labor force.  All of the above is the same for today's prisoner.

   The consent decree between prisons and private companies and government has been shattered.  No longer would the private prison companies’ honor the agreement that prison goods be for use within prisons and sold only to government agencies.  Now, the prison industries will sell to whomever, the highest bidder.  With profits from this industry now soaring upwards to $2 billion a year, it is a monster fully out of control.

   We have shown in this paper that the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) exploits the labor of African American men (and women).  Perhaps more devastating, however, is the evidence that the PIC is a modern form of slavery that has devastating consequences on the African American community as well.  Families are separated, social capital ties broken, and whole communities left with few human and social capital resources.  In fact, not only are individuals disenfranchised, but because of the relocation of inmates and census rules, communities of need see their citizens (and consequent resources) removed and transferred to other, more economically advantaged, primarily white communities.

   The Prison Industrial Complex disrupts not just the communities from which inmates come, but also the communities to which they are "relocated" for the purposes of incarceration.  For example, in States like New York State with a large rural land mass, and many parts of Mississippi, itself a largely rural state, are excellent spots for the prison building boom.  Despite seeming to be geographically disparate, what these places share is that they are places where other modes of sustenance industries have vanished (e.g., farming, textiles, meat packing etc).

   Economically depressed, local residents in these states, and others, see one thing and one thing only: jobs.  What they don't see are the many pitfalls of having a prison nearby.  One of these is the displacing of the resident economic base, many of which are in agriculture but also service.

   The American Criminal Justice System (multi-layered, composed of public and private bureaucracies, and racially segregated at the top levels of management) has unleashed an unprecedented movement towards harsh, long-term incarceration on American citizens (but also overseas in such ghouls as the Abu Ghraib military prison (20)) to punish them for breaking laws, not to rehabilitate the transgressors.  But primarily to exploit their labor and extract their surplus value.  This is especially apparent when we recall the fact that 40-50% of inmates are serving long sentences, sometimes life sentences for what Haney and Zimbardo note is little more than untreated addition. 

Due to harsh new sentencing guidelines, such as 'three-strikes, you're out,' a disproportionate number of young Black and Hispanic men are likely to be imprisoned for life under scenarios in which they are guilty of little more than a history of untreated addiction and several prior drug-related offenses... States will absorb the staggering cost of not only constructing additional prisons to accommodate increasing numbers of prisoners who will never be released but also warehousing them into old age. (Haney & Zimbardo, 1998:718) 
   We add to this by returning to the framework provided by Erik O. Wright.  Not only are inmates housed into old age, but they have suddenly been identified and re-constituted as the latest, greatest captive group who's labor can be exploited.  And, while inmates may see small benefits associated with the opportunities for labor that are created, as the inmates at Twin Rivers Correctional Facility so eloquently articulate, the PIC is a complex system that is not about rehabilitating inmates but is about making money for a host of national and multinational corporations.  Private prison corporations, such as CCA, make money by housing prisons and "leasing" their labor to the multi-national corporations that make money and see soaring profits by paying below market wages to inmates who labor for them.

Conclusion: What Is To Be Done

   We end this essay noting that Justice in the US has been and continues to be "political" (Western 2006).  Until Americans realize the long-term, devastating effects of mass incarceration on African American individuals as well as on African American communities, we, as a citizenry, will continue to use the PIC to cordon-off African Americans much as they were cordoned-off during slavery and Jim Crow segregation and exploit their labor for individual gain (21)

   Solving the prison problem will mean readdressing the initial mandate that says those who commit crimes must be punished for their digressions (Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1866 Crime and Punishment; Colvin 1997).  In the beginning the American Criminal Justice System, far from perfect, looked to lock up those men and women who broke well established laws (Colvin 1997).  Crooks, gangsters, gamblers etc., were brought to justice --at times quickly-- and given sentences that fit the crime.
 As we argue above, the onslaught and growth of the drug trade along with the harsher and harsher sentences (e.g., the Rockefeller drug laws, see Wilson nd) that came with involvement in this business, saw more and more Americans being given longer and longer sentences (Kling 2006).  African American males, who in the 1970s were only 9% of the prison population, after harsher sentencing largely fueled by the drug trade, are now 62% of the prison population and on any given day more than 6% of all African American men are in prison.


2004.  "Profitability Remains Elusive for Mississippi Catfish Farmers." Mississippi Business Journal.  August 2, 2004.

Barnett, Erica. 2002. "Prison Coffee: Starbucks admits its contractor uses prison labor." Michigan Citizen XXIV:A7.

Chosen, Barbara H. 2004. Inequality & Violence in the United States : Casualties of Capitalism. Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books.

Colvin, Mark. 1997. Penitentiaries, Reformatories, and Chain Gangs: Social Theory and the History of Punishment in Nineteenth Century America.  New York: St. Martin's Press.

Davis, Angela Y. 1998. "Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex." Colorlines Magazine.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. 1866. Crime and Punishment.  (Translated by Constance Garnett).  Dover Publications.

Hallett, Michael. 2004. "Commerce with Criminals: The New Colonialism in Criminal Justice." The Review of Policy Research 21:49-62.

Haney, Craig and Philip Zimbardo. 1998. "The Past and Future of U.S. Prison Policy: Twenty-five Years After the Stanford Prison Experiment." American Psychologist 53:709-727.

Harrison, Paige M. and Allen J. Beck. 2005. "Prisoners in 2004." Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington, DC.

King, Ryan S. and Marc Mauer. 2006. "Sentencing with Discretion: Crack Cocaine Sentencing After Booker." The Sentencing Project, New York.

Kling, Jeffrey. 2006.  "Incarceration Length, Employment and Earnings." Brookings Institution 
and National Bureau of Economic Research. 

Kling, Jeffrey, James Anderson and Kate Stith. 1999.  "Measuring Interjudge Disparity in Sentencing: Before and After the Federal Sentencing Guidelines." Journal of Law and Economics 42:271-307. 

Mauer, Marc. 2003. "Comparative International Rates of Incarceration: An Examination of Causes and Trends." The Sentencing Project, New York.

Mauer, Marc and Meda Chesney-Lind. 2002. Invisible Punishment. New York: The New Press.

Meierhoefer, B. S. 1992. "The General Effect of Mandatory Minimum Prison Terms: A Longitudinal Study of Federal Sentences Imposed." Federal Judicial Center, Washington, DC.

Nickel, Mark. 2001. "A Special Report:  Slavery, the Brown Family of Providence and Brown University." Brown:  The Brown News Service.

Oshinsky, David M. 1997. Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York: The Free Press.

Roberts, Dorothy E. 2004. "The Social and Moral Cost of Mass Incarceration in African American Communities." Stanford Law Review 56:1271-1306.

Schlosser, Eric. 1998. "The Prison-Industrial Complex." The Atlantic Monthly.

Western, Bruce. 2006. Punishment And Inequality in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Wilson, Aaron. nd.  “Rockefeller Drug Laws Information Sheet.”  Partnership for Responsible Drug Information (PRDI).  Accessed 10/13/06.

Wright, Erik. 1997. Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Zinn, Bacca and B. Thornton Dill. "Theorizing Differences from Multicultural Feminism, in Zinn, Maxine Baca, Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, and Michael A. Messner. 2005. "Gender through the prism of difference."

Thieman, Linda.  2004.  "Fallon Requests Info On Jobs Lost To Prison Labor, Clarifies Gulag" June 30, 2004,  see 


(1) American Ethnic Studies and Department of Sociology, Box 7808 Reynolda Station, Winston-Salem, NC 27109.  336-758-1891.
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(2) Corrections Corporations of America, a private prison company, reported revenues of $1.2 billion dollars in 2005. 
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(3) We first heard the term "incarceration addiction" in the key note address delivered by Marsha Weissman at the University of North Carolina Law School annual Conference on Race, Class, Gender, and Ethnicity (CRCGE) in February 2006.  Therefore we are indebted to Marsha for this term.
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(4) C.W. Mills first utilized the term coined by Dwight D. Eisenhower "the military industrial complex" to refer to the complex political economy of the United States in the 1950s.  The focus of this paper takes its impetus from the late General of the Army and President of the United States Dwight D. Eisenhower.   In his fireplace setting farewell speech at the White House broadcast to the American people on January 17, 1961, President Eisenhower (34th President of the US) prophetically uttered three words that changed the way America looked at the world.  His "military-industrial complex" farewell speech, now forgotten in many quarters, set the tone and pace for the proliferation of the business-military connection that we see today in places like Afghanistan and Iraq with the Halliburton Corporation gouging the US government for poor services rendered charged at a high price.   No one, not even the President, could have imagined that such a speech  would be the basis for discussing a similar relationship in the New Millennium but this time the interlocking relationships are the prison system, business and the African American male population.  The racialization of the American prison system has not received the attention it deserves by social and behavioral scientists and this paper attempts to address some of the fundamental issues involved in this problematic relationship.  The warning was not heeded.  From arms for hostages under Ronald Regan and Colonel Oliver North to arming the so-called allies all over the globe—from Liberia, Africa to Asia to the Middle East—we can see the connections embedded within the Military Industrial Complex (MIC) as originally discussed by President Eisenhower.   We use this concept to examine the proliferation of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) and focus specifically on the racialization of the American Prison,  a phenomenon that is as consequential as it is poorly understood.
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(5) Figures on incarceration vary depending on what types of institutions (jails, prisons, military prison, etc) are included in the count.
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(6) There is a wide literature on racial sentencing disparities.  See, for example, Mauer 2000.  The Race to Incarcerate.
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(7) And, although we did not speak directly to this piece of the racialization of the American prison, we note that it is the most racially charged environment on earth: the American prison.  This is even truer if it is a maximum security prison.  We note that based on this racially charged environment, fueled in large part by the presence of racial/ethnic gangs, many states segregate their prison populations by race.   Recently the US Supreme Court ruled that segregation in the prison system violated the 1954 decision in Brown v. the Board of Education and required that the California prison system desegregate its prison population.   "Californian jails end racial segregation," by Andrew Gumbel.  Independent News.  25 February 2005. 
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(8) Barbara Chasin (2004) in Inequality & Violence in the United: Casualties of Capitalism makes this point over and over.  See, especially, Pp. 235 to 239.   Chasin, Barbara H. 2004. Inequality & Violence in the United States : Casualties of Capitalism. Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books.
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(9) Erik O. Wright.  1997. Class Counts:  Comparative Studies in Class Analysis.  New York:  Cambridge University Press.
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(10) Evidence has surfaced that prestigious Ivy League Brown University was built on the fortunes the Brown family amassed in the slave trade. "Slavery was an integral part of the developing economy of colonial and post-revolutionary Rhode Island. In the early and middle 1700s, members of the Brown family participated in the slave trade while simultaneously developing other enterprises. Slaves were employed at the family's spermaceti candle works and iron foundry, among other businesses, and almost certainly were used for farm work and household labor. In addition, while managing the 1770 construction of the College Edifice (later renamed University Hall), Nicholas Brown & Company apparently utilized some slave labor. In addition, at one time or another ships owned by Brown engaged in the triangle trade that brought slaves to the Caribbean and to America (Nickel, 2001)."  Nickel, Mark. 2001. "A Special Report:  Slavery, the Brown Family of Providence and Brown University." Brown:  The Brown News Service.
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(11) Some state and private prisons have adopted a requirement that inmates work, typically contracts they fill for private corporations ranging from Microsoft to Victoria's Secret, and the inmates are required to pay a sizable portion of their paychecks back to the prison, effectively paying for their own incarceration.  For example, Oregon enacted legislation that required that all able-bodied prisoners in the Oregon State Prison system engage in productive work.
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(12) We note that in some states prisoners do make license plates.  Colorado, Ohio, New York and California still have this industry inside their prisons.  The point is simply that their work is on longer restricted to this type of work. 
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(13) Student paper at Grinnell College.
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(14) In one of our many trips to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman (Parchman for short) we toured the tack factory where saddles and holsters were being crafted for the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
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(15) Fallon Requests Info On Jobs Lost To Prison Labor, Clarifies "Gulag" Remark by Linda Thieman at 10:28AM (CDT) on June 30, 2004,  see 
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(16) At Parchman, inmates make all of the inmate uniforms as well as a significant portion of the law enforcement uniforms for the entire state of Mississippi DOC (Department of Corrections).
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(17) A visit to their website ( reveals that they not only market denim products for sale to consumers in the US but also for sale to customers in Japan!   So, Japanese can now buy "Prison Blues"® garments, manufactured by inmates in the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, over the internet! We note that the proliferation and popularization of prison life as demonstrated by this garment line is pervasive in the music industry, made popular by HIP HOP artists like 50-Cent and Snoop Dog.
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(18) Catfish farming was once one of Mississippi's top agricultural commodities, grossing approximately $255 million dollars annually. Now, all of this has changed and as Hugh Warren, Executive Vice President of the Catfish Farmers of America (CFA) put it, "we are struggling right now."  The catfish farmers who used to get .75c per pound are now down to approximately .60c per pound.  See, "Profitability Remains Elusive for Mississippi Catfish Farmers." Mississippi Business Journal.  August 2, 2004.
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(19) Student paper at Grinnell College.
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(20) The exportation/internationalization of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) is clearly seen at Abu Ghraib.  The building and running of the military prison was under the direction of Lane McCotter, former Director of the Utah State Prison System.  It was at Utah, under McCotter's watch, that prisoners were inhumanely treated, forced shackled to boards for days and where prisoner Michael Valent died after spending hours nude in a restraint chair in 1977. Also, former Army Spec. Charles A. Graner Jr., plays into this exportation/internationalization of the PIC to Abu Ghraib as he was the ringleader of the torture at Abu Ghraib having learned his craft at State Correctional Institution-Greene in Southwestern Pennsylvania.  There, Granger routinely beat prisoners often laughing while doing so.
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(21) So that it is clear, we make a disclaimer here.  We are not advocating the abolishment of prisons as a form of punishment for those who commit crimes.  Prisons should be for violent criminals like John Robinson who abducted women and children over the internet and lured them to his rural Iowa home and then raped and murdered them, stuffing several of the dead in 55 gallon drums. People who are addicted to marijuana and crack should not spend 15 to 25 years in prison but should receive treatment for their illness.
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©2006 Earl Smith and Angela Hattery