The Prison Industrial Complex

From: Schlosser, Eric . 1998. The Prison Industrial Complex. Atlantic Monthly, December, pp. 51-77.

War Against Crime:

  • Up until 1970s in the US about 110 prison inmates for every 100,000 people; 1990s - 445 per 100,000; among adult men it is about 1,100 per 100,000.
  • United States has approximately 1.8 million people behind bars: imagine the combined populations of Atlanta, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Des Moines, and Miami behind bars - it is more more people than any other country in the world -- perhaps half a million more than Communist China.
  • During the past two decades roughly a thousand new prisons and jails have been built in the United States. Nevertheless, America's prisons are more overcrowded now than when the building spree began, and the inmate population continues to increase by 50,000 to 80,000 people a year
  • In 1977 the inmate population of California was 19,600. Today it is 159,000--more inmates in its jails and prisons than do France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and the Netherlands combined. After spending $5.2 billion on prison construction over the past fifteen years, California now has not only the largest but also the most overcrowded prison system in the United States. The state Department of Corrections estimates that it will need to spend an additional $6.1 billion on prisons over the next decade just to maintain the current level of overcrowding.

Who are the prisoners?

  • 70% of the prison inmates in the United States are illiterate
  • 200,000 inmates suffer from a serious mental illness
  • 60% to 80% has a history of substance abuse while the number of drug-treatment slots in American prisons has declined by more than half since 1993
  • 80% of prisoners in California are African-Americans
  • Last year California sent about 140,000 people to prison -- and released about 132,000. On average, inmates spend two and a half years behind bars, and then serve a term of one to three years on parole.
  • Almost two thirds of the people sent to prison in California last year were parole violators. Of the roughly 80,000 parole violators returned to prison. The gigantic prison system that California has built at such great expense has essentially become a revolving door for poor, highly dysfunctional, and often illiterate drug abusers. The typical offender being sent to prison in California today has five prior felony convictions.

Problems Associated with prison overcrowding:

  • In 1997 2,583 staff members were assaulted by inmates in California. Thousands of the inmates are HIV-positive; thousands more carry hepatitis C.
  • "Gassing" became a problem - to struck by a cup or bag containing feces and urine.
  • California prison system, especially its Level 4 facilities, is full of warring gangs -- members of the Crips, the Bloods, the Fresno Bulldogs, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Nazi Lowriders, the Mexican Mafia, and the Black Guerrilla Family.
  • Random acts of violence.
  • Police brutality - at Corcoran State Prison officers allegedly staged "gladiator days," in which rival gang members were encouraged to fight, staff members placed bets on the outcome, and matches often ended with inmates being shot
  • double-bunking and prison overcrowding with higher rates of stress-induced mental disorders, higher rates of aggression, and higher rates of violence.

The Rise of Prison-Industrial Complex

  • In the last 3 decades - prison industrial complex had been developed in the US-- confluence of special interests that has given prison construction in the United States a seemingly unstoppable momentum.
  • Since 1991 the rate of violent crime in the United States has fallen by about 20 percent, while the number of people in prison or jail has risen by 50 percent. Increase because of imprisonment of people who have committed nonviolent offenses. Instead of community service, fines, or drug treatment - to a prison term, by far the most expensive form of punishment.
  • politicians, both liberal and conservative, who have used the fear of crime to gain votes;
  • impoverished rural areas where prisons have become a cornerstone of economic development;
  • private companies tap into $35 billion a year spending on prisons
  • Spending on corrections since 1980s increased 5 times; there are more than 1000 vendors that sell corrections paraphernalia;
  • The growth projected 5-10% annually;
  • Private prisons keep 90,000 prisoners from 27 states
  • "Bed brokers," rent a cell facilities ($20 to $60 a day with $2.50-5.50 commission per man-day); trucking prisoners hundreds of miles through the country - threat to public order; escapes;
  • Wackenhut Corrections, second largest private-prison company has ravenous $1 billion a year;
  • U.S. Corrections Corporation - the largest private-prison company wants to buy and run all state of Taxes’ prisons;
  • globalization of the private-prison business: British private-prison company, Securicor, operates two facilities in Florida; Wackenhut Corrections is now under contract to operate prison in England; three prisons in Australia; and a prison in Scotland. It is actively seeking prison contracts in South Africa.
  • 1 pay phone in prison generates $15,000 a year; MCI installs phones for free;
  • Government officials whose fiefdoms have expanded along with the inmate population.