National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 16, 2003

The prison industrial complex: What is it?

The prison industrial complex mirrors the military industrial complex, which departing President Dwight Eisenhower warned the nation about in 1961. Just as many thinkers saw the thirst for corporate profits as the driving force behind the arms buildup of the Cold War, so members of Critical Resistance and other critics of the prison industrial complexes see money as the driving force behind the expansion of U.S prisons in the 1980s and 1990s.

Eric Schlosser, whose 1998 essay in The Atlantic Monthly remains required reading on the subject, defines the prison industrial complex as “a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need.” Basically, the prison industrial complex construct proposes that prison-related industries make money -- big money -- off prisoners, and that the more prisoners there are, the higher the profits. The addition of private, for-profit prison companies and their lobbyists into the mix since 1983 adds force to that argument. Politicians, meanwhile, are able to turn rising incarceration rates into political capital by touting their records of being “tough on crime” or using the increased numbers of prisoners to point to success in the war on drugs. In other words, rising prison populations can yield useful political results as well as cash.

Critical Resistance’s response is disarming in its simplicity. Instead of caging and controlling people, they ask, why not make communities safe by making sure everyone in the community has the basic necessities of food, shelter and freedom. Implicit in the “freedom” part of the equation is access to basic human services, such as health care and education. But part of the effect of the prison industrial complex is that it draws public revenues out of those services to feed the corrections system that’s supposed to make society better. Instead of “guns or butter,” the prison industrial complex, critics say, forces a choice between cellblocks and classrooms or health care.

That choice has had exceptionally stark consequences in the South, where incarceration rates are higher and educational levels lower than in any other part of the country. The study, “Deep Impact: Quantifying the Effect of Prison Expansion in the South,” introduced at the start of this conference made a pointed connection between increases in state spending on corrections and the budget shortfalls those states projected for fiscal year 2004. Georgia, for instance, increased its annual spending on corrections by $890 million between 1985 and 2001 and projected a shortfall of almost exactly the same amount -- $900 million -- for 2004. During the same period, the number of inmates in Georgia’s prisons more than tripled, while Georgia’s incarceration rate increased from 219 per 100,000 residents to 542 per 100,000.

-- Lili LeGardeur

National Catholic Reporter, May 16, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: