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Prisoners of the State of Kansas

It was in 1961 that General and President Dwight Eisenhower used for the first time the term “military-industrial complex” to define the strategic alliance between the American military circles and the armament industrialists whose purpose was to increase their profits through the promotion of their merchandise: war.

During the Cold War, this alliance generated huge benefits for the private sector -especially thanks to the political and economic support of the State-which was increasingly using the military force, supported the counterinsurgency wars and encouraged the massive construction of nuclear weapons. The “prison-industrial complex” (PIC) describes the vast repressive, control and exploitation system the present American prison system has turned into.

During the last 30 years the prison population has increased astonishingly - it has doubled since 1990 [1]. Today, there are more than 2 million detainees plus the 5 million people on parole [2]. So, the United States which has 5% of the world population has 25% of the prisoners of the whole planet. Besides, since Ronald Reagan’s (1981-1989) “war against dugs” was launched, the ethnic composition of the prisons populations has been quite different from that of the American society. 63% of the prisoners belong to Black and Latino minorities whereas these minorities are only 25% of the national population [3]. Even when this disparity may have an evident relation with the distribution of wealth according to ethnic origins and the number of crimes, this does not explain the whole issue. Many experts think this is actually the result of discriminatory policies. Prisons would be the better system to eliminate those the society does not accept. Why?

Pilar Maschi, a former prisoner and single mother of a five years old girl, is nowadays a full time activist of abolitionist movement Critical Resistance. This association is devoted to eliminate all prisons and reconstruct communities and relations based on solidarity. This is what she thinks: “Since the 70s, the State implemented a terrible repression to fight the colored people and feminist movements, radical groups and, in general, the Viet Nam war opponents. At the same time, profound changes in the productive structure were also implemented. Business owners, supported by the government fired millions of people for they were no longer needed. Useless, these people were labeled as dangerous for the society. They were identified as unemployed or criminals by the PIC who just founded a way to have an economic benefit by using these excluders. In 1970, the amount of prisoners in the United States was 200 000 whereas, today, there are more than 2 millions...”

Ik Aikur, originally from Nigeria, and a member of Critical Resistance too in New Haven (Connecticut) points out how excluded have been the colored people communities which have had no choice but to join the military service, make badly-paid works or get involve in an illegal activity that sooner or later would lead them to prison and consequently to a bigger exclusion. Keep in mind that a sentence for infractions linked to drugs or violence legally prevents a person from getting a job. Women suffer ever more the PIC as prisoners or wives or closed relatives of male prisoners who due to the lack of possibilities of being reintroduced to society go back to their communities and reproduce violence and addiction. Massive imprisonments have terrible effects among the already-marginalized social groups with high rates of drug consumption and unemployment, especially among the Afro-Americans, Latinos and native populations which are victims of PIC. Critical Resistance estimates that out of three Afro-Americans youngsters, at least one is or has been in prison. In poorer communities these figures might be even worse...

Businesses are businesses

The security services privatization boom began during the 90s. Detention centers for undocumented immigrants of the Immigration and Naturalization Service(INS)-which has special centers for immigrants but use conventional prisons too- are also integrated in the system. During fiscal year 2000, the INS budget was 4 270 million dollars with an 8% increase compared with the previous year [4].

Since September 11, which led to the incarceration of thousands of citizens of Arab origin for an undetermined period of time, investments in this sector have continuously grown [5]. Privates companies involved in the deportation processes of foreigners have also benefited since the 90s with funds increased to incarcerate undocumented. The first experience with private prisons was in the 80s during Reagan’s administration with the construction of some minimal security prisons in Houston and Laredo, Texas. Based on the “technical” skills of former directors of prisons and the companies’ money -especially the Kentucky Fried Chicken- the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was founded and today, it is the largest private company in this sector with contracts in the United States, Puerto Rico, England and Australia. Former FBI agent George Wackenhut founded Wackenhut Corrections; another important company specialized on private prisons.

It is not difficult to see what has happened in the last 20 years: during the last phase of the Cold War the war industry, technology and security knowledge became profitable businesses. The “prison industrial complex” has had different facets but its most profitable has been, for big enterprises which control it as well as for those which try to reduce their production costs, the abundance of cheap labor force in prisons. A scandalous example is enterprise LTI Inc. which, in agreement with Wackenhut Corrections, transferred its facilities to prison structures to use the labor force. Where else can you find workers who will receive a minimum wage and won’t be allowed to form unions?

This is not an isolated case. In California, the system flourishes thanks to the low costs of the labor force (22 cents for an hour [6] and enterprises such as Microsoft, Colgate Palmolive, Starbucks... [7] have benefited). If prisoners do not want lose their “benefits” (parole or the benefits for having good behavior), they have no choice but to work.

These modern slaves -forced to work and deprive of all rights- are quite useful for the companies that use them. In 1980s, profits made thanks to their work were 392 million dollars. In 1994, they were 3 310 million dollars thanks to the fact that the number of prisoners increased.

The main companies are Wackenhut Corporation, CCD and Correctional Services Corporation. The model has already been exported to other Anglophone countries and they are planning to extend their markets to other industrialized countries in the next years. The terrible effects of this strategy are quite obvious: the demand for cheap labor force and the investments cause a severe pressure on the police and judicial system because the number of prisoners must be increased. Besides, the PIC business usually represents the only possibility the poor rural communities have to attract investments and create jobs.

Ruth and Craig Wilmore are in charge of the California Prison Moratorium Project, a movement aimed at preventing the construction of new prisons and they advocate for closing the existing ones. Ruth has just written a book on this issue in California and the title is quite suggestive: Golden Goulag. California, the fifth economy of the world, also has the most incredible statistics: during the last two decades, 23 prisons with the capacity to house between 4000 and 6000 prisoners have been built in the state. The example of Corcoran (Kings County) is quite remarkable. This small agricultural center has two prisons and a total of 11 000 prisoners, though it has had a stable population of 9000 inhabitants since 1980 -date in which the first facility was built. By that time, 1000 inhabitants lived under the poverty line. Ten years later, after the state invested 1000 million dollars in prisons, the amount of poor people has been reduced to 2000 [8].

Repression, exclusion and consensus

In view of these problems, the general acceptance of PIC is still surprising. The organizations that protest against a system that makes the United States the leading country in the amount of prisoners are not many. Paul Wright, a prisoner in the State of Washington and editor of magazine Prison Légal News has analyzed this phenomenon of general acceptance.

In one of his presentations, [9] he has shown the cultural model which supports the idea of the PIC as a judicial system that looks for punishments and the defense of the “clean” part of a society that is being broken down.

Observing the official cultural production is enough to see how the construction of a collective imaginary is part of the PIC. From Hollywood great productions to advertisements of all kinds of products, references to prisons show a tough and difficult world although fair and necessary. This process leads to a moralization of the prison system that supports the fact that imprisoning people is not only fair but necessary to keep a “clean” society and save its own values.

The extension and the increase of the amount and diversity of detention forms in the United States during the last years are incomparable. Since the super prison of Pelican Bay (California) to Guantánamo (Cuba), Abu Ghraib (Iraq) and Woomera Camp (Australia) we see a globalization of this model and this practice: jail the people that bothers or simply the difficult cases for neoliberal projects. In view of the situation, wondering if it is possible to consider a globalization of imprisonment alternatives as well as a concept of security and non punitive justice -not leading to exclusion- might be convenient.

[1] “Overview of Critical Resistance on the Prison Industrial Complex”, in Critical Resistance to the Prison Industrial Complex, special edition of Social Justice, 2000, San Francisco

[2] Report of the Third World Institute - the world guide, Montevideo, Uruguay, 04/11/2003

[3] Report of the Third World Institute - the world guide, Uruguay, 2003

[4] Michael Welch: “The role of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the Prison Industrial Complex,” in Social Justice, Vol. 27, No.3, 2000

[5] Everyday, at about 20 000 people -men, women and children-face an undetermined incarceration (sentences may go from some months to years in state-own or private prisons with pretty bad conditions where basic human rights are not respected). Rachel Meerpol: “The post 9/11 investigation and Immigration detention,” in America’s Disappeared, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2005

[6] “The Prison Industrial Complex and the Global Economy,” by Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans, in www.prisionactivist.org

[7] In most cases, these enterprises use subcontractors to do their job. Prisoners of the Twin Rivers Correctional Center of Washington have said they have packed Microsoft’s Windows 95 operational system. Jean Lee manufacturer sew his t-shirts in the Richard J. Donovan State Correctional. For more information, see www.corpwatch.org

[8] “The other California,” in Globalize Liberation, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 2004

[9] “Critical Resistance to the Prison Industrial Complex,” San Francisco, 2002