U.S. Prisons: Too Big to Fail?

In August, while many families were planning vacations to Florida or the Caribbean, the Carey family was headed south to Ashland, Ky. They saw relatives and caught up on old times, took pictures, and exchanged new contact information. The family’s yearly vacation was spent visiting Willie Wright, an inmate at Ashland Federal Prison. Wright is a 29-year-old Black man sentenced to ten years in federal prison for a first-time drug offense. His mother-in-law Sherell Carey, girlfriend Krystle Carey, and son Ka’ron Wright were elated to spend the family’s five-day summer vacation at the prison, and Wright was happy they were there.

In Hartford, Conn., the matriarch of the family pulled the trip together. She struggled to find nearly $1,000 for airline tickets for herself, her daughter, and her grandson. But the airline tickets are just the beginning. She also had to come up with approximately $3,000 more to pay for a five-day hotel stay, groceries, transportation to and from the airports, the fee for additional luggage, and clothes for the trip. She prepaid the utility bills and mortgage so the lights and gas wouldn’t be disconnected while they were gone.

This family, like so many others, is struggling to navigate the turbulent waters of America’s prison industrial complex (PIC). The PIC comprises construction companies, private corrections companies, prison labor contractors, surveillance technology companies, lobbyists and interest groups, and more.

It’s taken some time and several presidential administrations to build a thriving PIC in the United States. During the 1984 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan released a television commercial called “It’s morning again in America.” This seemingly harmless campaign ad showed a country with no black or brown people—a “safe” United States. It asked the inaudible question of U.S. whites, “How do we stay safe?”

President Reagan and Vice President George Bush answered that question after being reelected in 1984 with the escalation of the war on drugs. This escalation resulted in a 126 percent jump in drug offense arrests during the 1980s. Black and brown families who had survived slavery, Black Codes that restricted movement, and Jim Crow segregation laws became illegal citizens. Though the term “war on drugs” was first coined by President Richard Nixon nearly 20 years earlier, President Reagan connected this war to politically based racism and classism.

With the election of President Bill Clinton and the implementation of welfare reform, the country was provided with the social rationalizations to incarcerate black and brown people, who were portrayed as leeches on society. Under the Clinton administration’s welfare reform, inpatient crack cocaine treatment disappeared while mandatory minimums for crack were strengthened. Marijuana possession arrests increased so much that more people were arrested and jailed for marijuana possession under Clinton than under Presidents Bush, Reagan, and Nixon combined. By the end of the Clinton era, prisons were a thriving business, politicians were building careers, and the PIC was growing as fast as technology stock.

With more than 2 million people incarcerated, multiple arrests of the same people in poor communities, and millions more in long-term custody of the criminal justice system, the prison industry is now the only industry “too big to fail.” Nearly every major U.S. industry needs the PIC. From beef production in Texas to social services in Connecticut, from prisoner-made furniture sold to Ivy League universities to stuffing envelopes for media outlets, the PIC enjoys the dependency of all major industries for jobs and training.

Think of the medical professionals, hotels, cab drivers, and gas stations in towns like Ashland, Ky., that are patronized by prison staff and visitors. Every week people arrive in Ashland and stay from Thursday to Sunday to see prisoners. As Sherell Carey says, “Who the hell is going to Ashland, Kentucky, unless they are going to prison?”

The PIC is a growing business with no summit in sight. According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics’ website, by the middle of 2008, more than 2 million prisoners were held in federal or state prisons or in local jails.

That’s an estimated 509 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents. A quarter of a million people in state prisons were there for drug offenses, and 57 percent of the inmates in local jails were people of color.

The PIC is rooted in capitalism. From the Boston Tea Party to the Bear Stearns bailout, protecting and sustaining capitalism is a compulsion we refuse to seek help for. The PIC provides us a legitimate business to rationalize the ill effects of economist Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” This term describes the intangible force in the free market that forces businesses to operate based on the mutual benefit of the industry.

In other words, the PIC exists because the United States has a market for prisoners. Like slaves, those prisoners enable the PIC to produce what other businesses need for a lower price. Practices that people in the United States decry in other countries are called unintentional consequences of U.S. capitalism.

The PIC provides employment for proponents as well as opponents of its existence. Everything from police overtime to police attendance at block club meetings and state-funded “alternative to incarceration” programs receive federal dollars specifically allocated to fight the war on drugs. Many of us unknowingly justify the expansion of the PIC.

These products and jobs are created as a direct result of that invisible hand—that unfettered free market—that relies on Wright staying in prison so the hotel across the street can stay open, the gas station can keep pumping, and Microsoft can remain profitable.

These facts should be startling, but we all have become too used to hearing them. Politicians use them when they talk to Black and brown church congregations, preachers use them in sermons and press conferences, and then congregants ignore them while demanding more police presence on their street. President Barack Obama talked extensively about U.S. addiction to incarceration while running for the Senate in Illinois, but earlier this year he laughed marijuana reformers off the stage. He won’t use the words Black men unless he is admonishing them during a Father’s Day speech at an African-American church.

Opponents of this king of industries could dethrone it by demanding a shift in U.S. economic, social, and political priorities. We could insist on reallocating resources from the war on drugs to initiatives that increase social capital in Black and brown communities. We might be more persuasive if we used the word genocide to describe the “unintentional consequences” of capitalism.

If we’re committed to crushing the PIC, we also must remove the political and economic value of Black and brown prisoners; defeat the criminalization of LGBTQI, immigrant, and low-income communities; and re-define capitalism at any cost as fiscally irresponsible. It’s time for a real “morning in America,” and we can all wake up with every intention of tearing down the PIC.