Prison Industrial Complex: What is it? Legal Slavery? How does Racism and the Gender Gap play a role?

Deisy Salas
Mar 1, 2017 · 5 min read

When talking to the average person, most would not know what the prison industrial complex is; much less why they should care about it. To most, a prison is just that, a place were the ‘bad’ people get taken to and ‘corrected’ on their bad behavior. This is not a wrong view because on the surface that is exactly what prisons advertise that they are. However, if people look past that ideal, one will realize that prisons are another form of legal slavery, with racism and gender gaps also playing a huge role. First, however, the prison industrial complex is,

“…the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.”

more specifically, as author Eric Schlosser says,

“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.”

This quote brings up the other part of what the industrial complex is. It is when the government and private companies keep on building prisons even if the need for them is not there.

Now at this stage one might wonder how this translates to legal slavery if according to the fourteenth amendment, slavery was abolished and made illegal? Well, what happens in prisons is that the inmates are forced to work, either making products or cleaning or anything else that one can think of, without pay. The inmates have no choice but to comply to the higher power and that is the very definition of slavery. More specifically, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines slavery as, “Submission to a dominating influence.” This is exactly what the inmates must do, they have to submit to the ‘dominating influence’ which means the prison guards, the owners of the prisons, and anybody else in power.

Additionally, slavery is not the only issue with these industrial complexes; racism is also a problem. When women prisons were first opened, they were geared towards the reformation of white women through domestication by teaching them how to be the perfect housewife. Ironically, those white women were sent to jail because they, “…could not ‘be kept to their duties by parents or husbands.” While, often times, women of color would be sent to male prisons because they were not seen as being at the same level of white women. This trend may not exist anymore but other similar acts still perpetuate racism today. Take for example the fact that a man of color, specifically a black man, has a higher probability of getting sentenced to jail time than a white man does, even when both have committed the same crime. Then, we also have shows like Orange is the New Black that also help cement this idea of racism by stereotyping all of the people of color in the show. Furthermore, Angela Davis also points out that,

“…throughout the urban areas of Europe and the United States, a vastly disproportionate number of women prisoners come from racially marginalized communities.”

This quote, helps again prove the fact that racism is still very much alive and a part of the prison industrial complex. It may not be as evident as it was before because of all the privatization going on but, it still exists and people need to become more aware of it.

Another point to take into consideration is how the gender gap plays a role into the prison industrial complex. When most people think of the gender gap the first thing that pops into their mind is the ‘wage gap.’ While this is a very important issue, the one I am referring to is the fact that women prisons are not the same as male prisons. For example, they do not have the same rules and requirements for their inmates even though both are prisons. Men prisons tend to be more severe in punishment and other qualities than when compared to their female counterpart. Thus, in the twentieth-century, there was a movement that took place that called for ‘separate but equal’ prison facilities as a solution to the gender gap but, it backfired. What ended up happening, as Angela Davis states is,

“…ironically resulting in demands for more repressive conditions in order to render women’s facilities ‘equal’ to men’s.”

So, instead of the government making the situation better and alleviating those harsh conditions in the men’s prison, they choose the easy way out. Once again depicting the gender gap between male and female prisons.

Nonetheless, I have shown you on the individual level what legal slavery, the gender gap and racism are in relation to detention centers but, how exactly do they play a role in the prison industrial complex? Well, first of all, with legal slavery it allows companies and the state to take advantage and use inmate labor to produce their goods at very cheap rates. This in turn allows them to capitalize on it while the inmates do not benefit at all even though detention centers are meant to help reform criminals. Next, racism comes into play by allowing the power house to continue capitalizing but on the backs of minorities who tend to benefit even less as it is. Racism then allows the government to try to solve social, economic and political problems through the use of imprisonment. Then, the gender gap also plays into that by raising awareness of these discrepancies taken place. Yet, because of the prison industrial complex, instead of trying to fix the problem, the government and others in power want to continue profiting from detention centers and thus do not fix the problem.

Additionally, all that is written above gets to the core of Angela Davids article which is that of prison reformation. As I have stated, so does she discuss all the wrong’s of our current prison systems, but she then goes on to discuss that this means they need to be reformed/changed. Sadly, she says however that, “…prison reform movements in general have tended to bolster, rather than diminish, the stronghold of prisons on the lives of the individuals whom they hold captive.” This does not mean however that the cause is lost, we need more people to stand up and fight against the injustice taking place. This is not to say that criminals should not be punished for their actions, this just means that they should be punished in a different way, and that the government needs to stop building prisons when they are not necessary.

applied intersectionality.

In this course we will critically examine popular…

applied intersectionality.

In this course we will critically examine popular representations of white femininity with the social, political, and legal theories introduced in postcolonial and black feminist scholarship.

Deisy Salas

Written by

applied intersectionality.

In this course we will critically examine popular representations of white femininity with the social, political, and legal theories introduced in postcolonial and black feminist scholarship.

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