Since its bloody and corrupt genesis, America has found a multitude of ways to prosper off the blood, sweat, and tears of their black population with little to no compensation. This has taken many different forms ranging from blatant slavery to a sharecropping system that upheld the same socioeconomic principles of slavery, to increased taxation on foods and appliances in lower-income predominantly black neighborhoods. While social progress has made it much harder for this extortion of black people to be as salient in present-day America, society has still found a way to make easy money off its black inhabitants, and that is through the embodiment of systematic racism that is the prison industrial complex.
Since 1991 the rate of violent crimes in the United States has dropped by roughly 20 percent, while the number of people in prison or jail has risen by 50 percent (Schlosser) . The heart of this increase in jailing is not an increase in crime, but a capitalistic view of the prison system by a network of crooked politicians, private companies, private correctional facilities, and law enforcement. This is the prison industrial complex, a term used to describe the intersecting interests of industry and government that uses imprisonment, policing, and surveillance to try and solve America’s social, economic, and political problems.
Since 1980 spending on corrections has increased by five times its original amount (Schlosser). What was once a small operation for a handful of businesses has now become a multibillion-dollar industry with its conventions, websites, catalogs, and even direct-marketing campaigns. Wall Street investment firms handle stocks for private prisons, plumbing-supply companies, food-service companies, health-care companies, and companies that sell items ranging from bulletproof cell monitors to padded cell walls available in a “variety of colors” (Schlosser). These companies actively view the 35 million currently imprisoned in America as well as the people imprisoning them as potential customers for the products they offer and it is for this reason that spending on prison has gained traction over time when there is no need for increased spending in the first place.
How does the prison industrial complex go about exploiting prisoners for revenue? Well, one example of this is the usage of phones by prisoners. Being that phone calls are one of the only bridges to the outside world for these inmates, they are universally used by prisoners as a means of communication with their families and loved ones. A payphone at a prison can generate as much as $15,000 a year—about five times the revenue of a typical pay phone on the street. It is estimated that inmate calls generate a billion dollars or more in revenues each year. With this in mind, phone companies like AT&T, Bell South, and MCI install their telephone booth inside prisons at little to no cost but charge prisoners highly to use them, knowing that they have no choice but to pay these fairs if they want to communicate with the outside world expediently (Schlosser). MCI Maximum Security and North American Intelecom have both been caught overcharging for calls made by inmates; in one state MCI was caught adding a minute to every call. This is just one way in which corrupt big business partakes in the prison industrial complex. The prison industrial complex has turned America’s prisons into a marketplace for goods and services instead of a place for actual correction and the ones who are being hurt the most by this are, as always, Black Americans.
African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites, resulting in African Americans and Hispanics comprising 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015, even though they make up approximately 32% of the US population (Criminal Justice Fact Sheet). With this being the case, the prison industrial complex’s biggest consumer, by no choice of their own, are these black men and women who are in these prisons. The fact that this is the case speaks to the perpetuation of mistreatment of blacks in America. The prison industrial complex is evidence for a much broader argument; the fundamental treatment of blacks in America has barely changed save for its blatancy. Not only does the prison industrial complex mirror the same type of economic extortion of black people that could be found in much less “progressive” periods of American history, but there are aspects of the complex that quite literally replicate slavery. Incarcerated Individuals (Who Are Mostly People Of Color) Are Legally The Property Of The Government, literally property (5 Ways America’s Prison System Mimics Slavery). With this being the case, these prisoners are often leased out to private companies to do manual labor, construction, and other physically taxing task for wages that are well below minimum wage. If one refuses to be leased out like property you are locked up in solitary confinement or they have family visitation rights taken from them, among many other brutal consequences (5 Ways America’s Prison System Mimics Slavery).
In conclusion, This prison industrial complex is an embodiment of how far America has come in terms of its treatment of black people. In reality, things have not changed, they have only transformed to be less visible. This theme shows itself in far more than just the complex though. Take for example lynching of blacks in America. Blacks are no longer being strung up by ropes in trees or set on fire for hoards of white individuals entertainment, but unarmed blacks are stilled killed by wanton white police officers regularly, with there barely ever being any consequences. The foundation is still the same, but the manifestation is what has changed. As long as this foundation is still held steadfast by America, we cannot truly say that the positioning of blacks has improved
“5 Ways America’s Prison System Mimics Slavery.” Bustle, www.bustle.com/articles/142340-5-ways-the-us-prison-industrial-complex-mimics-slavery.
“Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.” NAACP, www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/.
Schlosser, Eric. “The Prison-Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 1 Dec. 1998, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1998/12/the-prison-industrial-complex/304669/.