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The Prison-Industrial Complex

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Table of Contents

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The prison industrial complex (PIC) encapsulates the belief that government and industry have vested monetary and political interests in expanding the use of “surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems,”[1] as described by a leading advocacy group, Critical Resistance. Although it’s called the PIC, it includes both centers for criminal incarceration and immigrant detention. The term is coined from the military industrial complex - a comparison which has drawn criticisms for opposing reasons. Some claim the comparison is inaccurate as the prison system will never approach the magnitude of the military, while others argue that the focus on prisons is far too constricting; the entire criminal justice system is involved.[2] As the PIC encompasses a wide range of contentions and definitions, this chapter will focus on the legislative, economic, and political origins leading to the current system, the role of private prisons, and the immigration wing of the PIC.


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Three key pieces of legislation contributed to the modern day PIC. The first were passed in 1973 in New York state -- the Rockefeller Drug Laws. In contradiction to contemporary attitudes towards incarceration, these laws instituted a minimum 15 year sentence for various drug-related offenses.[3] Similar laws were gradually adopted nationwide, with effects so great that half a million Americans (48% of federal inmates) are now serving long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.[3]

The second piece of legislation, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, introduced the three-strike system, wherein federal offenders convicted for three or more serious violent felonies or drug trafficking crimes are sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment without possibility of parole.[4]

The third piece of legislation, the Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996, includes the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), which some argue incentivizes imprisonment for cheap labor[5], as discussed in the following economics section.

Hence, these three pieces of legislation exponentially increased the number of individuals incarcerated, extended the sentences of repeat offenders, and financially incentivized maintaining an incarcerated labor force.


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Integral to the concept of the PIC are financial incentives behind its maintenance and growth. The WOTC provides just that, by offering a tax credit of up to $2,400 per year per ex-felon hired, defined as anyone released from prison for — or convicted of — a felony within the last year.[6] This includes currently incarcerated individuals, making it financially favorable to use prison labor.

However, expanding the prisoner population necessitates expanding the number of prisons. In the wake of the Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York state, new prisons were desperately needed. In his search for quickly accessible funding to build prisons, Governor Mario Cuomo turned to the Urban Development Corporation.[7] As a public agency created in 1968 to build housing for the poor, it had the authority to issue state bonds without voter approval. Hence, funds that had been intended to house lower-income families were instead used to imprison many of their members.

Yet, this fund was unique to New York and alternative funding was needed across the country. Private prisons threw their hats in the ring. Such groups had begun creating detention centers for immigrants in the 70’s, and in 1983 a group called Corrections Corporation of America claimed they could build and operate state and federal prisons with the same quality of service at a lower cost.[8] Although private prisons have been in use for nearly 40 years, their claims of lower costs are still debated, with inquiries into the matter reaching no clear consensus.

Figure 1- Popularity of political taglines from 1800 to 2021: Three phrases have served as key American political taglines, with special emphasis on the last 50 years. Usage of "law and order" is plotted in blue, "war on drugs" in red, and "tough on crime" in green. Graph created with Google ngrams.


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Keeping Americans safe has always been a popular political strategy and criminalizing dangerous or so-called deviant behavior plays a large role. “Law and Order” has always been a buzz phrase, but exploded in popularity during the frenzy that led to the Rockefeller Drug Laws, peaking in 1971. As drug laws spread across the country, however, the new tagline of choice became “War on Drugs,” later followed by politicians claiming to be “tough on crime."

The impact of political discourse on the PIC extends past the campaign trail, however. Stock prices of private prison corporations are largely affected by presidential elections, dipping dramatically at the end of Obama’s term, before spiking in Trump’s tenure, and shrinking again dramatically upon election day 2020.[9] Such fluctuations indicate fragility in the current prison system and legitimize, to a certain degree, the claims of political advantage afforded by the PIC.  

Current Prison Populations

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As a result of the above discussed origins, the United States currently contains around 2.1 million incarcerated individuals, down from a maximum of 2.3 million in 2008. Approximately 6.3 million people are under supervision of adult correction systems, whether on probation, parole, or in correctional facilities. Incarcerated populations have skyrocketed from just 300,000 individuals in the 1970’s. Today, the incarceration rate is 810 per 100,000 adult residents in the U.S., down from a peak rate of 1000 per 100,000 in 2008.[10] Private prison populations are also decreasing. The U.S. has by far the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, despite this downward trend. El Salvador has the second highest rate, estimated at 13% lower than that of the U.S.[10]

The recent decrease in prison populations is due, in part, to changing state and federal policies and heightened awareness of the problem of mass incarceration. Many states are closing prisons due to reduced populations. In New York, reforms to the Rockefeller drug laws passed in the late 2000’s decreased prison populations. Under Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York closed 18 state prisons, and plans to close 6 more in early 2022.[11] Since 2011, at least 22 states have closed 94 state prisons and juvenile facilities. At the federal level, the Biden White House signed an executive order this year to eliminate contracts with private prison companies.[12]

Private Prisons

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Private prisons, or for-profit prisons, are contracted by government agencies to imprison individuals. Over the years, private prisons have grown controversial for different reasons, including their treatment of prisoners. As of 2019, private prisons house about eight percent of the total state and federal prison population.[13] Among the largest private prison companies in the U.S. are CoreCivic, the GEO Group, and the Management and Training Corporation. These companies own and manage private correctional facilities and make billions in revenue each year. Private prisons claim to provide rehabilitation programs for prisoners, including education, vocational training, addiction treatment, and faith-based programs. However, the Department of Justice found that only 60% actually offered rehabilitation programs.[14]

Private prisons contribute heavily to political campaigns: private prison groups gave a record $1.6 million to candidates and parties during the 2016 presidential election. The vast majority of their funding has gone to Republican candidates in 2021-2022.[15]

Immigration in the Prison Industrial Complex

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One branch of the PIC that has historically received significant political attention addresses immigration. Under the former Trump administration, the Migrant Protection Protocols, commonly known as the Remain in Mexico policy, made it difficult to obtain asylum in the United States. In 2019, just 0.1% of cases were granted asylum. Individuals caught illegally crossing the border are detained in a combination of public and private facilities. Recent growth in border crossing provides the means for sustaining the Prison Industrial Complex with individuals. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, ICE, contracts with local governments to hold individuals. The local government then contracts with private facilities. Private facilities are paid a rate of 25 cents per day per person [16]. In 2009, the private prison system earned $95 million in revenue. Between 2003 and 2011, the number of individuals held grew from around 232,000 to just under 430,000 people.

Both private and public facilities contract out operations such as security, inmate transportation, and food services. To reduce costs, consultants recommended reducing food, medical assistance, and personnel [17]. High profile consulting firms such as McKinsey, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Booz Allen Hamilton, and Deloitte contract with ICE. Amid reports of medical negligence, poor food, sexual assault, and death, reducing costs purely increases profit for the private facilities at the expense of detainees. In addition to facilities operations, tech companies are contracted to track and identify illegal immigrants within the country. In 2019, Palantir received attention due to its $38 million contract with ICE. Data from software companies likely resulted in workplace raids which provided more detainees.

The immigration portion of the PIC is perpetuated by legal apparatuses. In 2003, Director Tangeman of the Office of Detention and Removal within ICE released a 10-year goal to remove all aliens. This plan built on the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA)[18] [19][20]. The IIRIRA strengthened immigration law by instituting penalties for undocumented immigrants who commit crimes. A misdemeanor or felony can result in deportation. IIRIRA added Section 287(g) to the Immigration and Nationality Act, permitting ICE to supervise and train local or state law enforcement to identify and remove immigrants[21]. The AEDPA reformed habeas corpus procedure and grounds. The defendant has a single appeal to overturn a wrongful conviction. The grounds by which a defendant could have a successful appeal were also limited. This act perpetuates the complex as immigrants waiting for deportation are sent to detention facilities. The Criminal Alien Program (CAP) builds on the 1996 acts[22]. The program aims to identify noncitizens within the US prison system and obtain a removal order before being released. Private prisons are awarded contracts to hold immigrants during their criminal sentencing. After serving their criminal sentence, individuals are transferred to an immigration detention facility as they await deportation. This is known as inverted double jeopardy. If an immigrant is charged with -- but never convicted of -- a crime, they may still be removed. In 2009, 57% of deported immigrants from the CAP program were not criminals. The Secure Communities program is another means for local authorities to enforce immigration laws. Active in 44 states, the program forces the FBI to send fingerprints of arrested individuals to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The DHS checks the fingerprints against a database. Matches will lead to deportation or transfer of the individual to ICE detention while awaiting further investigation. From these acts and programs, the number of immigrants detained has increased which rewards detention centers that profit from the number of individuals held.


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Prisons are intended to house those who pose a threat to their neighbors and give them space for rehabilitation. With the introduction of stricter drug laws, this idea extended not just to keeping people safe from each other, but safe from themselves. As prison populations increased, so too did the need for prison space. Hence, the new technology of private prisons was introduced, along with a host of other technologies involved in the maintenance and expansion of the PIC.

Yet, prisons are a tool, not a solution. They’ve been treated as a solution to an unsolvable problem. When the question was initially posed to society - how do we increase prison spaces - the immediate response was to address it. The better response would have been to question the necessity of such a solution in the first place. Simply because we have the technological capability does not mean we should use it. Such a reflection is central to many problems being faced today, and deserves careful consideration.

Opportunities for Further Study

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Future authors could strengthen this chapter with discussion of additional laws that led to the prison system we have today, deeper analysis of the role of drugs, and greater attention to the demographics of prisoners, with special attention paid to discussion of the racial components to the PIC.

[Video: TED Talk - Bryan Stevenson]


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  1. “What is the PIC? What is Abolition? – Critical Resistance.” http://criticalresistance.org/about/not-so-common-language/ (accessed Nov. 01, 2021).
  2. S. Best, R. Kahn, and A. J. N. II, The Global Industrial Complex: Systems of Domination. Lexington Books, 2011.
  3. a b B. Mann, “The Drug Laws That Changed How We Punish,” NPR, Feb. 14, 2013. Accessed: Nov. 14, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.npr.org/2013/02/14/171822608/the-drug-laws-that-changed-how-we-punish
  4. “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.” U.S. Department of Justice, Oct. 24, 1994. Accessed: Nov. 14, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.ncjrs.gov/txtfiles/billfs.txt
  5. J. R. Gutierrez, “Corporations’ Use of Prison Labor – Corporate Sustainability and Compliance.” https://sites.law.berkeley.edu/sustainability-compliance/corporations-use-of-prison-labor/ (accessed Dec. 08, 2021).
  6. B. Collins and S. A. Donovan, “The Work Opportunity Tax Credit,” p. 16.
  7. E. Schlosser, “The Prison-Industrial Complex,” The Atlantic, Dec. 01, 1998. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1998/12/the-prison-industrial-complex/304669/ (accessed Nov. 14, 2021).
  8. C. Mason, “Too Good to be True: Private Prisons in America,” The Sentencing Project. https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/too-good-to-be-true-private-prisons-in-america/ (accessed Nov. 14, 2021).
  9. M. Pauly, “Private prison stocks drop as the reality of Biden’s win sinks in,” Mother Jones. https://www.motherjones.com/crime-justice/2020/11/private-prison-biden-stocks/ (accessed Nov. 14, 2021).
  10. a b J. Gramlich, “America’s incarceration rate falls to lowest level since 1995,” Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/08/16/americas-incarceration-rate-lowest-since-1995/ (accessed Nov. 14, 2021).
  11. L. Ferre-Sadurni, “Hochul to Close 6 New York Prisons. Here’s Why. - The New York Times.” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/09/nyregion/prisons-closing-new-york-hochul.html (accessed Nov. 10, 2021).
  12. “Executive Order on Reforming Our Incarceration System to Eliminate the Use of Privately Operated Criminal Detention Facilities,” The White House, Jan. 26, 2021. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/26/executive-order-reforming-our-incarceration-system-to-eliminate-the-use-of-privately-operated-criminal-detention-facilities/ (accessed Nov. 15, 2021).
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  14. T. D. Minton, “Correctional Populations in the United States, 2019 – Statistical Tables,” Stat. Tables, p. 15, 2019.
  15. “For-profit Prisons | OpenSecrets.” https://www.opensecrets.org/industries./indus.php?ind=G7000 (accessed Nov. 10, 2021).
  16. R. L. Doty and E. S. Wheatley, “Private Detention and the Immigration Industrial Complex1,” Int. Polit. Sociol., vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 426–443, Dec. 2013, doi: 10.1111/ips.12032.
  17. immigrationppf, “Immigration and the Prison Industrial Complex,” Immigration Past, Present, and Future, Jan. 06, 2020. https://immigrationppf.com/2020/01/06/immigration-and-the-prison-industrial-complex/ (accessed Nov. 15, 2021).
  18. “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act,” LII / Legal Information Institute. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/illegal_immigration_reform_and_immigration_responsibility_act (accessed Dec. 07, 2021).
  19. “Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA),” LII / Legal Information Institute. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/antiterrorism_and_effective_death_penalty_act_of_1996_(aedpa) (accessed Dec. 07, 2021).
  20. R. J. Dole, “S.735 - 104th Congress (1995-1996): Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996,” Apr. 24, 1996. https://www.congress.gov/bill/104th-congress/senate-bill/735 (accessed Dec. 07, 2021).
  21. “Delegation of Immigration Authority Section 287(g) Immigration and Nationality Act.” https://www.ice.gov/identify-and-arrest/287g (accessed Dec. 07, 2021).
  22. “The Criminal Alien Program (CAP): Immigration Enforcement in Prisons and Jails,” American Immigration Council, Aug. 01, 2013. https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/criminal-alien-program-cap-immigration-enforcement-prisons-and-jails (accessed Dec. 07, 2021).