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What is the Prison-Industrial Complex?

Many may have heard of the military-industrial complex that gained prominence during our nation’s involvement in World War II and has continued religiously through the contemporary era. This term, which we were warned against by President Eisenhower, refers to the economic prosperity which results from being at war. Companies that may manufacture ammunition, steel, or the like, see major profits when our nation is at war–due to a higher demand–thus promoting more support for war.

The prison-industrial complex is a term that is very similar to the above referenced matter. It generally refers to the correlation between the rapid increase in the United States’ prison population and the political and economic influence of private prison companies. Dating back about three decades ago to the emergence of our War on Drugs, the prison-industrial complex was bureaucratically created (behind closed doors) with the United States’ criminal justice system. These agencies are responsible for supplying our prisons with services including prison labor, construction, surveillance technology and vendors, medical services, prison food, private probation companies, attorneys, lobbyist groups, and so on. A rampant widespread belief in the current era attributes the profits within this area of business to the questionable increase of our inmate population. Could these harsh sentences be purposefully intended to boost the profits of this $35 billion industry? Well, that is what many argue…

Multiple activist groups, including the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, take a stance against the prison-industrial complex. These groups claim that PIC is corrupt in that it supports a false belief that imprisonment is a solution to common social issues, including homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy. Many hold that businessmen feared the economic development of impoverished areas and in turn allocated more government budget to corrections. Since 1991 the overall national crime rate has decreased by a remarkable 20%, however, our incarceration rate has increased by over 50%. Why? In 1996 Steven R. Donziger, the head of the National Criminal Justice Commission, stated, “If crime is going up, then we need to build more prisons; and if crime is going down, it’s because we built more prisons—and building even more prisons will therefore drive crime down even lower.” This statement, which explains the popular sentiment of this era, was the driving force behind recent increases in inmate facilities and structures.

From 1984-1994, a ten year period, California built eight new maximum-security facilities, after their inmate population spike began to pose a severe threat to the safety of staff members, inmates, and even the general public. These new prisons have room for about 3,000 inmates each—with about one-third of their population serving life sentences—however they are currently exceeding this by a long run. Instead of attempting to alleviate this overcrowding by releasing nonviolent criminals, for decades we have solely focused on one thing—building more prisons.

Recently, under the Obama administration, legislators have finally begun to dedicate their efforts to sentencing reform. The United States currently holds just slightly less than a fourth of the world’s total prison population—that’s half a million more inmates than communist China. According to the NAACP, from 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people—a spike that certainly goes hand in hand with the prison-industrial complex.

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