As we approach the final session of the 2010 Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) Communiversity course, I wanted to take a moment to underscore some of the areas that we haven’t really been able to cover in our time together. We are in our fifth session today and will end in June with a focus on specific organizing efforts aimed at dismantling the PIC.
This course was intended to provide a basic overview of some of the key issues around the prison industrial complex. It was not meant to be exhaustive. This topic is so broad and complex that it would take a lifetime to unpack all of its nuances.
In the meantime, here are a few areas that we did not consider in depth over the past five sessions but are critical to gaining a comprehensive view about the PIC and how it operates:
- Immigration, Detention, and the PIC -- On any given day there are 30,000 immigrants in detention in the U.S. (women and children included).
- The “war on terror” and the U.S.’s global prison network (Bagram/Guantanamo) – extending the reach of the PIC outside the U.S.
- Mental illness and the PIC – two wonderful documentaries highlight how prisons have become warehouses for people with mental illness. Check out “The New Asylums” and “The Released” if you are interested in this topic. Both are hour-long documentaries produced by PBS’s Frontline.
- Political Prisoners – We did not address the issue of the imprisonment of dissidents and critics of the state in any depth.
- The role of the media in promoting and supporting the PIC – We did not discuss in any depth how the media works to criminalize marginalized groups through its coverage of “crime.”
We spent the first two sessions trying to understand the history of prisons and how the PIC operates. One area of debate that we did not broach is whether the term “Prison Industrial Complex” is a good construct to explain the expansion and encroachment of surveillance and incarceration over the past 30 years. There is a pitched battle of ideas in the academic community about whether the PIC is a useful way to describe mass incarceration. Sociologists like Loic Wacquant contend that the PIC is a misguided frame as an explanatory construct for mass incarceration. For information about Wacquant’s critique, you should read his book “Prisons of Poverty.” This is the shorter, more reader-friendly version of his book “Punishing the Poor.” Chris Parenti is another person who is a critic of the term “Prison Industrial Complex.” He contends that prison spending is much less than that of the “military-industrial-complex.” As such, he takes issue with the term. He has other criticisms that he has offered as well.
Finally, in the past couple of years, some have begun to use the term “Corrections-Industrial Complex” instead of PIC. These people contend that since the fastest growing segment of carceral supervision today in the U.S. is probation, it makes more sense to think of this phenomenon as the CIC instead. Former inmates are often still under some form of supervision once they leave the walls of prisons (GPS tracking, intensive parole, etc…). Others who come into contact with the criminal legal system are not incarcerated but are given probation and come under the surveillance of the state too.
We have not discussed these debates in this course because of the limited amount of time that was available to us. I did however want to bring this to your attention in case you are interested in reading more from some of the academics that I mentioned earlier.
Personally, I continue to find the term “Prison Industrial Complex” to be a good frame for discussing the issues that we have over the past five months. This is why I continue to use it. In particular, I rely on Critical Resistance’s definition:
“Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to what are, in actuality, economic, social, and political ‘problems’.”
Hopefully after the past few months, everyone who has consistently attended these sessions can answer the following questions in his or her own way:
- What are the historical, social, political, and economic forces that have contributed to the vast expansion of incarceration in the U.S.?
- How do you define the PIC?
- Who gets put in prison and who doesn’t?
- What are the effects of the PIC on individuals, communities, and society?
There are many, many more issues that we could have covered as they relate to the PIC. I hope that some of you who are interested in continuing your learning around these issues will apply to join the PIC Teaching Collective (July 9th is the deadline). For the others, I hope that you will independently continue to expand your understanding of the issues around the PIC in the future.
Written by Mariame Kaba