Prison-Industrial Complex

Black people are uniquely aware of the realities of prison. Disproportionately, Black and Latin men make up a large number of incarcerated individuals in the US. This is probably not news to anyone, but it cannot be stated enough. What was news to me, and may be news to some of you, is the number of US residents that are in jail right now. A study has shown that 1 out of 136 US residents is in jail. I’d like to talk about what this means to minority and majority populations, and why the madness that is our “justice system” must cease.

Some of you may be familiar with the Prison-Industrial Complex, the notion that there exist special interest groups that have lots to gain from putting more people into prison. This concept has been championed by many social leaders such as Angela Davis (a summary of her views is available here). The idea is similar to the Military-Industrial Complex, which was broadly introduced to most people in President Lyndon B. Johnson‘s final Presidential Address, which similarly states that there exist special interest groups (e.g. Haliburton) that have plenty to gain from a state of perpetual war.

The Prison Policy Initiative has some interesting statistics on the demographics of US prisoners. The more interesting of the stats are below:

Number of White male prisoners per 100,000 U.S. males, 2000: 990
Number of African-American male prisoners per 100,000 U.S. males, 2000: 6,838
Percentage of U.S. population that is White 2000: 75.1%
Percentage of adults in state prison who are White, 1997: 33.3%
Percentage of U.S. population that is African-American, 2000: 12.3%
Percentage of adults in state prison who are African-American, 1997: 45.6%

What you’ll notice from these stats and others is that Black folks are a whole hell of a lot “better” represented in the prison system. Why is that? Is it because they, in absolute terms, commit more crime? Is it because they are predisposed to illegal behavior? Is it because they more often exist in conditions conducive to criminal behavior? Is it because racism plays a role in the incarceration rate? Is it something else?

The answer to the first two questions is an emphatic NO. If you disagree, please point me to some evidence to the contrary. As for the latter 3, the answer is: somewhat. My question, however, is this. Let’s say that I’m one of the parties (e.g. a builder of privately owned prisons) that will benefit from an increase in the US inmate population. As a businessman, I would probably want to attract patrons (read: prisoners) from as large a group as possible; I’d try to cast a wide net. What does that mean more specifically? It means that I would not try to go at minority populations to fill my prisons because there just are not enough of them!!! Even if I locked up every Black, Latin, Native American, East Asian, East Indian, or any other non-white man/woman/child in this country, there would be less of them than there are potential white inmates!!! So this begs a question as to what the agenda of the prison-industrial complex’s beneficiaries: Is their goal to make profits only, or is it to make profits while at the same time crippling minority populations by depleting them of their people?

Let’s think about this on a real basic level. If I want to hurt someone, do I injure the thing they value most, or the thing they value least? If I want to embarrass someone, do I expose something they care little about or something they care deeply about? It’s simple mathematics. Will I get more money if I stick my hand in the little jar or the big jar? So why is it that these special interests have consistently stuck their hands into the smaller jar? I say it’s because they are convinced that the worst thing that could possibly happen in this world is to have a viable, educated, employed minority population because that group might wake up one day and realize that they have been systematically excluded from things for a long, long time, and want to do something about that.

Do not confuse this piece as a litany of excuses for those who have committed crimes. What I am saying is that when trends like this are obvious and observable, we have to think that there is more going on than just a few ‘evil’ people encouraging negative behavior amongst many.

So what needs to change? What can we do? Basic things. Simple, small things.

For starters, let’s do our best to avoid stupid situations. Case in point, I got pulled over [again] last week for 3 over the speed limit on my way home from work (33 in a 30). My commute to work is less than 5 minutes when I drive, so I was really gaining nothing from my ‘speeding.’ In situation like this, we need to be wise. Why invite the posssibility for ignorance?

We also need to watch each other’s back. There are a couple ways this can be done. When was the last time you asked an officer why they pulled somebody over? I did this, and you wouldn’t believe the response I got: the police officer left. Why, because he had pulled the guy over talking about he had a broken tail-light…that wasn’t broken. I inquired, and he bounced since he had no answer to my simple question. We need to stick up for one another people.

Another thing we can do is travel together. It is less likely that a squad car to harass a group of four than a group of two, a group of three than a single person. If at least one individual in the group is not ignorant, than there is more likely to be a political solution.

The most important thing we can do is refuse to accept ignorance in all of its forms. Share what you know. More importantly, share how you learned what you know. The foundation of all meaningful things is knowledge; spread it at every opportunity. In the car with the fam, on the phone with loved ones, at happy hour with colleagues, everywhere.

Give a man a thought and he’ll be able to repeat it. Teach a man to think and he’ll be able to teach others in the same way.

One Love. One II

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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora and am a National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I currently live in Washington, DC with my beautiful wife Ellen. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. Today I work at the crossroads of traditional political organizing and online activism. I speak before diverse audiences on empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation though emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet.

2 responses to “Prison-Industrial Complex”

  1. Garlin II says :

    A good friend of mine pointed me to a great LA Times article on the economic inefficiencies of today’s prison system. This gives us more reason to question the motivations behind the system as it is currently being implemented.

  2. OG says :

    Years ago I got into a situation, I had never been in any trouble. I drive a truck and got in trouble in MO. I was sentenced to 3 years in the MO DOC.When I got back to FL, my PO told me I should have never gone to prison for the offense. She told me the only reason I was sent to prison was it was the only way MO could mak any money.

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