Prison Industrial Complex Essay

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Fueled in large part  by financial interests,  the prison industrial complex consists of businesses and corporations that contract prison labor, including construction companies, technology vendors, lawyers, and lobby groups that represent them. To most of its critics, the complex signifies a network of actors motivated more by profit than by the rehabilitation of criminals or a reduction in crime rates. Ethical questions are raised by the following concerns: the prison industrial complex bears an uncomfortable resembance to chattel slavery; the United States maintains the highest incarceration rate in the world; the trend among legislatures is toward downplaying or disregarding the effects of mass incarceration on the public; and privatization of prisons fosters a view of prisoners  as mere commodities, warehoused for purposes of corporate profit.

Ethics is usually defined as a system of moral principles, and the prison industrial complex can be examined in light of the principle of universality. Immanuel Kant (1704–1824) made universality the central maxim of all moral judgment. The basic idea is that an act is good when it can, within reason, be turned into a universal law. A universal law is one that can be binding upon anyone (i.e., equal justice under the law). In the case of mass incarceration resulting largely from drug control legislation and law violations, for instance, one finds that while everyone is subjected to the law, not all are arrested, prosecuted, convicted, or necessarily sentenced equally.

This  distinction is most  apparent in crack versus powdered cocaine sentencing disparities, where those charged with crack possession are sentenced more harshly. In this instance, laws prohibiting illegal drug possession are not universally applied. If such actions (i.e., procedural justice) do not pass the universality  test, Kant would  have termed  it immoral.  By extension, drug legislation that results in disparate sentences for similarly situated offenders is, too, by definition, equally immoral. Yet, drug control legislation is one of several factors that gave rise to the prison industrial complex in the United States, and its implementation raises ethical and moral concerns about a justice system that sponsors and promotes such practices.

Historical Background

The phrase military industrial complex entered the consciousness of the American public in the early 1960s and established the conceptual foundation for a more emergent phrase: prison industrial complex. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his 1961 farewell address warned against “unwarranted influence” in the councils of government by industrial and military actors, whose mingled interests posed the “potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power.”

Decades  later,  the  continued expansion of inmate populations, coupled with a “disastrous rise in misplaced power” resulted in full-fledged mass incarceration. In 1997,  Angela Davis, a social activist and prison abolitionist, was one of the first to draw conceptual similarities between the military industrial complex and the prison industrial complex. Mumia Abu-Jamal, an internationally celebrated prisoner serving a life sentence for a contested murder conviction, used his prison cell to heighten public awareness about this phenomenon. He described it as one of the few growth  industries,  however cruel and evil, that can be easily summoned with guarantees of healing an ailing American economy.

According  to the Sentencing  Project  (as of 2013), the United States led other nations in the number of people incarcerated with roughly 2.3 million people in either prison or jail—a 500 percent increase over the previous 30 years. For every 100,000 Americans, 734 were incarcerated. More than 60 percent of people in prison were people of color. To most observers, this resulted from the disproportionate impact of the “war on drugs,” a term first used by former President Richard M. Nixon in 1971 amid reports of a growing heroin epidemic among U.S. servicemen in Vietnam, where approximately 10 to 15 percent of the servicemen were addicted to heroin. Two years later mass incarceration gained considerable traction with the signing of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, setting in motion a legislative trend that eventually included “three-strikes” laws and distinctions between sentences for possession (or sale) of crack cocaine and powder cocaine.

Many  signaled this as the beginning  of the prison industrial complex—though corporate interests and involvement in prisons date back to the convict lease system, instituted in the aftermath of the Civil War and lasting until 1928. Just as the U.S. government needs a reason to go to war (in search of weapons of mass destruction), the notorious “war on drugs” led to the development of stiffer sentencing guidelines (to guarantee additional inmates). Consequently, the collateral damages of drug wars and drug legislation affects generations of young men, destroys families and communities, and does not reduce drug abuse. From this angle, the prison industrial complex appears to encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need. As a result, it is reasonable to question: why is it necessary that America continue to maintain the highest incarceration rate in the world?

Complicity and Immorality

Motivated by profit, scores of individuals and companies have a vested interest in maintaining the prison industrial complex. The list of services provided appears endless—yet arguably necessary to operate a prison industry as profits are widely distributed among a host of manufacturers. Two of the biggest players in the prison industrial complex are Corrections Corporations of America and GEO Group  (formerly Wackenhut Corrections Corporation). Both operate a broad range of correctional and  detention facilities including maximum-, medium-, and minimum-security prisons, for-profit prisons known as immigration detention centers, and mental health and residential treatment facilities. Corporate powerhouses also have their fair share of investors including Westinghouse, AT&T,  Sprint, MCI, Smith Barney, American Express, Merrill Lynch, Shearson-Lehman, Allstate, and General Electric. In addition to corporate investments, state and federal governments appear influenced by special interest groups and prison lobbyists. For example, when some state legislatures have passed immigration bills designed to interrogate, detain, and deport illegal aliens, immigration detention became a lucrative new market. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) pays private prison corporations an average of $95 per inmate per day to house detainees, even though it only costs an average of $14 per day to supervise them. This revelation raises concerns about the true intent of the legislation and whether some immigration policies are little more than a façade for increasing the number of private detention facilities.

The Human Toll

Beyond  issues  of  economic  exploitation are related concerns of oppression, overt racism, and discrimination, inevitable by-products of a well-designed, systematic plan to rid society of expendable surplus labor. Loic Waquant, a sociologist at University of California, Berkeley, described places of mass incarceration as the “new peculiar institution,” claiming that prisons were but one of several institutions that have operated to define, confine, and control African Americans throughout the history of the United States. In rapid succession, these institutions began with chattel slavery, advanced to Jim Crow legislation, transitioned to northern ghettos, and culminated in a novel prison  industrial complex,  offering itself as the “universal and simple solution to all manner of social problems.”

Michelle  Alexander  advanced  the argument while characterizing the effects of being labeled a criminal where one had scarcely fewer rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man had living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. Once labeled, people are reduced from full personhood into an object often regarded as a vicious felon, a deplorable criminal, and a reprehensible thug, among other dubious terms. By internalizing the practice of dehumanizing others, humanity is objectified and society’s best moral self is compromised  to ensure the prison  industrial complex continues. Furthermore, mass incarceration harms the free public by preventing its ability to recognize the full humanity of those behind bars, and therefore  the public itself. Earl Smith and Angela Hattery, professors of sociology at Wake Forest University, assert that the prison industrial complex effectively decimates families and communities by removing various forms of capital, including financial, human, social, and political. This constant drain of social capital raises important questions  concerning  the morality  of confining so many U.S. citizens. Empirical evidence of community-level harm presents a compelling moral indictment of mass imprisonment, regardless of the moral deserts of individual offenders.

A Matter of Ethics

At this juncture,  it is necessary and appropriate to question whether the United States can be regarded as an ethical leader in world affairs when it imprisons so many of its people. By numerous accounts, questions of unethical and immoral behaviors permeate nearly all facets of the criminal justice system, from arrest to final disposition, and far beyond. Thus far, it is evident that mass incarceration rests on the pillars of political corruption, immorality, and, in some instances, a lack of institutional integrity. In effect, nothing breeds success like successfully incarcerating nearly 2.4 million with another 7 million under the control of probation and parole supervision. Moreover, with a guaranteed supply of inmates, it increases the demand for goods and services and helps sustain a multibillion dollar industry that captures the spirit of capitalism in its finest hour.


In  conclusion,  the  prison  industrial  complex results from many factors, including procedural injustice, politically influenced criminal justice legislation, and private corporations far more concerned with profit than offender rehabilitation. Added to this is an atmosphere of indifference with little regard for the toll taken on individuals and communities. A government that prioritizes the interests of private corporations, while failing to recognize the humanity of its citizens, can be regarded as morally bankrupt.


  1. Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.
  2. Davis, A. “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex.” Color Lines (1998). (Accessed January 2013).
  3. Eisner, A. Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America’s Prisons. New York: Prentice Hall, 2006.
  4. Griffith, Lee. The Fall of the Prison: Biblical Perspectives on Prison Abolition. Grand Rapids, MI: Diane, 1993.
  5. Magnani, L. “Market Values Permeate Both Foreign Policies and Prison Policies.” Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, v.23 (2011).
  6. Ross, L. E. “A Vision of Race, Crime, and Justice Through the Lens of Critical Race Theory.”In The Sage Handbook of Criminological Theory, E. McLaughlin and T. Newburn, eds. London: Sage, 2010.
  7. Smith, E. and A. Hattery. “African American Men and the Prison Industrial Complex.” Western Journal of Black Studies, v.34/4 (2010).

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