Mail Time

Dear Slingshot,

I was happy to see Alex making the effort to keep prisoners in the loop with their article “RABBID Wants You to Write Prisoners.” Hey Alex, I dig mail! I also really dig that Alex did not refer to us as “inmates,” a term of derision inside the walls (Liane Apple, please take note). However, Alex should know that there’s no such thing as a “Prison Industrial Complex (PIC).” This is a misnomer Angela Davis has been trumpeting for years, and as far as I can tell, she made it up. It falsely implies that somehow various governments, state and federal, are making money from prisons, when nothing could be further from the truth. Even with our slave labor, the profits, if any, are negligible and prisons are bleeding state budgets and taxpayers dry. There is nothing “industrial” or “complex” about prison, so people should refrain from using this misleading terminology.

In counter-rhythm,

Rand Gould C-187131

Thumb Correctional Facility

3225 John Conley Dr.

Lapeer, MI 48446

Dear Rand,

Thanks for writing! We dig mail too! But I’m going to keep using the term “Prison Industrial Complex” and here’s why:

The body of a prisoner is a hot commodity under capitalism. Every aspect of a prisoner’s life is parceled up by the government and auctioned off to corporations. Multinational powerhouses such as Sodexo, Aramark, Westinghouse, GEO Group Inc, Correctional Communications Corp., Sprint, and AT&T (to name a few) have won massive government contracts to exclusively sell or rent their shitty food, furniture, facilities, vehicles, surveillance & communications technologies to prisons at inflated prices. (Ever wonder why it costs six times the normal amount to make a collect call from prison? …this would be why.) Some corporations–such as American Express and General Electric–have gone so far as to construct private prisons in Oklahoma and Tennessee which they rent out to the state at a profit.

With over 1 percent of the American population behind bars at this time, the prison market is booming and CEOs are scrambling to get a piece of the pie. As of 2011, total state spending on corrections reached about $52 billion–which is double the cost it was ten years before. Taxpayers are picking up this enormous bill, which subsidizes the corporations that profiteer off prisons.

The irony of all this–or “strategic investment incentive,” depending on your point of view–is that prisons create more crime. Once you have prison time on your record, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to ever get a legit job again. In most states, you can’t even receive food stamps. After release, many former prisoners find they must engage in criminal activity to survive. It’s a vicious cycle, with over 40% of folks released from prison ending up back behind bars within 3 years.

It would seem the system is designed to keep its captive market captive, with the lobbyists and PR specialists that write the laws and control the mainstream media ensuring that the War on Drugs and fear of crime are used to legitimize the PIC to the taxpaying public.

Perhaps it isn’t a surprise that the emergence of the Prison Industrial Complex can be traced to banking tycoon Nelson Rockefeller, who, as governor of New York, signed the controversial Rockefeller Drug Laws into effect in May 1973. These laws instituted minimum sentencing of 15 years for possession of narcotics, criminalizing the choices made by consenting adults about what they do with their own bodies. These laws became the model for future drug laws that have dramatically bolstered the prison population.

Also, I wouldn’t discount the economic impact of prison labor. Around 1.6 million people are in state & federal prisons (as of the last U.S. census in 2010), and every able-bodied one of them is required to work. Prison laborers are paid between 23 cents and $1.15 an hour for manufacturing clothing, solar panels, weapons, etc. Although it is illegal for Federal Prison Industries (also called “Unicor”) to sell prisoner-made goods to consumers, the government purchases these goods, replacing private sector companies. The result is the elimination of manufacturing jobs, decreased wages, and subsequent damage to the economy. Last year, NASA contracted prisoners at San Quentin to make Satellite parts for pennies an hour–a job once reserved for unionized engineers. Soon, the products of prison labor will be floating between us and the stars.

I wish I could say that this is all some freakish accident. But the truth is, this is exactly how capitalism is supposed to operate. The Prison Industrial Complex is simply an extreme example of the way capitalism hijacks the lives of all workers: thanks to private property laws and the taking of the commons, the working class has been made doubly-free–We are free from the ability to provide for ourselves, and free to sell our labor to bosses. Ironically, capitalism’s exploitative double-freedom operates just as easily behind bars.

Over the last two decades, similar trends of privatization have occurred in education and medicine, with corporations increasingly forcing themselves into the lives of people who interact with those spaces. Last year, in the tiny college town of Davis, a group of students and teachers shut down a bank on their campus through peaceful protest. Now they are facing 11 years in jail. The corporations are determined to invade every scrap of public space left in the world, and if they deem you a threat to this conquest, you will end up serving them in prison.

In contra-rhyme,

Teresa Smith of the Slingshot Collective