What You Should Know About the Prison-Industrial Complex

Prison Cell
Getty Images / Darrin Klimek

Derived from the Cold War-era term “military-industrial complex,” the term “prison-industrial complex” refers to a combination of private-sector and government interests that profit from increased spending on prisons, whether it is truly justified or not. Rather than a covert conspiracy, the PIC is criticized as a convergence of self-serving special interest groups that openly encourage new prison construction, while discouraging the advancement of reforms intended to reduce the incarcerated population. In general, the prison-industrial complex is made up of:

  • Politicians who play on fear by running on “get tough on crime” platforms
  • State and federal lobbyists who represent prison industries and the companies that profit from cheap prison labor and exploitation of incarcerated people.
  • Depressed rural areas that depend on prisons for their economic survival
  • Private companies that view the $35 billion spent each year on corrections as creating a lucrative market, rather than imposing a drain on taxpayers

Influenced by prison industry lobbyists, some members of Congress may be persuaded to press for harsher federal sentencing laws that will send more non-violent offenders to prison, while opposing prison reform and legislation on the rights of incarcerated people.

Jobs for Incarcerated People

As the only Americans not protected from enslavement and forced labor by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, incarcerated have historically been required to perform routine prison maintenance jobs. Today, however, many incarcerated people take part in work programs that make products and provide services for the private sector and government agencies. Typically paid far below the federal minimum wage, incarcerated people now build furniture, make clothing, operate telemarketing call centers, raise and harvest crops, and produce uniforms for the U.S. military.

For example, the signature line of jeans and T-shirts Prison Blues is produced by incarcerated workers at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute. Employing more than 14,000 incarcerated people nationwide, one government-managed prison labor agency produces equipment for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Wages Paid to incarcerated Workers 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, incarcerated people in prison work programs earn from 95 cents to $4.73 per day. Federal law allows the prisons to deduct up to 80% of their wages for taxes, government programs to assist crime victims, and the costs of incarceration. Prisons also deduct small amounts of money from incarcerated people required to pay child support. In addition, some prisons deduct money for mandatory savings accounts intended to help convicts become re-established in the free community after their release. After deductions, participating incarcerated people netted about $4.1 million of the $10.5 million total wages paid by prison work programs from April to June 2012, according to the BLS.

In privately-run prisons, incarcerated workers typically make as little as 17 cents per hour for a six-hour day, a total of about $20 per month. Incarcerated workers in federally operated prisons are paid more, but still only an average of 14% of the federal minimum wage. Earning an average of $1.25 an hour for an eight-hour day with occasional overtime, federal incarcerated people can net from $200–$300 per month.

The Pros and Cons 

Arguments for and against the prison industrial complex break down into roughly three parts: pro-prison-industrial complex, anti-prison-industrial complex, and anti-prison/abolitionists.

Pro-Prison-Industrial Complex

Proponents of the PIC argue that rather than unfairly making the best of a bad situation, prison work programs contribute to the incarcerated peoples’ rehabilitation by providing job training opportunities. Prison jobs keep incarcerated people busy and out of trouble, and money generated from the sales of prison industries products and services help maintain the prison system, thus easing the burden on taxpayers.

Anti-Prison-Industrial Complex

Opponents of the PIC contend that the typically low-skill jobs and minimal training offered by prison work programs simply do not prepare incarcerated people to enter the workforce in the communities to which they will eventually return after their release. In addition, the growing trend toward privately operated prisons has forced states to pay for the cost of contracts for outsourced incarceration. Money deducted from wages paid to incarcerated people goes to increase the profits of the private prison companies rather than decreasing the cost of incarceration to taxpayers.

Anti-Prison/Abolitionists

According to those who want to see prisons abolished, the effect of the prison-industrial complex can be seen in the stark statistic that while the violent crime rate in the United States has fallen by about 20% since 1991, the number of incarcerated people in U.S. prisons and jails has grown by 50%.

Angela Davis, who is generally credited with coining the term prison-industrial complex, argued in articles she wrote starting in the late 1990s and again in a book she published in the early 2000s, that the PIC grows and exploits prison labor for the profit of corporations and governments, not to rehabilitate incarcerated people but rather to use them for cheap labor and to benefit government programs (such as trash removal, project construction, and even fire fighting). Davis and other prison abolitionists argue that the government uses prisons to "disappear" people and essentially enslave them, and they note that a disproportionate percentage of the prison population is made up of Black men, Black women, and people of Latinx descent.

Davis and other prison abolitionists also argue that the government needs to stop using prison to solve socio-economic problems. They say the only way to remedy the situation is to eliminate prisons and use the freed-up funds for job training and other social welfare programs that could really make a difference in bettering people's lives.

How Businesses View Prison Labor 

Private sector businesses that use incarcerated workers profit from significantly lower labor costs. For example, an Ohio company that supplies parts to Honda pays its prison workers $2 an hour for the same work regular union auto workers are paid $20 to $30 an hour. Konica-Minolta pays its prison workers 50 cents an hour to repair its copiers.

In addition, businesses are not required to provide benefits like vacations, health care, and sick leave for incarcerated workers. Similarly, businesses are free to hire, terminate, and set pay rates for incarcerated workers without the collective bargaining limitations often imposed by labor unions. In fact, according to the 1977 case Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners' Labor Union, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that incarcerated people do not have the right to unionize.

On the downside, small businesses often lose manufacturing contracts to prison industries because they are unable to match the low production costs of a vast pool of low-paid convict workers. Since 2012, several small companies that had historically produced uniforms for the U.S. military have been forced to lay off workers after losing contracts to UNICOR, a government-owned prison labor program.

Civil Rights

Civil rights groups argue that the practices of the prison-industrial complex lead to the building and expanding of prisons mainly for the purpose of creating employment opportunities utilizing prisoner labor at the expense of the incarcerated people themselves.

In an article titled "Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex," Davis also discussed the racialized dimension to the PIC. Davis noted that the "fastest growing group of prisoners are black women and...Native American prisoners" and that "Five times as many black men are presently in prison as in four-year colleges and universities." Davis and other prison abolitionists have argued that the PIC is essentially the reestablishment of the institution of enslavement, often for the benefit of large corporations and government agencies:

"Many corporations whose products we consume on a daily basis have learned that prison labor power can be as profitable as third world labor power exploited by U.S.-based global corporations. Both relegate formerly unionized workers to joblessness and many even wind up in prison. Some of the companies that use prison labor are IBM, Motorola, Compaq, Texas Instruments, Honeywell, Microsoft, and Boeing."

Others echo Davis's words. Romarilyn Ralston, in a 2018 article titled "Revisiting the Prison Industrial Complex" also noted: "Children with incarcerated parents are 6-9 times more likely to become incarcerated themselves. Black children are seven-and-a-half times more likely than White children to have a parent in prison, and Latino children are two-and-a-half times more likely to experience this family dynamic." In other words, the more the PIC grows, the more Black people, those of Latinx descent, and other underrepresented groups become gryst for the PIC labor pool.

Indeed, the American Civil Liberties Union contends that the prison-industrial complex’s drive for profit through privatization of prisons has actually contributed to the continued growth of America’s prison population. In addition, the ACLU argues that the construction of new prisons solely for their profit potential will ultimately result in the often unjust and lengthy imprisonment of millions of additional Americans, with a disproportionately high number of the poor and people of color being jailed. 

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Longley, Robert. "What You Should Know About the Prison-Industrial Complex." ThoughtCo, Aug. 17, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-you-should-know-about-the-prison-industrial-complex-4155637. Longley, Robert. (2021, August 17). What You Should Know About the Prison-Industrial Complex. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-you-should-know-about-the-prison-industrial-complex-4155637 Longley, Robert. "What You Should Know About the Prison-Industrial Complex." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-you-should-know-about-the-prison-industrial-complex-4155637 (accessed September 22, 2021).