"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

New Capitalism & The Prison Industrial Compllex

Reading Fast Capitalism, I was reminded of Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow. In it, she argues that the decline of a production based economy and its transformation into a service based economy has helped create a major boon for the Prison Industrial Complex.  Although she does not use the terms old and new capitalism, her argument maps onto Gee et al's notion that the new capitalism will exacerbate wealth inequalities and create a society of a very few haves and many have nots. To Alexander, this means that in the new work order, there will be many black people who are no longer needed for their labor, and thus there is the question of what to do with them. She posits the state decided to create a new industry - the prison industry to warehouse people no longer valuable for their labor. Her book is a genealogy of the concomitant rise of both new capitalism and the prison industry; I highly recommend it.


  1. I do to, Seth! It's one of my all time favorite books, but I had not made the connection between the (largely racial) discrimination caused by our policies of mass incarceration and the exploitation of prison labor. Weirdly, I am conflicted about prison industries: for individual prisoners, working on a productions line is the most meaningful and financially beneficial way to do time. The workers typically stay out of trouble, send money home to their typically impoverished families and every once in a while, they develop a skill they can use on the outside. The insidious aspect in all this come in when lobbies for powerful industries influence things like longer sentences for crimes so they can grow their workforce....and then, of course, there is the slippery slope toward private prisons, which, in my humble opinion is one of the most morally irresponsible acts a society can take: how can we allow people to profit from the incarcerate of others? How can we allow these same people to lobby the sentencing commission???? Damn, Seth! why did you have to bring up Michelle Alexander???? :)

  2. Seth, there is also another dimension to the Prison Industrial Complex -- especially those prisons run by private companies with a profit motive -- and that is the issue of recidivism.

    What is the motive for a private prison, or government run prison that functions as a major economic engine for a community, to provide or support programs that will reduce recidivism? After all, if you reduce recidivism you will eventually reduce the size of the prison population and that directly correlates to the number of prisons needed and staff to run them. This situation presented itself in February this year when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a program to fund college education programs for prisoners.

    According to an article featured in the publication "Inside Higher Ed," the Governor wants to bring professors back into prisons 20 years after Congress cut funding for inmate higher education. The article quotes the governor stating "We’re imprisoning. We’re isolating. But we’re not rehabilitating the way we should.” He wants to better-prepare prisoners for life after jail and cut New York’s recidivism rate of 40 percent.

    The economics of the governor's plan make sense. It takes about $5,000 a year to educate a prisoner. By contrast, it costs New York about $60,000 to keep a prisoner behind bars.

    Nevertheless, the article states that critics of Cuomo’s plan are trying to protect jobs in their districts. The critics are mostly from districts that rely on prisons as economic engines and have corrections officers as part of their constituents.

    Although the "conflict of interest" from an economic perspective is not the only challenge to this program it certainly highlights what I call "perverse incentives" associated with today's prison system. If we are not careful, perhaps the scenario you cited from Michelle Alexander's book "The New Jim Crow" could come true.

  3. Oh Bob, I think it has come true! I didn't know about NY's plan to expand prisoner education as a way to reduce recidivism. I'm encouraged by that. I feel that as a society, we have moved away from "rehabilitation" - which would require the involvement of family and other support structures - to a punitive system which is not effective at all, and is especially harmful to non-violent offenders who need their support networks to overcome addiction/etc. With respect to jobs... I think we have to ask ourselves what types of jobs do we want in our communities? Is any job better than no job? Why can't we invest that $60,000 per prisoner in government jobs to repair our country's deteriorating infrastructure or other productive initiatives. Locking someone up is expensive, and unproductive, not to mention unjust. Up the Ridge is a great documentary about this tension that takes place in southwestern VA when a supermax prison brings jobs to a former coal mining town - very complicated, but it seems that everyone gets screwed except the executives of the private, for profit prison.

  4. Also, thanks for pointing me towards NY state's initiatives - I didn't know about it and will have to look it up.


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.