Incentivizing Racism: U.S. Prison-Industrial Complex

May 4, 2017
By Jacqueline Souza

Before the 2017 Academy Awards, I watched a number of the documentaries that had been nominated for my favorite category, Best Documentary. One of those films, 13th, particularly struck me, and left a lasting impression. It’s been months since the first time I watched it, and I still think about the film’s implications regularly. The creators of 13th outlined the chronology of black oppression within the U.S.—slavery, Jim Crow, Nixon’s famous creation and propagation of the “War on Drugs,” and Bill Clinton’s legislative push for mass incarceration all paved the way towards the legalized slavery we see in our federal prisons today.

It’s easy to look at the numbers and see that Black Americans are disproportionately affected by the prison industrial complex—in 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that there were approximately 2,220,300 incarcerated individuals in the country and Black men account for nearly forty percent of that number while African-Americans only represent just over twelve percent of the U.S. population. This is the most obvious evidence of the injustice which is perpetuated by our prison system, but what are the other implications and consequences of this oppression?

It’s important to emphasize the various incentive structures of the U.S. prison conglomerate. Privately-owned prisons, which account for nearly ten percent of all U.S. prisons, must legally maintain at least ninety-percent occupancy at all times, even if crime rates in an area are decreasing. Mandatory sentencing accompanies the most common criminalized offenses, like trivial drug charges, so that regardless of the individualized context of someone’s arrest, that arrested person is required to spend a certain minimum number of years in prison; Black Americans are more likely than white people to be affected by these sentences, as they are incarcerated at disproportionate rates. Localized drug task forces receive more federal funding if they report an increase in arrests, which creates problematic incentives for officers to make more arrests for small drug offenses. Major corporations are able to exploit incarcerated individuals, as they profit from the prison complex; U.S. prison labor laws allow for little to no compensation for the individuals working behind bars.

Within the U.S. criminal justice system, which is inherently related to the prison-industrial complex,  a Black American is more likely to serve a longer sentence than a white person for the same exact crime. The NAACP reports that Black people are six times more likely than white people to be incarcerated, and despite accounting for twelve percent of the overall U.S. population, they account for nearly a third of all formal arrests made by police.

Statistically, we see the ways in which racism has defined our federal prison system. How can we say that our criminal justice and prison systems are just and fair when it is blaringly obvious that they are not? Major players in these institutions literally profit off of the oppression that is perpetuated by the racism that exists within these organizations.

As white people, we appeal to stereotypes about Black fatherhood without acknowledging the fact that one in four Black men is incarcerated. We criticize the “Black Lives Matter” movement without recognizing its unwavering verity; in our history, Black lives have never been as valued as those of white men, or of white women. But we continue to argue that they do, as we murder Black children, shame Black mothers, lock up Black fathers and then justify the systemic injustice. We say racism has ended because slavery is over, when it’s only been legalized, manifested and exemplified in prisons across the country through mandatory sentencing, the school-to-prison pipeline, prison labor, and the criminalization of petty drug offenses.

We make many mistakes when we talk about crime and race. We use stereotypes and inaccurate statistics to justify the disproportionate incarceration of people of color. Instead of focusing on improving our criminal justice system and minimizing the pervasiveness of the federal prison complex, we are quick to defend our corrupt institutions without digging deep into the discrimination that allows them operate on such a grandiose scale. When will we start looking more closely?

Jacqueline Souza is an intern for New People and also studies sociology and journalism at the University of Pittsburgh. She is interested in racial justice, social movements, and U.S. politics.


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