What is the Prison-Industrial Complex?

From Critical Resistance:

The prison industrial complex (PIC) is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.

Through its reach and impact, the PIC helps and maintains the authority of people who get their power through racial, economic and other privileges. There are many ways this power is collected and maintained through the PIC, including creating mass media images that keep alive stereotypes of people of color, poor people, queer people, immigrants, youth, and other oppressed communities as criminal, delinquent, or deviant. This power is also maintained by earning huge profits for private companies that deal with prisons and police forces; helping earn political gains for “tough on crime” politicians; increasing the influence of prison guard and police unions; and eliminating social and political dissent by oppressed communities that make demands for self-determination and reorganization of power in the US.

With a long history of industry and state control, Appalachia is an important example of how the prison industrial complex functions. Since the mid-1990’s, prescription pills and meth use have skyrocketed, and this epidemic has affected communities all throughout Appalachia. The rate of drug addiction among people in Appalachia is in line with communities across the world that are built around resource extraction — whether that’s coal, natural gas, oil, or other resources. With limited social and economic opportunities, the people of Appalachia are faced with a series of no-win scenarios, and many have turned to drug use as a result.

As drug addiction has increased, federal mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines have caused the rate of incarceration to increase as well — in fact, though West Virginia has historically had low rates of crime and incarceration, the rate of incarceration here has been increasing far faster than the national average during the past 20 years. The West Virginia state government has opted to build more prisons, instead of spending money on strategies proven to be effective in dealing with the drug epidemic, like rehab facilities and other alternatives to incarceration. Once these jails and prisons are constructed, it becomes in the economic interest of the state, law enforcement, and everyone who works there to keep them near or even beyond capacity — even though it would be better for prisoners, their families, and their communities to find alternative ways of dealing with drug addiction.

With fourteen prisons in central Appalachia, and more than half of them built since 1990, state governments in Appalachia and private corporations are investing even more in infrastructure to house an increasingly large amount of prisoners. Some of these, such as Red Onion State Prison and Mount Olive Correctional Complex, are built on mountaintop removal sites and serve as an economic “justification” for the continual destruction of the land and health of the people in Central Appalachia.

Imprisonment has become the state’s chosen solution for social and economic problems. Building prisons has become an excuse for continued extreme and dangerous resource extraction practices. Providing municipal water access is the state’s solution for having allowed our groundwater to become permanently polluted by industry — and then, when those municipal water supplies are polluted by chemical spills, the state sides with the chemical company executives and refuses to say if our water is safe to drink. Over and over, people of color and money-poor people bear the brunt of these false solutions, and the politicians and the corporations that fund them make sure we blame each other for our plight. The term “prison industrial complex” helps us to tie all of these issues together.

The conditions at South Central Regional Jail are just one example of how the prison industrial complex harms our communities. The prison industrial complex affects all of us. It incarcerates us, often without basic human dignity or access to essential health care, in facilities designed to punish or harm us, instead of helping us to heal our communities or deal with our addictions.  It takes away our family, friends, and neighbors, often for arbitrarily long sentences based on unrealistic federal guidelines. It enables the destruction of the mountains we live among, the water we need to drink, and the ways we live. Not least of all, it buys off our politicians and prevents us from addressing social and economic problems at their roots.


From Critical Resistance:

PIC abolition is a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.

From where we are now, sometimes we can’t really imagine what abolition is going to look like. Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages. It’s also about undoing the society we live in because the PIC both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities through punishment, violence, and controls millions of people. Because the PIC is not an isolated system, abolition is a broad strategy. An abolitionist vision means that we must build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future. It means developing practical strategies for taking small steps that move us toward making our dreams real and that lead us all to believe that things really could be different. It means living this vision in our daily lives.

Abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal.

This project is organized around abolition. We support South Central inmates and their friends and families, and we seek to amplify their stories because we want to change the current system of imprisonment, policing, and surveillance — not because we want the state to build better jails. Our work is guided and challenged by this abolitionist vision.

For more information and links to more resources, head over to the Prison Culture website’s page on the prison industrial complex.