Campus News

The Prison Industrial Complex: Mass Immobilization and the Logic of Death

Story posted February 26, 2003

Most are familiar with Dwight D. Eisenhower's warning about the military industrial complex. Just as he saw the economic and political clout of the expansive military and the industries that fed it as having the potential for a dangerous influence on American Society, a vocal group of scholars today see an equally insidious threat on the American landscape, one they call the prison industrial complex.

Dylan Rodriquez, an assistant professor of ethnic studies at UC-Riverside, has been an active member of this political and academic movement. He recently spoke at Common Hour at the invitation of a group of students. His visit was linked to the Black History Month theme of exploring the experiences of "invisible" groups of people.

Police and prisons have an enormous impact on American society today. According to Rodriquez, it's an influence unparalleled in our nation's history. Where Eisenhower once warned of the complex links between US corporations and the military, many of those who criticize the US justice system today believe the ties between public and private industries and prisons are a threat to the ideal of liberty.

"Even in places where police and prisons aren't present, they are constantly impacting our daily lives," he said.

Rodriguez credits Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign with creating a "rhetoric of law and order" that has carried through to become a part of every election and most candidates' platforms. Politicians regularly talk about being "tough on crime" and otherwise stopping criminals or protecting citizens from them. The increasing importance of law enforcement and the need for places to house convicted criminals has made the prison system in many ways the focus of our political/public life.

Over several decades that saw decreases in government spending on social and educational programs, there have been drastic increases in spending on police forces and prisons, Rodriguez said. The prison system in California, where Rodriguez teaches, has grown to be the fourth largest in the world - behind that of China, Texas and the US federal prison system.

Rodriguez believes that our prison system does not need to be reformed, but re-thought entirely. He acknowledges that some method of dealing with violent crime is needed, but the majority of people in our nationís prisons are not being held on violent crime convictions. Rather, many of them are held on "victimless" crimes involving drug use or nonviolent crimes such as theft and crimes against property.

The justice system has been used to control certain populations since the days of the Civil War, which is when the first explosion in prison construction occurred, according to Rodriguez. Faced suddenly with a large number of freed slaves, the whites in power began to criminalize acts that specifically targeted blacks - such as standing on a corner with less than a certain amount of money in one's possession.

"The 13th amendment didn't truly abolish slavery," he said. "It re-codified it."

In this same way, in recent decades, criminalization of certain behavior has happened in such a way as to redefine as criminals many African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and refugees.

"We have this massive public imagery of what criminality means," Rodriguez said. That image of criminality is based largely in white supremacist ideas, he said, in which the face of the criminal is usually black or brown. He likens the prison industrial complex to the system of plantation slavery and to the genocide of indigenous people that preceded it.

Rodriguez also compared the prison experience to the ocean voyage slaves made between Africa and a life of slavery in the United States: This voyage was where slaves were educated in the ways of the new societal order they would experience in the new world. In essence, the voyage was meant to destroy the spirit and the self worth of the captured Africans, Rodriguez said. Prisons have also served as "instruments of social death" destroying communities and the attacking the spirit of people of color.

"[This is] one of the defining problems of our time and our generation," he said.

Today, the number of incarcerated people in America approaches 2.5 million, including children and Immigration and Naturalization Service detainees, Rodriquez said. As the size of the prison system has increased, states have come to depend on cheap goods from prison labor, and entire industries have grown up that depend upon the continued existence of prisons for their success.

"Prisons are more than simply a means to an end. They are about more than getting crime off the streets....They have become an end in themselves," he said.

Rodriquez acknowledged several times that he was saying serious and upsetting things, but said acknowledging that many of the America's institutions are based on white supremacist ideals is necessary for moving beyond what we have now to what he calls "radical freedom."

"We can argue that whiteness is the very essence of American civil society," he said.

Radical freedom, he said, is essentially about the right to exist regardless of ethnicity, race, creed or any other characteristic of identity.

Rodriguez offered no easy answers, but encouraged students to fight against the prison industrial complex. He cautioned them, however, about thinking there was one right answer to the problem.

"If we're to be principled activists, we have to understand that we can't ever have absolute unity," he said. "Absolute unity always implies uniformity....We've often abused and destroyed each other in the name of absolute unity."

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