Examining the Prison Industrial Complex’s Impact on Black America

The 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution outlaws slavery with a key exception: punishment for a crime. After the Civil War, 4 million formerly enslaved Black people were freed. Transitioning from being enslaved for 400 years, to having to pay Black people a fair wage for their work posed a serious dilemma for the business class in the US. This would decimate the country’s economy, whose most profitable exports at the time came from cash crops in the south. 

To continue this exploitative relationship and further expand the country’s economy, the preferred solution was recapturing the lost free labor through mass incarceration in the Jim Crow South and drug criminalization in the North. A shift to the right in the political spectrum allowed for tough on crime candidates like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to win the presidency on campaigns of reinstating law and order and strengthening the economy in response to the human rights movements of the years leading up to his presidency. 

There were many different types of vagrancy laws, but they usually made it illegal to be destitute, unemployed, dissolute, immoral, intoxicated, and basically for existing. This definition obviously allows for anything to be deemed “vagrant” or “loitering,” which would incarcerate men simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lingering, or walking around without a clear legal purpose, was frequently prohibited under vagrancy laws, while some places also made loitering a crime in its own right. They were an indispensable instrument for upholding authority and order in American culture. Their use evolved in tandem with perceived dangers to the social fabric, focusing on the poor, racial and religious minorities, labor activists, radical orators, cultural and sexual nonconformists, the unemployed, and civil rights protestors at various points in time. Vagrancy laws formed the basis for hundreds of thousands of annual arrests by the middle of the 20th century, which would build up the US prison population, which has historically been among the top globally since it’s been recorded. The vicious demonization of Black men that accompanied this mass incarceration served to justify the need for their confinement and exclusion from society, as if their very existence posed a threat to the established power structures. 

The film Birth of a Nation (originally titled The Clansman) was a 1915 historical fiction that depicted the aftermath of the civil war and its impacts on two white families who fought for the union and the confederacy. The film included the KKK terrorizing Black communities and portrayed each Black character (which was a white person performing in Black face) in a demeaned, cannibalistic image who needed to be subdued and monitored constantly. The film was a nationwide hit amongst white Americans, and sitting US President Woodrow Wilson even held a screening for the film at the White House. Birth of a Nation was also seen as the rebirth of the Klu Klux Klan, and a wave of white terrorism that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives would follow. Jim Crow laws would then subjugate Black Americans to a second-class standard of living permanently. 

Black liberation movements for social and economic equality through the mid-20th century in response to Jim Crow-era white terrorism were violently repressed. These movements sought self-determination for Black people in America and abroad, as well as for the global proletariat as a whole. Led by great minds like Assata Shakur, Fred Hampton, and Huey P. Newton with The Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Kwame Ture were all able to organize, educate, and mobilize the masses to create a better world for generations to come. These great leaders were deemed dangerous for their foreign-inspired and anti-American subversion campaigns to overthrow the current socioeconomic order. The Black Scare and the Red Scare were implemented to criminalize all forms of radical dissent and suppress the struggle for equality as a whole while attempting to denounce and discredit the work of principled community activists. 

The US prison population in 1970 was 357,292. Republican candidate Richard Nixon was elected president on the campaign priorities of reestablishing law and order after a decade of civil rights agitation and union victories. Nixon prioritized a war on crime, which, at its core, was a war on radical dissent and radical thought generally. In movements for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and the anti-war protests of the US in Vietnam, the FBI was created to monitor, infiltrate, and ultimately subdue these movements internally. 80% of the working class was active in militant labor unions and had secured gains favoring workers through organized struggle. President Nixon decided that the focal point of this war would be to criminalize drug addiction and usage, as well as the sale, transport, and manufacturing of prohibited substances. This era ushered into the public consciousness that addiction was an issue of moral failing and personal responsibility rather than the health issue that it is. Hundreds of thousands of Black men and women were arrested for simple possession crimes and other low-level drug offenses, which would have devastating impacts on our communities. 

Drug dependency and the violence that the drug trade facilitates ravaged the Black community in the 1980s during the crack epidemic, with homicide rates and property crime reaching historical highs. Nixon Advisor John Ehrlichman said, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Black people with heroin, then, by criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” (Ehrlichman). By 1980, the US prison population had added 156,608 mainly Black prisoners, bringing the overall total to 513,900. 

The 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, would turn the figurative war on drugs into a real war that the local police and federal organizations like the FBI and DEA would fight on the streets of America. He utilized his wife and first lady, Nancy Reagan, in a nationwide “Just Say No” campaign to deter youth from early drug usage. It did little to discourage drug use, but it did contribute to the stigmatization of those who did use drugs and to the idea that addiction was an individual problem rather than a societal one. Ronald Reagan also cut a number of social welfare programs in favor of corporate subsidies, tax breaks, and deregulation that were supposed to spur investment and create jobs for the middle class. However, this economic policy would grow the wealth of the corporate owner class indefinitely under the guise of expanding the freedoms of American business interests here and abroad. This accumulation of wealth at the top was supposed to trickle down via the unfounded theory of reaganomics, but it clearly did not. The US prison population was 710,054 Americans by the conclusion of Reagan’s presidency in 1989.

An influx of private institutions looking to profit from the new, booming investment in Black bodies in chains took advantage of the prison population’s free labor. With their pitiful earnings, prison laborers cannot buy even the most basic necessities like bath soap, but every year they generate at least $2 billion in commodities and $9 billion in jail maintenance for the United States. According to a recent report by the University of Chicago Law School Global Human Rights Clinic and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), prison laborers are frequently mistreated, underpaid, and not covered by workplace safety protection regulations. They are essentially “at the mercy of their employers.” 

It was discovered that, for non-industry employment, inmates often receive between 15 and 52 cents per hour in exchange for their labor. Frequently, up to 80% of this is deducted for taxes and other expenditures, including legal fees. Even worse, inmates in seven state prison systems—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas—receive no pay at all for the majority of the work they do. 

Over 1.2 million people are incarcerated in state and federal prisons in the US; of these, about 800,000 are laborers, or roughly 65 percent of the total population. Prisoners work in a wide range of occupations, including those of cooks, janitors, barbers, painters, and plumbers. In addition, they offer vital public services, including road maintenance, wildfire suppression, and hurricane debris removal. They grow and harvest crops in addition to producing goods like furniture and license plates. Even jailed laborers performed cemetery duties and hospital linen washing during the pandemic. Notwithstanding the importance of their labor, the majority of inmates (76%) claimed that they would suffer penalties such as solitary confinement, rejection of sentence reductions, and loss of family visitation rights if they refused the task or could not complete it. This exploitative relationship far exceeds fair punishment for a crime and clearly states the need to reengineer our criminal justice system. 

The Prison Industrial Complex is a concept used to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems. This allows politicians to gain popularity on the basis of being tough on crime and fiscally responsible. Also, this intersection creates immense profits from the free labor of the imprisoned for a wide range of multinational corporations, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Starbucks, Walmart, Sprint,and Verizon, to name a few. Numerous other businesses carry out tasks that the government should and could do. These companies include vendors and private contractors that provide a variety of services to the incarcerated, including telephone service from Securus Technologies.

Securus regularly inflates the cost of its calls for inmates and charges insane rates for phone calls that are the only semblance of valued human contact for inmates aside from visits. Aramark is the largest food service provider for prisoners in the US, profiting millions from multi-year deals with state governments to provide food services for prisoners and correctional officers. For example, Aramark signed a three-year,  $145 million deal with the Michigan Department of Corrections in December 2013 to supply food services to the state’s 43,000 inmates. When Aramark took over the state’s correctional institution food services, they cut kitchen employee pay in half to around $11, and they also canceled some safety training programs. According to In the Public Interest, Michigan terminated its contract with Aramark in 2015 following incidents of “unsanitary conditions, food shortages, and unauthorized substitutions” as well as other food quality issues. Maggot infestations were detected in eight different Ohio prisons in 2014, according to 21 WFMJ, a news site based in Youngstown, Ohio. Three of the eight verified instances, according to 21 WFMJ, were reported after Aramark signed a $110 million contract in September 2013. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections fined Aramark $272,000 for these violations.

Aside from these allegations, Aramark has been involved in numerous scandals involving unethical behavior, sexual harassment, drug smuggling, staff misconduct, and even pebbles hidden in jail food. According to Kamala Kelkar, a PBS news reporter, Aramark’s past triggered a national protest and march against the firm. Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, a former convict with the Indiana Department of Corrections, authored an article regarding his firsthand experience with Aramark’s meal services. He reported receiving only two hot meals per week, one cold lunch, and one vegetable every day. Johnson recalls dropping “more than 10 pounds in a short period of time” at IDOC’s Reception and Diagnostic Center. Johnson also stated that one of his fellow inmates, Earlie Berry Jr., was unable to acquire meals that were free of peanuts and soy, despite the fact that he was deathly allergic to both substances. Berry sued Aramark after the firm reportedly refused to feed him genuine meat to replace the artificial meat they were using, despite a doctor’s order for the diet. Berry was granted a preliminary injunction by the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, ordering Aramark to provide him with “a diet free of soy and egg products for all meals.” 

Companies like Aramark and Securus that provide goods and services to the Prison Industrial complexes benefit directly from the mass incarceration of working-class minorities. The unpaid labor of prisoners creates massive profit margins that are secure as long as there is an ever-increasing population behind bars for a long time. They have the capital to lobby politicians to draft legislation that relies on further criminalization of working-class communities instead of addressing the root contradictions that create so much poverty and the crime that flourishes as a result. This development even pushes some Black people to believe that their underserved communities need to spend even more on police budgets to patrol and monitor rather than invest in the needs of the community.

A world in which resources and opportunity were fairly distributed to Black Americans does not exist. This country’s history of racial oppression has weighed a heavy burden on the progress and advancement of Africans since slavery and will continue without organized resistance. We must take a collective and unified stance to abolish poverty, democratize our workplaces, and provide the basic necessities needed for humans pursuit of happiness and fulfillment of purpose. Never forget that a better world is possible and worth building!


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