Prison-Industrial Complex: Definition, Facts & Statistics

Instructor: Patricia Jankowski

Patricia has a BSChE. She's an experienced registered nurse who has worked in various acute care areas as well as in legal nurse consulting.

The prison industrial complex is an American phenomenon in which prisons are becoming a private industry set up to make a profit. This lesson is about the prison industrial complex and related statistics and facts.

Bold Change is Needed

''Overall, we need bold change in our criminal justice system. A good first step forward is to start treating prisoners as human beings, not profiting from their incarceration. Our emphasis must be on rehabilitation, not incarceration and longer prison sentences.'' - Senator Bernie Sanders

''It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.'' - Nelson Mandela

The words said by Senator Bernie Sanders and by Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa, tell the very sad story of the American prison industrial complex. We will take a closer look at the facts surrounding this situation and at how it developed.

Profiting from incarceration in America

What is the Prison Industrial Complex?

The Prison Industrial Complex, or PIC, is a trend that has developed over recent decades in which the state and federal government turns the managing of some of its prisons over to private corporations. These corporations then run the prisons for profit. The leadership of these corporations is also involved in a great deal of political lobbying, to influence the passing of legislation that favors conditions for the profitability of these private prisons. This has affected the prison environment and the entire criminal justice system in a number of ways.

The Goals of an Effective Correctional Facility

To be effective, a prison or correctional facility should be designed to rehabilitate its prisoners and return them to society as useful contributors. A criminal justice system that is in alignment with this goal, will work toward reducing the number of people who become incarcerated. It will find ways of handing out justice that enables the offending parties to continue being productive members of the community whenever possible.

More Americans Incarcerated: Reality of PIC's

In order to make money, corporate prisons are set up so that they need prisoners, and lots of them. State governments sign contracts with the correctional corporations who agree to provide a certain number of prison beds, and to keep those beds filled, or at least 90 percent of them. If they don't keep the beds full, the states still pay for them. Trying to meet these lockup quotas, or minimum numbers of filled prison beds, has resulted in over 2 million people ending up in prison in the United States as of 2014. China, with five times as many people as the U.S., had about 500,000 fewer people living in prison during the same year.

In spite of the fact that violent crime has decreased, there are more people in American prisons than ever before. Adam Gopnik, in his article, The Caging of America, said that ''in 1980, there were about 220 people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to 731. No other country even approaches that.'' The vast majority of these prisoners are not in jail for violent crimes. Most are in for drug charges other than trafficking and have no prior record.

PIC Environment

Prisoners work for pennies a day to perform labor for the military. The helmets, ID tags, canteens, and other items are assembled in prisons, along with other military supplies.

Corporations that run prisons make higher profits if they spend less money on the prisons they run. This can mean skimping on basics like food. A private prison in Mississippi was once investigated by a psychiatrist, who felt that the prisoners ''looked emaciated''. These prisoners had lost a significant amount of weight during the time spent in prison. Health care services for prisoners are also often cut in the interest of spending less and profiting more.

Changes in Legislation

Because of its interest in the financial success of its facilities, the leadership of private, corporate prisons participates in political lobbying to pass laws that will enhance their growth and operation. Groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, and the Heritage Society, consist of conservative legislators that join with the large prison corporations to write legislation that helps put more people in prison, and keep them there. Just one of these corporations alone spent $970,000 lobbying the federal government in 2010.

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