Posted: February 18th, 2022

Race, Gender, and the Prison Industrial Complex

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Race, Gender, and the Prison Industrial Complex
California and Beyond
Women’s Rights as Human Rights
A central achievement of the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Confer-
ence on Women in Beijing was the emphatic articulation of women’s
rights as human rights. In specifically identifying violence against
women in both public and private life as an assault against women’s
human rights, the Beijing Conference helped to deepen awareness of
violence against women on a global scale. Yet, even with this increasing
attention, the violence linked to women’s prisons remains obscured by
the social invisibility of the prison. There, violence takes the form of med-
ical neglect, sexual abuse, lack of reproductive control, loss of parental
rights, denial of legal rights and remedies, the devastating effects of iso-
lation, and, of course, arbitrary discipline.
Recent reports by ipsernational human rights organizations have
begun to address the invisibility of women prisoners and to highlight the
severity of the violence they experience. For example, Human Rights
Watch and Amnesty International have specifically focused on the wide-
spread problem of sexual abuse in United States’ prisons. In 19gg the
United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women issued a
report on her findings -which were even more disturbing than prison
activists had predicted—from visits to eight women’s prisons in the U.S.
In general, although international human rights standards rarely have
been applied within the context of the U.S., particularly in the legal arena,
UN documents (such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
and the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners) have been used
The Prison Industrial Complex
As prison populations have soared in the United States, the conventional
assumption that increased levels of crime are the cause has been widely
contested. Activists and scholars who have tried to develop more nuanced
understandings of the punishment process-and especially racism’s
role- have deployed the concept of the “prison industrial complex” to
point out that the proliferation of prisons and prisoners is more clearly
linked to larger economic and political structures and ideologies than
to individual criminal conduct and efforts to curb “crime.” Indeed, vast
numbers of corporations with global markets rely on prisons as an
important source of profit and thus have acquired clandestine stakes
in the continued expanyion of the prison system. Because the over-
whelming majority of U.5, prisoners are from racially marpinalized com-
munities, corporate stakes in an expanding apparatus of punishment
necessarily rely on and promote old as well as new structures of racism.
Women especially have been hurt by these developments. Although
women comprise a relatively small percentage of the entire prison popu-
lation, they constitute, nevertheless, the fastest growing segment of pris-
oners. There are now more women in prison in the State of California
alone than there were in the United States as a whole in 1970 (Currie
1998). Because race is a major factor in determining who goes to prison
and who does not, the groups most rapidly increasing in number are
black, Latina, Asian-American, and indigenous women.
Globalization of capitalism has precipitated the decline of the welfare
state in industrialized countries, such as the U.S. and Britain, and has
brought about structural adjustment in the countries of the southern
region. As social programs in the U.S. have been drastically curtailed
imprisonment has simultaneously become the most self-evident
response to many of the social problems previously addressed by insti-
tutions such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). In other
words, in the era of the disestablishment of social programs that have
historically served poor communities, and at a time when affirmative
action programs are being dismantled and resources for education and
health are declining, imprisonment functions as the default solution.
Especially for women of color, who are hardest hit by the withdrawing of
social resources and their replacement with imprisonment, these dra-
conian strategies–ever longer prison sentences for offenses that are
often petty -tend to reproduce and, indeed, exacerbate the very problems
they purport to solve.
There is an ironic but telling similarity between the economic impact
of the prison industrial complex and that of the military industrial
complex, with which it shares important structural features. Both sys-
tems simultaneously produce vast profits and social destruction. What is
beneficial to the corporations, politicians, and state entities involved in
these systems brings blight and death to poor and racially marginalized
communities throughout the world. In the case of the prison industrial
complex, the transformation of imprisoned bodies of color into con-
sumers and/or producers of an immense range of commodities
effectively transforms public funds into profit, leaving little in the way of
social assistance to bolster the efforts of women and men who want to
overcome barriers erecid by poverty and racism. For example, when
women who spend many years in prison are released, instead of jobs,
housing, health care, and education, they are offered a small amount of
release money, which covers little more than a bus ride and two nights in
an inexpensive hotel. In the “free world,” they are haunted by the stigma
ofimprisonment, which renders it extremely difficult for a “felon” to find
a job. Thus they are inevitably tracked back into a prison system that in
this era of the prison industrial complex has entirely dispensed with even
a semblance of rehabilitation.
The emergence of a prison industrial complex means that whatever
rehabilitative potential the prison may have previously possessed (as
implied by the bizarre persistence of the term “corrections”) is negated.
Instead, the contemporary economics of imprisonment privilege the
profitability of punishment at the expense of human education and trans-
formation. State budgets increasingly are consumed by the costs of build-
ing and maintaining prisons, while monies dedicated to sustaining and
improving communities are slashed. A glaring example of the misplaced
financial investment in punishment is the decreasing state support for
public education; for example, in California in 1995 the budget for pris-
ons exceeded that for higher education.
Corporations are intimately linked to prison systems in both the pub-
lic and the private sector. The trend toward privatization is only one man-
ifestation of a growing involvement of corporations in the punishment
process. While a myopic focus on private prisons in activist campaigns
may tend to legitimate public prisons by default, placing this develop-
ment within the context of a far-reaching prison industrial complex can
enhance our understanding of the contemporary punishment industry.
In the U.S., there are currently twenty-six for-profit prison corporations
that operate approximately I50 facilities in twenty-eight states (Dyer
2000). The largest of these companies, Corrections Corporations of
America (CCA) and Wackenhut, control 76.4% of the private prison mar-
ket globally. While CA is headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, its
largest shareholder is Sodexho Marriott, the multi-national headquar-
tered in Paris, which provides catering services at many U.S, colleges and
universities. Currently, CCA, Wackenhut and the other smaller private
prison companies together bring in $1.5 to 2 billion a year (Dyer 2000).
Though private prisons represent a fairly small proportion of prisons
in the U.S., the privatization model is quickly becoming the primary mode
of organizing punishmint in many other countries (sudbury 2000),.
These companies have tried to take advantage of the expanding popula-
tion of women prisoners, both in the U.S, and globally. In 1996, the first
private women’s prison was established by CA in Melbourne, Australia.
The government of Victoria
adopted the U.S. model of privatization in which financing, design,
construction, and ownership of the prison are awarded to one con-
tractor and the government pays them back for construction over
twenty years. This means that it is virtually impossible to remove the
contractor because that contractor owns the prison. (George 1999,
However, to understand the reach of the prison industrial complex, it
is not enough to evoke the looming power of the private prison business.
Of course, by definition, those companies court the state inside and out-
side the U.S. for the purpose of obtaining prison contracts. They thus
bring punishment and profit into a menacing embrace. Still, this is only
the most visible dimension of the prison industrial complex, and it
should not lead us to ignore the more comprehensive corporatization
that is a feature of contemporary punishment. As compared to earlier his-
torical eras, the prison economy is no longer a small, identifiable and
containable set of markets. Many corporations, whose names are highly
recognizable by “free-world” consumers, have discovered new possibili-
ties for expansion by selling their products to correctional facilities.
In the rggos, the variety of corporations making money from prisons
is truly dizzying, ranging from Dial Soap to Famous Amos cookies,
from AT&T to health-care providers.….In 1995 Dial Soap sold
$100,000 worth of its product to the New York City jail system alone
….When VitaPro Foods of Montreal, Canada, contracted to supply
inmates in the State of Texas with its soy-based meat substitute, the
contract was worth $34 million a year. (Dyer 2000, I4)
The point here is that even if private prison companies were prohib-
ited -an unlikely prospect, indeed -the prison industrial complex and its
many strategies for profit would remain intact.
Moreover, it is not only the private prison -CA and Wackenhut in
particular–that gets reproduced along the circuits of global capital and
insinuates itself into the lives of poor people in various parts of the world.
Connections between corporations and public prisons, similar to those
in the U.S., are currentif emerging throughout the world and are being
reinforced by the contemporary idea, widely promoted by the U.S., that
imprisonment is a social panacea. The most obvious effects of these ideas
and practices on women can be seen in the extraordinary numbers of
women arrested and imprisoned on drug charges throughout the world.
The U.S.-instigated “war on drugs” has disproportionately claimed
women as its victims inside the U.S., but also elsewhere in Europe, South
America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa (Stern 1998). In what can be
seen as the penal equivalent of ambulance chasing, architectural firms,
construction companies, and other corporations are helping to create
new women’s prisons throughout the world.
Race, Gender, and the Prison Industrial Complex
Activist opposition to the prison industrial complex has insisted on an
understanding of the ways racist structures and assumptions facilitate
the expansion of an extremely profitable prison system, in turn helping
to reinforce racist social stratification. This racism is always gendered,
and imprisonment practices that are conventionally considered to be
“neutral” -such as sentencing, punishment regimes, and health care-
differ in relation to the ways race, gender, and sexuality intersect,2
The women most likely to be found in U.S. prisons are black, Latina,
Asian American, and Native American women. In 1998, one out of every
10g women in the U.S, was under the control of the criminal justice sys-
tem (Greenfeld and Snell 199g). But where these women are located
within the system differs according to their race: while about two thirds
of women on probation are white, two thirds of women in prison are
women of color. An African-American woman is eight times more likely
to go to prison than a white woman; a Latina woman is four times more
likely. African-American women make up the largest percentage of
women in state prisons (48%) and federal detention centers (35%), even
though they are only approximately 13% of the general population
(Greenfeld and Snell 1999). As the population of Latinas in the U.S.
grows, so does their number in prisons. In California, for example,
though Latinas comprise 13% of the general population, they make up
around 25% of women in prison (Characteristics of Population in California
State Prisons 2000). Though there is no official data maintained on the
numbers of Native Amefican women in prison, numerous studies docu-
ment that they are arrested at a higher rate than whites and face discrim-
ination at all levels of the criminal justice system (Ross I998).
Given the way in which U.S. government statistics fail to specify racial
categories other than “white,” “black,” and “Hispanic” (figures regard-
ing women who self-identify as Native American, Vietnamese, Filipina,
Pacific Islander, or as from any other racially marginalized community,
are consolidated into a category of “other”), it is difficult to provide pre-
cise numbers of women from these groups in prison (Greenfeld and Snell
2000). However, advocates for women prisoners report that the numbers
of Asian women, including Vietnamese, Filipinas, and Pacific Islanders,
are growing in women’s prisons.3
The vast increase in the numbers of women of color in U.S. prisons
has everything to do with the “war on drugs.” Two African-American
women serving long federal sentences on questionable drug charges-
Kemba Smith and Dorothy Gaines~-were pardoned by President Bill
Clinton during his last days in office. In the cases of both Smith, who
received a twenty-four-and-a-half year sentence, and Gaines, whose sen-
tence was nineteen years and seven months, their sole link to drug
trafficking was their involvement with men who were accused traffickers
(Newsome 2000).
Considering only the federal system, between I9go and 1996, 84% of
the increase in imprisoned women (2,057) was drug-related. In the entire
complex of U.S. prisons and jails, drug-related convictions are largely to

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