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From the Editor

Prison population growth is an oft-cited statistic. Since most PLN readers are either imprisoned or otherwise closely involved with the U.S. "corrections" industry, it is easy for them to readily appreciate the concrete (and steel) meaning of prison population stats. Here is a familiar one: according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, prison populations have increased at an average annual rate of 7.7 percent in the 1990s. We appreciate the enormity of that figure. We live it.

Annual growth of 7.7 percent. Often accompanied by adjectives like "explosive" or "phenomenal." Well, if your experience with imprisonment prepares you to contextually appreciate the phenomenal explosiveness of 7.7 percent annual growth, try this one on for size:

According to a glowing account in Business Week magazine, 1996 profits for the Fortune 500 corporations increased 14 percent after inflation (which was 3.3 percent). That was an improvement over the 13.4 percent jump in 1995, and it marked the fifth consecutive year of double-digit profit growth. Explosive? Phenomenal? How about monstrous? Scandalous?

These last two adjectives are more to the point when you compare corporate profits to workers' wages, which increased 3.3 percent (before inflation) in 1996. The numbers are so obscene that the business press has to play games with before/after inflation. Would I be exaggerating, therefore, to say that corporate profits increased 17.3 percent (before inflation) and workers wages increased zero percent (after inflation)?

In an era where corporate profits soar, while many "downsize" their workers at the same time, the growth of the prison-industrial complex plays a vital role in the economy.

Many job-starved rural towns vie with each other to have prisons built nearby. Youngstown, Ohio, a once-proud steel town, recently donated 130 acres of land to the Corrections Corporation of America, and offered the conglomerate a three-year 100 percent tax abatement to induce the company to construct a for-profit prison there. Jobs. The prisoners won't be from Youngstown, though. They will be imported from an urban human-commodity market, Washington DC, where there are also not enough jobs -- one reason why the "crime rate" is so high there.

Economics. Pure and simple. Listen to the prophetic words of a well-known 19th century economist on the role of "crime" as a productive industry:

"A philosopher produces ideas, a poet poems, a clergyman sermons, a professor compendia and so on. A criminal produces crimes. If we look a little closer at the connection between this latter branch of production and society as a whole, we shall rid ourselves of many prejudices. The criminal produces not only crimes but also criminal law, and with this the professor who gives lectures on criminal law and in addition to this the inevitable compendium in which this same professor throws his lectures onto the general market as 'commodities.' This brings with it augmentation of national wealth ....

"The criminal moreover produces the whole of police, judges, hangmen, juries, etc.; and all these different lines of business... create new needs and new ways of satisfying them. Torture alone has given rise to the most ingenious mechanical inventions, and employed many honorable craftsmen in the production of instruments. The criminal produces an impression, partly moral and partly tragic, as the case may be, and in this way renders a 'service' by arousing the moral and aesthetic feelings of the public.... The criminal breaks the monotony and everyday security of... life. In this way he keeps it from stagnation, and gives rise to that uneasy tension and agility without which even the spur of competition would get blunted. Thus he gives a stimulus to the productive forces.

"The effects of the criminal on the development of productive power can be shown in detail. Would locks ever have reached their present degree of excellence had there been no thieves? Would the making of bank notes have reached its present perfection had there been no forgers...? Crime, through its constantly new methods of attack on property, constantly calls into being new methods of defense, and so is as productive as strikes for the invention of machines...."

More than 100 years later, these words ring true. Indeed, the commodification of crime has spurred economic productive capacity far beyond the purview of that 19th century economist. The dizzying pace of prison construction bears testimony to "crime" as one of the fastest growing industries in the U.S. Imprisonment is a public works project -- on a scale unheard of since the WPA projects of the 1930s -- whereby employment is created in job-starved rural communities to encage the superfluous workers from job-stripped urban communities. The prisoners themselves become commodities. There is even a brokerage firm, Dominion Management, Inc., that earns a commission brokering deals between half-empty rural jails in Texas and distant states who export their surplus prisoners in their thousands.

PLN has consistently reported on the commodification of prisoners and the growth of the prison-industrial complex. Often, though, we present but small pieces of the puzzle in each article. Sometimes the pieces don't fit together into a whole -- unless, that is, you place them in an economic framework. That is what the prophetic 19th century economist quoted here was doing. Oh, his name? Karl Marx [excerpted from Theories of Surplus Value].

Much of the information in this column was gleaned from an excellent monthly newspaper, The People; 111 W. Evelyn Ave., Suite 209; Sunnyvale, CA 94086-6140. Subscriptions are an affordable $5 (or more) a year.

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