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The Cultural Commodification of Prisons

Pop culture is about acculturation more than it is about culture. It is about defining the norms and parameters of society. Over one hundred years ago Karl Marx wrote about capitalism's ability to turn everything into a commodity. Commodities are items, whether goods or ideas, which can be bought and sold. In his day, Marx observed that capitalism had converted labor, raw materials, manufactured goods, even sex, into commodities and that traders and merchants had eagerly made a fetish out of the commodities themselves.

By the mid twentieth century a mass consumer culture had evolved which was capable of commodifying much more than Marx had ever envisioned in his day. By the 1950's, abstract ideas like lifestyle and art were marketed and sold as pop culture. Hugh Hefner sold the Playboy idea of the suave, cultured, swinging bachelor. Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegal sold the Las Vegas idea that anyone could strike it rich at the gaming tables. Jack Kerouac helped create the Beatnik culture. Hollywood contributed, with the likes of James Dean and Marlon Brando, the individualistic, albeit apolitical, social rebel. After all, a rebel without a political cause is hardly a threat to the status quo.

Probably the biggest and most successful cultural marketers is the Walt Disney Corporation. Disney, with its global empire of theme parks, films, television, radio, music and publishing, produces and sells the physically intangible commodity of American pop culture. Pop culture with an upbeat, pro-capitalist, American theme, but pop culture nonetheless.

One aspect of cultural commodification is its ability to co-opt, neutralize and render powerless any challenges to the economic and political status quo. In this way cultural hegemony is enforced. Rock and roll music, characterized in the 1960's as the music of protest and rebellion, had within twenty years become the music of selling beer, tennis shoes and cars. Even revolutionary activist Malcolm X has been commodified and marketed as a fashion statement. It is the ability to turn anything into a commodity, and make a profit doing so, which contributes to the short collective political memory in capitalist consumer societies.

While culture as a commodity tends to be upbeat and cheerful (happy, optimistic people buy more), it also has its darker side.

Today almost two million Americans are locked up in prisons and jails. Another five million are on parole or probation. Together this is around two percent of the total American population, higher if only adults are counted. Many millions more have cycled through the American criminal justice system and now lead the stigmatized, second class, politically disenfranchised lives of convicted felons and ex-convicts.

The number of executed is rising steadily to levels not seen since the 1930's. More behavior is criminalized than at any other point in American history. Imprisonment, the sanction of last resort in the rest of the world, is the sanction of first resort in the United States, at least for the poor.

Few people question the policy choices that have led to the objectively abnormal situation that constitutes mass imprisonment. The commodification of prisons as culture has contributed to normalizing the abnormal.

Prison as Concept and Reality

The social and physical reality of prisons is constantly mystified and mythologized. Incarceration is a tool of social control. Its purpose is to discipline those workers and poor people who are not imprisoned, yet. Each prisoner serves as an example to the other 150 Americans who are not currently imprisoned of what could happen to them.

Most humans fear the unknown. For those who have not been incarcerated, prisons are dark, fearful places. For those who have been incarcerated and released, prisons are a known factor. Brutal and dehumanizing, but survivable. The intimidation and deterrence factor of prison is served by keeping it distant, remote and unknown, but at the same time a nearby, immediate threat of imaginable evil. On the surface, these seem to be contradictory and impossible goals.

Amazingly, American pop culture has largely succeeded in not only having it both ways, but simultaneously ensuring that the general population of non-prisoners does not believe that what occurs in prisons affects them. Popular culture, mainly through film and television but also with cheer leading from the corporate media and opportunistic politicians, has ingrained two conflicting images of prison into the collective American consciousness. When it is for the purpose of social control, to get the weak and poor into line, prison is the dark, barred world of brutal, sweaty, muscled, tattooed men. A world of sodomy, stabbings and razor wire. The world conjured up when the interrogating cop whispers to the young suspect, "You know what they do to young boys like you in the penitentiary, don't you?" Prison and jail remains very much a man's world. While the number of imprisoned women has steadily increased in the past two decades, mainly due to determinate sentencing, men still make up around 94% of the nation's prison and jail population. As a means of social control, women tend to he medicalized, while men are criminalized. The ruling classes have always felt more threatened by men, especially young men of color, than they have been by women.

This world was alluded to when federal prosecutor Gordon Zubrod told a Canadian television interviewer that three Canadian men who were resisting extradition to the United States on fraud charges "would face a long, hard prison term as the boyfriend of a very bad man." An angry and outraged Canadian judge named Bruce Hawkins, denied the extradition request, stating "No right thinking Canadian would endorse the use of homosexual rape as a means of persuading Canadian residents to abandon their rights to a full extradition hearing." [PLN, Jan. 1998]. By contrast, in American culture, the implicit threat of homosexual rape, when made by a government official in the daily course of his duties, is nothing extraordinary and deemed to be a normal part of life in prison.

However, when seeking to ensure the lives of prisoners always remain worse than those of the poor who are not yet in prison, a different picture emerges. Prisons are depicted as lush country clubs where prisoners lounge around in comfort between leisurely sets of tennis and weight lifting, dining on steak and lobster, watching cable television and leafing through pornographic magazines. An entire industry of politicians, victims' revenge groups and law enforcement agencies are dedicated to pushing the concept of the country club prison. They have ready accomplices within most of the media.

The net result of having it both ways is that most of those who are not in prison, and not likely to be there any time soon, view conditions as not nearly draconian enough. While those already incarcerated or facing the prospect of imminent imprisonment, perceive it as entirely too harsh already. Nothing better illustrates this than "tough on crime" hacks like Fife Symington, former Republican governor of Arizona, Oliver North, former marine corps colonel and Jim Tucker, former Democratic governor of Arkansas, groveling for mercy before sentencing judges as they beg and plead for a compassion they themselves have never shown other convicted criminals. Anything to avoid going to prison. Which indicates that the "tough on crime" demagogues believe neither their own lies nor the cultural imagery of prisons they have devoted their political careers to propagating.

Prison As Cultural Commodity

The prison as concept is an idea ingrained into peoples' consciousness of what prison might be. Prison as commodity is where the prison culture itself is marketed and sold for mass consumption. Aside from the millions actually locked up, on parole or probation and ex-cons, are the millions of people who feed and maintain the imprisonment machine: the lawyers, police, judges, courtroom personnel, prison and jail guards and administrators, police state bureaucrats, etc. At least 600,000 people are directly employed by prisons alone in the United States. Another 750,000 or so are police. This does not include the people who build and maintain prisons and jails, supply the goods needed for the daily maintenance of the prison system, or the doctors who contract medical services to prisons, etc.

The rise of prison culture is exemplified by:

The Academy in Alpharetta, Georgia, sells "the prison experience" to those men who want to know what it is like to be in prison, without actually being imprisoned. The company boasts of its wide variety of restraint and bondage equipment and the fact that its employees are real life police men and prison guards. Men [no women allowed] pay almost $2,000 to spend a weekend "in prison" at the Academy, being abused, humiliated and mistreated. This is the ultimate private prison. [PLN, October 1999]

On September 24, 1998, the Style Section of the Wall Street Journal carried a feature article on the latest fad among well to do home owners and interior designers: the stainless steel plumbing fixtures used in prison and jail cells. Costing over $1,000 apiece, the stainless steel prison toilet, sans lid, is a hot fashion statement among the wealthy and stylish. An ordinary porcelain toilet, by contrast, costs $60. Acorn Engineering, a manufacturer of prison plumbing fixtures, said it had received so many calls from designers it was developing a new line of jail toilets for home use.

New York architect Daniel Rowen used a stainless steel flip up jail seat as a towel rack in a New York City apartment he designed. The project won an award from the prestigious American Institute of Architects. Fans of prison furniture as home decor claim to like the minimalist aesthetic, saying it has "beautiful, clean lines."

Architect Peter Pawlak has cautioned "You have to be careful. It can start snowballing. You don't want to start making it [the home] into a prison."

In a phenomenon repeated in many cities across America, when Flint, Michigan, opened a new jail the town celebrated with a jail party. The city's well to do citizens paid hundreds of dollars each to spend the night in the new jail, with champagne and hors d'oeuvres. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore captured the jail party on film in his classic documentary "Roger and Me."

Unlike the items that tend to be expensive and consumed by the wealthy, prison fashion is a true mass market commodity. Popularized by gangsta rappers and hip hop youth culture, many of whom are themselves on their way into or out of prison, the baggy, ill fitting clothes of the prison yard is sold as a cool fashion statement. The most blatant, and successful, example is the Prison Blues line of clothing, made by the Oregon prison system using prisoner slave labor. Oregon prison officials market the clothes with catchy slogans like "Made on the inside to be worn on the outside." One ad shows a picture of the jeans next to an electric chair with the caption "Sometimes our jeans last longer than the guys who make them."

Chain Gang Apparel Inc. is a Huntsville, Alabama company that makes and sells striped prison uniforms identical to those worn by prisoners on the state's chain gangs. Perhaps with no irony, these fashions are most popular among the poor black and Latino youth most likely to wind up wearing prison clothes inside a real prison.

Competing with theme parks as tourist attractions, chambers of commerce in Leavenworth, Kansas and Canon City, Colorado, market their many prisons as must see sites for tourists. Expensive ad campaigns use catchy slogans like "How about doin' some time in Leavenworth?" and "You don't have to be indicted to be invited" to sell the idea. Tours of actual prisons are not offered. Instead, tourists can see prison museums and prisons that were closed due to their age. The Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Canon City, Colorado, has a prison museum that displays prison memorabilia from the past and sells handicrafts made by today's prisoners. Around 50,000 visitors pay the admission fee to visit the museum each year.

In music and music videos prison is a frequent theme, especially among the hip hop singers and heavy metal rockers who cater to the young male audience most likely to wind up in prison. Is art imitating life or foretelling the future?

On HBO, the dramatic series Oz is set and takes place behind bars. Prison is the situational backdrop for the critically acclaimed drama now in its third season. Ryan O'Reilly is considered one of the most villainous characters on the show. In a New York Times interview, actor Dean Winters, who portrays O'Reilly on the show, said 'he was surprised by the fan adulation he receives for playing the character, especially when he is on the street. "They [fans] come up to me and profess their undying love for O'Reilly. I mean, you have to wonder about these people," Winters said.

Details magazine interviewed hip hop singer Treach who appeared on the show. Treach says, "I hope the show scares the shit out of people. When you go to the penitentiary, it's a whole 'nother lifestyle."

As prison looms larger in the collective consciousness the commodification of prisons and prison culture will increase. Is anything beyond commodification? When a fashion designer recently unveiled a line of clothes modeled on Nazi concentration camp uniforms it caused some outrage, which boosted publicity and sales. Clothing maker Bennetton regularly uses images of war, famine and disaster in its promotional campaigns. If the Holocaust, famine and war can be marketed and sold, anything can. Even prisons.

The Social and Political Impact of the Cultural Commodification of Prison

Does the marketing of prison as just another pop culture commodity have any social or political impact or does it merely make money for the marketers? Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie has noted that at no time in history has a country imprisoned so many of its citizens as the United States now does. However, there is no "natural limit" to this phenomenon. There is nothing that prevents a nation from imprisoning say, one third, of its population. Christie makes the analogy that there was also no natural limit to how many people the Nazis could murder. Mass imprisonment, like genocide, requires only three things: enough bodies and the economic resources and political will to carry out the policy once it has been decided to implement it.

Even as crime rates in America drop, the prison population continues to increase. Exponential growth has been built into the American prison system, independent of crime rates. When the inevitable next economic downturn comes, crime rates will go back up again and imprisonment rates will soar beyond what they are now. By making mass imprisonment not only the physical norm, but also a feature of the cultural landscape, whatever deterrent value prisons have is diminished. But, increasingly, no one questions the purpose or utility of imprisoning millions of people. Most importantly, as we now see, few question whose class interests are served by having policies of mass imprisonment in the first place.

American prisons cannot be compared to Nazi extermination camps in that quick death is not their industrial purpose. The use of the death penalty in the United States is not yet statistically significant (the government killing a few dozen people each year in ritualized executions is statistically, but not morally, insignificant, in a system that arrests, processes, convicts, punishes and imprisons millions of people each year. More so when it takes place in a geographically large nation of almost 300 million people.)

However, increased sentences, overcrowding, brutality, disease and inadequate medical care all translate into death by incarceration. The increased popularity and use of sentences of life without parole, natural life, mandatory prison sentences of 30, 40 and 90 years before release, all translate into one thing: death behind bars. The majority of the American anti death penalty movement opposes active state measures which lead to a convict's death, but for the most part supports death by incarceration as a humane alternative. The end result is the same: death at the hands of the state. It just takes longer. Many judges currently impose sentences after calculating a defendant's age and how long they are likely to live. Accordingly, a sentence is then imposed which ensures the defendant will die behind bars. The number of people now destined to die behind bars as a result of these actuarial calculations is unknown but likely exceeds 100,000.

The use of mass imprisonment as a tool of social control touches on fundamental questions of liberty and human dignity. Especially in a society which purports to call itself a democracy. Criminologist Elliot Currie has observed that imprisonment is the most thoroughly implemented social experiment In modern American history. Since its founding, the United States has been based on penal servitude and chattel slavery. When 'human life itself was openly bought, sole and bartered as a commodity, strong social divisions arose which culminated in the civil war.

By commodifying prison as pop culture, mass imprisonment is made socially acceptable and connected to blue jeans, theme parks, music, entertainment and resorts. Connected that is, as long as it's happening to someone else. To date, few question pouring billions of dollars into a prison industrial complex that produces little in the way of "corrections," public safety or rehabilitation but much in the way of shattered lives, recidivism and a torn social fabric. The commodification of prisons into pop culture essentially acts as the lubricant of mass imprisonment, smoothing over the divisions it would otherwise cause.

When Jean Rousseau wrote, over two hundred years ago, that "man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains," he expressed the belief that men were fundamentally born to be, live and die, free. Industrialized incarceration is the antithesis of freedom. Yet when imprisonment is equated with a lifestyle choice, few will question its fundamental nature. An essential component of life itself is the quality of life one lives. Is a life destined to end behind bars worthy of human dignity? Once life and death behind bars is repackaged as a commodity, a look, a lifestyle, the question is not even asked.

By marketing social policies where one out of twenty Americans (1 out of 4 if they are black) can expect to spend at least a portion of their lives in prison, pop culture makes imprisonment an accepted part of the political and social landscape. Which leads to no one asking if imprisoning millions of people is a wise use of public resources, who benefits from mass imprisonment and if any alternatives to prisons exist.

With prisons as an integral part of pop culture, young people, especially the poor and youth of color, see going to prison as an ordinary part of everyday life. A rite of passage. Just as with chattel slavery, the popular culture reinforces the message that those in prison deserve to be there and those who aren't in prison, don't. In short, it ensures that issues of class bias and institutional racism in the criminal justice system are never raised, much less addressed. Prisons are because they exist. People go to prison because that is where they have wound up. There is nothing complex about this message.

The message is neither new nor unique. It has been used in the past. In Nazi Germany the concentration camp complex was huge, with more than 300 camps in Germany alone. (By contrast, the United States has over 1,150 prisons and 3,400 jails.) Some of the camps, like Dachau, housed 30,000 prisoners at their peak. By that time German culture had made the concentration camps socially acceptable: the people in the concentration camps must belong there or they wouldn't be there. The camps were necessary to protect civil society from the criminals, communists, gypsies, Jews and homosexuals who otherwise threatened that society.

To put this into context, no one told German citizens "We're going to kill thirty million people" nor did anyone campaign on a platform of genocide. First they locked up the undesirables in concentration camps (a practice pioneered by the British during the Boer war.) That many died as a result of the conditions of their confinement (overcrowding, disease, lack of medical care, guard brutality, inadequate food, etc.) was an unfortunate consequence of their imprisonment. Just as it is today for those who die of those very same reasons in American prisons and jails. It was only after the imprisonment of these social undesirables had been underway for several years that industrialized extermination began in places like Auschwitz. When it did begin, German society as a whole was already acculturated to the idea. If they were worth locking up, why shouldn't they be killed?

Is this far-fetched or ridiculous when applied to the United States? Politically and culturally mass imprisonment has been well accepted by American society, and well underway for the past two and half decades. With a little more than two percent of the American population now under some form of criminal justice system control, in addition to the millions that have already cycled through the system, it is fair to say that a significant portion of the American population has been, is currently or will in the future be imprisoned. Given past American history on chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws and Native American genocide, there is ample precedent. It is worth noting that all of these phenomena came about one law at a time over a period of decades. It was evolutionary slavery and genocide.

Today among American political demagogues there is a constant push for more draconian conditions of confinement and harsher, more punitive punishment. The latter has been reflected in the proliferation of "three strikes and you're out" laws, civil commitment (i.e., life imprisonment) for sex offenders that have completed their criminal sentences, expansion of the death penalty and sentences of life without parole. The former is typified by the proliferation of control units and supermax prisons, chain gangs, rampant brutality and sexual abuse and curtailing the judicial oversight that for a few decades curbed the worst abuses in prisons and jails.

By all accounts, these measures are very popular with the American public. Even among those most likely to bear the brunt of these punishments. There is no mass or popular opposition to any of these trends. Among the elite policy makers the only question being asked is whether the financial resources exist with which to imprison an increasingly large percentage of the American population. So far, the answer appears to be yes.

It is in this cultural and political context that a "final solution" to America's crime problem can easily become reality. After all, so many prisoners are destined to die behind bars now, why not speed up the process and save taxpayers the expense of feeding and housing them for decades before the inevitable takes place? We have already seen laws enacted in recent years mandating the castration and indefinite imprisonment of sex offenders based on crimes they may commit in the future. How much further is physical extermination? We already see an echo of the Nazi refrain "Life unworthy of life" in the plethora of criminal statutes that are eagerly enacted into law each year around the country.


If part of the problem lies in mass imprisonment becoming an acceptable social condition and pop culture reflects that reality and makes it a self fulfilling prophecy, what is to be done? Do we stop talking about prisons and push them out of sight and out of mind? Do we ignore the reality of two million imprisoned Americans?

How do we decommodify prisons as culture? The problem with pop culture is that while it claims to be apolitical, it is anything but. Pop culture invariably reinforces and supports the dominant social and political framework. Artists and producers who try to rock the status quo boat quickly find themselves marginalized and unable to reach a mass audience. The key element needed to make an idea socially acceptable and ingrained in the culture, repetition, is not available. This problem is far from unique to prison culture and applies with equal force to questions of class, race, gender, sexuality, politics and economics.

The first step is to realize that pop culture is indeed political and makes policy choices seem neutral and natural when in reality they are neither. Critical awareness and analysis of pop culture among the consumers of pop culture, especially youth, is important. Then comes the attempt to counteract commodified prison culture: explaining the political and social implications of wearing "Prison Blues" jeans, going to Prison World on vacation, etc. It is especially important that poor youth, the ones who populate American prisons for the most part, realize that imprisonment is not "natural." Rather it is a policy choice that has been made instead of living wage jobs, affordable housing, health care and a social welfare system. In short, it is something that can be changed. The likelihood of change at this time appears to be slight given the inability of those who do question prison culture to reach a large audience, much less reach it with the repetition and pervasiveness needed to change current attitudes.

Beyond this lies asking, and answering, the not so complex questions of who does the criminal justice system work for and benefit, how are crime, criminals and victims defined, what alternatives to prison are available and how can they be implemented?

Until then, prison culture will be packaged and commodified along with everything else in American society. Increasingly a nation behind bars.

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