The USA is one of the most violent countries in the Euro-American sphere. America houses 21% of the world’s prisoners but only makes up 5% of the world’s population. 40% of US prisoners are African-American males even though they only make up 13% of the overall population. African-American males are 5 times more likely to go through the prison system than white males.
1/ The USA has the highest prison population in the Euro-American world and any individual prisoner is caught in the middle of a global economy involving inter-connected industries that generate billions of dollars. Prisoners can keep 1000s of people in work and their wages go into the economy as rent, for food, commodities, and other services, in the USA as well as other countries. The profits of any industry go back to shareholders and also bosses who re-invest in capital (machinery, means of production) and labour (workers). Workers wages pay for products and services which pay other workers making those products and supplying those services. An economy is dependent on the money flowing through it and economies are rarely stable because of the political situation at home as well as abroad.
In a slump or recession wages stagnate, jobs disappear, people tend to save more and spend less, prices rise and fewer things are sold or manufactured so there is less money moving through the economy. In a boom time jobs increase as more things are made and sold, wages go up, people spend more and the wages of those who manufacture things go back into the economy too.
2/ The US prison system is a massive industry whose needs are supplied by many industrial sectors, some of them in other countries. The more prisoners there are and the longer their sentences, the more their needs increase and the more money is needed to maintain them. K is arrested for dealing drugs (which is also a global ‘para-market’ run by illegality and corruption by farmers, officials, drug gangs and dealers like K) and although it is only a few bags of weed, the court finds him guilty and he gets 10 years. From the moment K is arrested until well after he is released on parole, millions of dollars flow around him, none of which benefits him. K is subject to the utter ruthlessness of capitalism and criminal justice. The ruthlessness of capital is that it will always find something to exchange and make money out of. K will lose his identity through the pressure of prison life and will have to conform to prison rules as well as prisoner rules. Prisoners also run their own non-monetary economy: they are denied access to cash and so use other forms of exchange: commissary items like noodles, soup or cookies; sexual services or services like tattooing; and extortion or protection. K will have no choices, only orders and timetables to follow but he will generate $1000s each year in profits for other people.
American economists who want to supervise a stable or growing economy will see the value of locking up more people for longer because of how inter-dependent markets are: 1 dominant market is fed by subsidiary ones.
3/ The profits of incarceration are more immediate than the benefits of preventing crime – which have a long term accumulative effect on communities and on the overall economy. The effects of better education, social support, housing, and public services are not translatable as profits so cannot be ‘monetized’ that is, evaluated as, or converted into, dollars. K is turned into a product to be processed through various stages of a complicated prison system that reproduces him multiple times: his identity and those like him are not important, they are only required to be in prison.
K is processed by a number of industries from the moment he is arrested to when he is released: the police, lawyers, judges, security guards, prison officials, medical staff, psychiatrists, parole boards… All are separate though inter-linked. Prisons need equipment as well as services. Helmets, armour, uniforms and boots; batons, handcuffs, belts, weapons, both lethal and non-lethal; computers and technology; kitchen equipment, tools and exercise equipment; and vehicles. The prison van that K is first put into is dependent on multiple industries, not only the car manufacturers and the global oil industry, but the tyres require rubber to be bought from foreign plantations, transported, turned into products and sold on to car companies and suppliers. The prison staff in the USA like big badges on their uniforms which involve a similar process as the cars: cotton plant workers, owner companies, buyers, transportation, importers, wholesalers, manufacturers and embroiderers; the workers and machinery they all need to work as well as buildings to operate in: all to supply insignia worn on a shirt sleeve that shows K who is boss.
4/ The Economics of Incarceration involve multiple secondary industries one of which is entertainment. The TV programme COPS, which uses actual footage of the American police on duty, was first televised in 1989 to push the idea that crime doesn’t pay (even though it clearly does, in many ways). COPS has been followed by World’s Craziest Police Chases (1996) and prison documentaries like Beyond Scared Straight (2011) and Lock Up! (2017). There are also online vlogs like After Prison Show where ex-prisoners discuss their experiences and dispense advice to those about to vanish into the system. And these are only the factual ones: there are also dozens of fictional programmes about cops, private investigators, forensics, and the prison inmates. Crime Sells!
Programmes like Bait Car illustrate the racial disparity pointed out at the start of this article. The premise is that police leave a regular car with its door open and keys in the ignition in an area of high car crime (ie., poor and Afro-American). The car is equipped with multiple cameras and microphones that record potential thieves and this footage is then sold on to TV production companies. The perpetrators are allowed to take the car (for as long as half an episode) which is then remotely stopped and the driver and accomplices arrested. Watching 4 or 5 episodes on Youtube can give you the impression that the overwhelming majority of car thieves are African-American along with a few Hispanics. This is a canny way to generate revenue for individual police departments, publicise their ‘hard work’ and boost arrest figures. So the Economic of Incarceration not only reproduces K, but reproduces him so he can watch himself on TV when he gets out. So it appears to us outside, that African-American communities are little more than people farms supplying a billion dollar industry, the proceeds of which do not go back to help them deal with crime.
5/ Barack Obama had scrapped mandatory sentences for non-violent drug crimes, ie., possession, but Donald Trump is an advocate of hard time for everyone (although probably not for himself). The Department of Justice (DoJ) under Jeff Sessions consider weed to be ‘only slightly less awful than heroin’ which means he’s either got some pretty potent green or very weak brown. Whilst Sessions is trying to fill jails on soft charges, the DoJ are trying to cut prison staff which sounds like a case of contradictory policy until we learn that Sessions wants to increase the numbers being syphoned into private prisons. A drastic programme to cut publicly funded staff reduces the tax burden and leaves the private sector to accommodate prisoners on a smaller budget in order to maximise profits. But longer sentences and more of them guarantees an ageing prison population and the older a prisoner is the more their medical needs increase and therefore become more expensive to accommodate. Not only that but getting 15 years in your mid-20s means coming out middle aged with few skills, no experience or general trustworthiness. Who is going to employ a 35 year old ex-con with an empty CV? Given that the recidivism rate in the USA is over 70% for serious crimes, K may well end up back in prison.
In an ironic inversion that Marx would appreciate, this kind of economics benefits from social chaos and high crime rates rather than a stable, inclusive society with low crime rates and therefore, criminal disorder = profits!