Last June, I sent a memo to participants in a PIC Communiversity Course that my organization sponsored. In it, I made this argument regarding discussions about the term “prison industrial complex.”
We spent the first two sessions trying to understand the history of prisons and how the PIC operates. One area of debate that we did not broach is whether the term “Prison Industrial Complex” is a good construct to explain the expansion and encroachment of surveillance and incarceration over the past 30 years. There is a pitched battle of ideas in the academic community about whether the PIC is a useful way to describe mass incarceration. Sociologists like Loic Wacquant contend that the PIC is a misguided frame as an explanatory construct for mass incarceration. For information about Wacquant’s critique, you should read his book “Prisons of Poverty.” This is the shorter, more reader-friendly version of his book “Punishing the Poor.” Chris Parenti is another person who is a critic of the term “Prison Industrial Complex.” He contends that prison spending is much less than that of the “military-industrial-complex.” As such, he takes issue with the term. He has other criticisms that he has offered as well.
Finally, in the past couple of years, some have begun to use the term “Corrections-Industrial Complex” instead of PIC. These people contend that since the fastest growing segment of carceral supervision today in the U.S. is probation, it makes more sense to think of this phenomenon as the CIC instead. Former inmates are often still under some form of supervision once they leave the walls of prisons (GPS tracking, intensive parole, etc…). Others who come into contact with the criminal legal system are not incarcerated but are given probation and come under the surveillance of the state too.
We have not discussed these debates in this course because of the limited amount of time that was available to us. I did however want to bring this to your attention in case you are interested in reading more from some of the academics that I mentioned earlier.
Personally, I continue to find the term “Prison Industrial Complex” to be a good frame for discussing the issues that we have over the past five months. This is why I continue to use it. In particular, I rely on Critical Resistance’s definition:
“Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to what are, in actuality, economic, social, and political ‘problems’.”
I received an e-mail today from Professor Loic Wacquant. As a sociologist myself, I greatly value engaged dialogue about ideas. I reached out to Dr. Wacquant and asked if I could post his response here. He graciously agreed.
First congratulations on your activities expanding educational opportunities for those ill served by the official education system.
Second a few corrections on your remarks about my critique of PIC on your blog http://prison-industrialcomplex.blogspot.com/.
1) PRISONS OF POVERTY is not the “short version” of PUNISHING THE POOR but a different book, with a different argument: PTP covers the workfare/prisonfare nexus; PofPov covers the international circulation of US penal categories and policies (for the record: the original version of PofPov was written in 1999, PTP was written in 2009).
2) My criticism of PIC are manifold:
-PIC claims the prison plays a key role in the new capitalist economy: the corrections budget of the US amounts to less than 1% of GDP; if it disappeared it would barely register on the economic radar.
-PIC stresses the exploitation of carceral labor: at peak use, fewer than 0.5% of inmates were employed by private firm. What of the 99.5% remaining?
-PIC makes an analogy with the “military industrial complex” but the Pentagon is a single lever to decide military policy; there is no lever to a single justice system in the US, since every city runs its own police, every county runs its own jail and courts, and every state runs its own prison system. Even if some malevolent entity wanted to control crimjustice it couldn’t!
-firms make money through the provision of punishment, but this is the case for every government function in America. Is there for that reason an “education industrial complex,” a “housing industrial complex,” a “welfare industrial complex,” an “transportation industrial complex,” a “retirement industrial complex,” a “health industrial complex”? What is gained by adding an “IC” to every government function?
-I would argue there is a “health industrial complex” in the US because private interests do dominate health policy in the US. But what is distinctive about punishment, among public functions, is precisely that has remained remarkably public! Indeed, it is more public than welfare, education, medical care, etc.
-PIC draws attention to penal policy in isolation from similar tendencies in social welfare policies and thus obscures their growing interpenetration and convergence.
Altogether I find the PIC designation confused and confusing. Lastly, there is no “pitched battle of ideas” between PIC and rival frameworks. PIC has very little standing among scholars of punishment (except in some sectors of the humanities that do not carry out empirical research). And the “mass incarceration” itself is another misnomer (for my argument in favor of “hyperincarceration” that selects by class first, race second, and place third, see the attached piece on “Race, Class, and Hyperincarceration”).
I greatly appreciate Professor Wacquant’s sending along corrections to my characterization of his critique of the concept of the PIC. I have read both Prisons of Poverty and Punishing the Poor. While he is correct that they do not advance the exact same argument, in my opinion, Prisons of Poverty is still the more accessible version of the two books. If you are a non-sociologist or frankly a non-academic, to me, POP is a better read and it does provide a context for the arguments that were advanced in Punishing the Poor. So I stick by that suggestion that I made to members of the Communiversity class.
Prof. Wacquant does not see “pitched battles” in academia about the use of the term PIC. To me, the distinction is between empirical social scientists and the rest of academia that still addresses issues about prisons. If the battles are not “pitched,” they do exist.
Anyway, I am thrilled that Prof. Wacquant took the time to write back and am pleased to share his thoughts here on this blog and I will do the same on our PIC Communiversity blog as well.
Finally, Dr. Wacquant shared two articles that I have yet to read but plan to do so in the next couple of weeks. Perhaps I will even blog about them here… I am sharing them in case others are interested in reading them as well.
The Body, The Ghetto, & The Penal System
Class, Race, & Hyperincarceration in Revanchist America
If anyone has responses to these ideas, I would be happy to post them on the blog…