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The prison industrial complex is indeed modern-day American slavery. And under Trump, it is only getting worse.

At the confluence of capitalism, racism, and mass-scale sadism we find what is known as the prison industrial complex, a complicated socio-cultural system that keeps America’s prisons full and predominantly with inmates of color. The term prison industrial complex was coined by activist scholar Angela Davis in a speech-turned-essay for ColorLines in 1997 to describe the veritable pipeline of young men of color subsumed into an archaic and unyielding prison system, often for the entirety of their lives.

In Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex Angela Davis writes:

“[P]risons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings. And the practice of disappearing vast numbers of people from poor, immigrant, and racially marginalized communities has literally become big business.”


“To deliver up bodies destined for profitable punishment, the political economy of prisons relies on racialized assumptions of criminality – such as images of black welfare mothers reproducing criminal children – and on racist practices in arrest, conviction, and sentencing patterns. Colored bodies constitute the main human raw material in this vast experiment to disappear the major social problems of our time. Once the aura of magic is stripped away from the imprisonment solution, what is revealed is racism, class bias, and the parasitic seduction of capitalist profit. The prison industrial system materially and morally impoverishes its inhabitants and devours the social wealth needed to address the very problems that have led to spiraling numbers of prisoners.”

What are some of the things that constitute our social construction of crime and criminal behavior? We have extreme cases of violence, murder, theft, rape and sexual assault. But homelessness is also coded as criminal. Being undocumented in America is also a crime. Addiction often leads to incarceration, as do untreated mental health problems due to a lack of state psychiatric facilities and hospitals. The intersection of poverty, race, and lack of access to education and social resources are also direct lines into the vortex that is the prison industrial complex.

The prison industrial complex is fed by a surveillance culture that targets people of color, and in particular men. Some examples are the racist stop-and-frisk policy in New York, the phenomenon of driving while black or brown, and the three-strikes policies that funnel non-violent offenders into maximum security prison systems. Once you have been incarcerated and released, your disenfranchisement begins: Ex-cons are not permitted to vote, which is reminiscent of slavery eras when people of color had no voice in the American political system. There are currently 6 million black Americans in this country who are not permitted to vote because of felony disenfranchisement.

In fact, the Prison Industrial Complex has quite a great deal in common with slavery, especially since the privatization of prisons as a capitalist industry is now more the norm than the exception. Prison labor is a cheap source for big business, and these multi-million dollar companies profit off the backs of mostly men of color. That these companies are predominantly run by white men only adds to the disgusting parallels of the American prison system and slavery of old. Not to mention all the other people and organizations who profit off the metaphorical highways into the Prison Industrial Complex, such as the bail bond industry and monopolies on inmate access to communication services such as telephones and the internet.

While in theory prisons were created in order to rehabilitate criminals, in practice it is quite exactly the opposite. Extremely high recidivism rates — the rates at which former inmates are re-incarcerated — indicate that time on the inside only further hardens criminal behavior when back on the outside. Violence in prison, and in particular sexual violence, further strips prisoners of their dignity and the lack of treatment for mental health issues after surviving rape(s) only contributes to breaking inmates in fundamental ways that keep them entrenched in the prison industrial complex. Prison wardens and guards often use draconian corporal punishment methods and extended solitary confinement bouts to make their prisoners more malleable while incarcerated, but these brutal techniques create chain reactions of psychological trauma that prevent a person often from even conceiving of a life outside of crime.

Related: Hope From a Prison Cell: Angela Davis, Mumia, and the State of Black Lives

Many non-violent offenders are placed in maximum security prisons in order to bolster the profits of businesses that capitalize off prison labor, and these inmates are particularly vulnerable to the horrific social conditions in prison that manufacture criminals instead of rehabilitating them. HBO’s miniseries The Night Of demonstrates perfectly how entrance into the prison industrial complex even as an innocent defendant will shift a life trajectory into one of crime from the inside to the outside.

The prison industrial complex is an intricate and pervasive system with a sole function of generating profits off the backs of people of color while simultaneously dismantling the very humanity of people who are caught in its monstrous rabbit hole to ensure their longevity in that structure. And so long as there is money to be made — and especially in private prisons that do not operate under standard state prison procedures — various state and governmental arms will continue to replenish prison coffers with people to work. After all, owners of private prisons are huge political donors and the prison industrial complex is a comprehensive top-to-bottom socio-political system that ensures profitability while trampling on human rights.

Because ultimately, the end goal of the prison industrial complex is for a small group of (mostly white) men to make money off of the targeting, oppression, and incarceration of large communities of (mostly brown and black) men. Currently, the prison industrial complex is responsible for not only the inhumane treatment of humans who are supposedly endowed with a set of inalienable rights per the USA’s constitution, but also to their socio-cultural and even psychological positioning as pathological dangers to American society.

In a nutshell, the prison industrial complex is indeed modern-day American slavery. And under Trump, it is only getting worse.

If you are interested in boycotting companies that profit off prison labor, here is a starter list.


Sezín (rhymes with Celine) Koehler is a biracial Sri Lankan American novelist and blogger whose writings have been featured on Teen Vogue, Broadly, The Mary Sue, Huffington Post, Sociological Images, Pacific Standard, Ms. Magazine, and more. An adult Third Culture Kid, she has lived in 13 countries and 18 cities around the world, and currently calls Lighthouse Point, Florida home.

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