HomeHeadlinesInmate Slavery and the Prison Industrial Complex: Resilience vs. Docility

Inmate Slavery and the Prison Industrial Complex: Resilience vs. Docility


Prisoners now the cheapest labour source in U.S.

A productive and humane answer to these questions arises from a close examination of the capitalist world system and its role in the production of bodily technologies seeking to morph human anatomies into codifiable machines. Put simply, in the wake of the global capitalist crisis, tremendous efforts have been invested into seeking new sources of brute workforce. Not incidentally, the world’s penal system has witnessed the disproportionate growth of inmate population. In the United States, inmate population increase is most revealing in women’s prisons, where, from 1977 to 2004, the number of women in state and federal prisons increased by 757 percent.

Given the highly punitive orientation of our criminal justice system today, we find that more and more state penitentiaries are being built in the United States each year. According to Tom R. Tyler (2006), “America could perhaps best be characterized as a highly ‘punitive’ society. The focus of public attention has been on the need to punish rule-breakers, and support has been high for harsh punishments, including the death penalty and life in prison” (p. 307).

It goes without saying that under an industrialized criminal system of this nature, the rapidly proliferating construction of correctional facilities proceeds and the need to populate them with new slave-laborers comes second. A genuinely simple idea or question underlines the complexities of “criminality” in the age of thanatopolitics (the politics of death in the age of capital): What makes a criminal? The answer is equally simple: The market makes the criminal.

At this point, it becomes clear that some would enquire about the technicalities of conviction. Although convictions may not always be staged and convicts are not always innocent, any crime committed in the last 500 years is very likely to have sprung from oppression: extreme poverty, gendered or classed inequity, racial violence, discrimination, segregation, ableism, poor health care, malnutrition, land expropriation, state neglect and acute abuse, among others.

Let us not be fooled, for under capitalist rule, prisons are yet another profitable market; and to keep the market afloat, new laborers must be brought on board – at any cost. Prisoners are indeed low-wage slave laborers whose identities have been deprived of all humanity and whose bodies have been turned into monster-machines. In reproducing a gothic inspired image of modern prisons using the monster/machine duality, I show the psychological and physical transformation intended for individuals “recruited” by the penal system today.

This process is twofold. First, criminalization agendas are set in motion by the different social and cultural institutions deploying nationalist discourses that legitimize exclusionary policies. For instance, as scholar and activist David Graeber (2009) argues, the so-called “war on drugs” has been widely used as a criminalizing strategy and has resulted in mass incarceration over the past decade (p. 349).

More disturbing is the fact that mainstream society rarely questions this kind of pantomime – much in the same way that society rarely questions racial profiling leading to wrongful convictions. Racial hatred leading to the massive wrongful conviction of African Americans in the United States reproduces what Angela Davis (2003) describes as “the historical resonances of slavery, colonization, and genocide [that] should not be missed in these proliferating images of [Black men and women in chains and shackles.” (p. 77)

Second, once recruits, individuals are subjected to emotionally degrading interventions, and attired with what feminist and prisoner abolitionist Angela Davis calls “repressive paraphernalia.” These processes are engineered to deprive persons of any trace of personal identity or dignity. Let us consider for instance that male prisoners commonly have their heads shaved; according to the European Court of Human Rights (2007), “Shaving is in principle an act which may have the effect of diminishing their human dignity or may arouse in them feelings of inferiority capable of humiliating and debasing them” (p. 211).

In addition, inmates are robbed of all possessions – including emotionally charged items such as photographs, as well as personal items such as clothing; they are thus forced to wear matching bright-colored uniforms that identify them not as human beings with rights, but as criminal “others” deprived of all judicial protections. (Orange is the color of choice in many U.S. penitentiaries). In this sense, modern day prisons mirror state of exception provisions, in which constitutional rights are indefinitely suspended, and subjects must exist under the unlawful status of non-citizenship (Agamben, 1998; 2005).

III. Beyond docility: Punishment and resilience

It is of particular interest to me that the one method supposed to inflict the most torturous kind of emotional punishment – that of identity erasure – re-emerges for modern prisoners as a locus of identification. This improved sense of shared personhood awakens an instinct for mutual protection which is in turn further galvanized by a feeling of unity.

Indeed, and certainly unwillingly, an essentially punitive prison system has revamped the politics of mutual recognition among racialized, gendered and functional “others.” In like manner, the experience of shared oppression has sprung a sentiment of mutual validation and fired up an inherent will for association and collective organizing across state-sponsored divisions.

Finally, increased punitive practices in prisons in tandem with ever-narrowing onsite rehabilitation and correctional programs – whose successful completion will often lead to a reduction in sentence – has gradually activated a “survival mode” feeling among prisoners who are now starting to become increasingly aware of the correlation between extreme cruelty and their power of assembly. Overcrowding , “gladiator warrior” combat and “snitch or torture” are all strategies specifically designed to break prisoners’ will of association and/or to decrease inmates’ numbers by intentionally breeding epidemic diseases or by promoting acute violence among them.

IV. The neoliberal slave machine

Why is it that the world needs more prisons? Is it the fact that markets have been so utterly successful in their expansion that they need more people to work in confinement – “sweatshop”-style – in order to increase productivity? Or is it rather that corporations and financial elites are terrified of workers’ increased awareness and power of organized struggle?

Could it be that ethnic minorities and people with disabilities have gained increased control over their cultural histories to know that “deficiency” and “inefficiency” are socially constructed categories and that, to all legal effects, their work power is as functional as White able-bodied labor is. Is it the elite’s intense fear that this kind of knowledge and power can potentially galvanize yet another fight for fair employment rights? Imminent fear surrounding the women’s liberation movement is that powerful women, including ethnic minority women and women with disabilities, have learned the value of their bodies to enhance reproductive labor power and, by extension, the damage that their collective resistance can do to capital’s imperialistic logic.

The capitalist world system, with its ambitious expansion plans, has morphed organic human tendencies towards justice, association and mutual recognition into a material culture of extreme individuation and egocentrism. Activist anthropologist David Graeber (2009) argues that the imminent crisis of the capitalist world system has led to unduly harsh sentencing and to the disproportionate growth of inmate population – especially among women.

His argument goes deep into the murderous world of corporate capital and unveils the dangers of political-party reform as a path towards deep societal change. The anthropologist is not the first to shed light on the machinations of the Prison Industrial Complex. His perspective is nevertheless unique insofar as it can be ascertained as arising from post-direct action reflection in the form of activist ethnography.

As he notes, “more and more products in the U.S. are manufactured by convicts, and corporations who employ prison labor almost invariably also provide massive campaign contributions to political candidates in favor of maintaining harsh sentencing guidelines” (Graeber, 2009, p. 439).

Having briefly discussed inmate population increase among women, exhibiting explosive growth rates, my intention is to further expand on this topic in a future article. In the era of women-led community regeneration, especially organized by Black women, the neoliberal apparatus feels empowered to destroy association and solidarity by harshening sentencing and constructing new cultural, ethnic, functional, racial, gendered and sexualized pathologies. Women are turning increasingly dangerous to the system; their wombs need to be policed, their bodies brutalized and their identities erased by means of mass incarceration.

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