By Zak Brown
The state, as we understand it, functions as a tool of class suppression: the instrument by which the ruling classes suppresses other classes. As Marx described the state:
“The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party”
Despite liberal slogans about the ‘objective’ nature of government and the ‘rule of law’ we know that the bourgeois state functions as a tool for the capitalist class. This relationship between the capitalist class and their state functionaries helps shape all things within the realm of the state ideology and administration of the law. One clear manifestation of this relationship is the development of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) and its subsequent processes within Amerikan society.
First, let us outline what exactly the Prison Industrial Complex is. The PIC is a term used to describe the socio-political interests and beneficiaries surrounding private prisons, the use of prison labor, and rising incarceration within the United States. So when speaking of the PIC it is important to understand it is not just one “thing” but an embodiment of “things” including economic processes, social realities, and political interests related to the modern Amerikan penal system.
While exploited labor and various forms of slavery have never been alien to the Amerikan experience, the PIC has been a rather recent development. Prior to the early 1980s most prisons were state-run and not leased for any for-profit nature. While oppressive mechanisms most obviously existed (including the leasing of convict-labor to local businesses as early as the Reconstruction Era) the explicitly exploitative function of the PIC had not fully matured . This changed during the War on Drugs when ‘fiscal conservatives’ introduced the idea of leasing prison administration to private institutions causing the number of prisoners in these for-profit prisons to jump 1600% . The idea was genius. Politicians were able to collect points with the majority White electorate by shifting the ‘burden’ of the majority non-White prison population (effected hugely by the parallel War on Drugs) on private stockholders. These private investors were elated to find a marginalized prison population whom they could pay far below minimum wage (if anything)with no benefits and no weekends; effectively extracting the most surplus-value possible. The PIC thus expanded to where it is today with the United States having the highest incarceration rates in the entire world.
Some ask what role does prison labor even have? Contrary to pop culture, prison labor is more than license plate production. In fact, scores of US companies take advantage of this lucrative labor supply including Proctor and Gamble, Motorola, Johnson and Johnson, Amway Corporation, Wal-Mart, Keystone Automotive Industries, International Paper etc. The list goes on and on indicating that prison labor is far more than imprinting some steel to stick on a car bumper. One interesting usage of prison labor is for the production of military supplies. Military contractor UNICOR leases prison labor to fulfill a multi-million dollar contract with the Pentagon which involves producing everything from helmets and dog tags to electrical components for surface-to-air missiles . All at the bargain wage rate of USD 0.23/hr .
On top of being able to pay workers next to nothing for their labor, many businesses actually receive a state reimbursement on wages paid, sometimes as much as 40% .
However, the industries leasing labor are not the only entities profiting off the PIC. There are hundreds of smaller companies who have been contracted to provide basic services to inmates, often making a substantial profit for themselves.
None of this includes nearly the greatest beneficiary of the PIC being the parasitic labor unions which represent the officials working inside the system. One example would be the California Correction Peace Officer’s Association, or the CCPOA. Guards working inside this union usually make around USD 72.400/yr (40% above national average for the same profession) presiding over prisoners laboring at somewhere between USD 1.00-5.00/day. Now if a guard were to work overtime he could rake in as much as USD 100.000/yr. It then becomes clear why the CCPOA spends USD 8mil annually lobbying against measures to reduce sentencing for non-violent crimes .
Now clearly prisons are a subsequent institution of any class society but something must be said about the clear profiteering of these ‘labor’ groups off the systematic oppression and exploitation of prisoners. This sort of exploitation highlights the processes within the capitalist mode of production which align swaths of laborers with the capitalist class; observed in the broader labor aristocracy.
Back onto the original point. We know that the PIC has become extremely profitable for many entities. What does this mean to the class struggle as a whole?
Well, the PIC does more for the capitalist class than function as a highly profitable labor process. The PIC has effectively created colonies within the Empire. Meaning these prisons have become functioning colonies of cheap labor, effectively isolated from the whole of the working class.
This allows Amerikan companies to produce many products ‘domestically’ while still maintaining a healthy rate of profit.
In addition, the isolated nature of prison labor ensures a degree of spatial apathy from the working class as a whole. This subliminal yet deeply cultural apathy is similar to what can be observed from ‘labor’ organizations in Amerika in regard to superexploitation in the periphery. The bourgeois have created an ‘outgroup’ within the core ‘working class’ in the same way core-centric ‘labor’ has posited the periphery. Parallel with ‘crime’ on one hand and ‘maldevelopment’ on the other, we see bourgeois ideology rationalize this superexploitation as both deserved and inevitable.
In this way the bourgeois can continue on with their consumer society, physically abstracting the contradictions of capital accumulation from the core.
This is why I use the term ‘colony’ to describe the way in which the PIC contributes to the imperialist system at large. The vast majority of the core remains socially if not spatially ‘distant’ from the exploitative processes of monopoly capitalism. It then becomes easier for the core ‘working class’ to be embourgeoisifed to the point it has.
All of this should lead us to a few conclusions regarding the PIC and the class struggle as a whole.
First, the PIC has a dual nature in how it relates to monopoly capitalism, especially within the core; not only to provide colonial-esque exploitation within the Empire but abstract ‘mainstream labour’ from concrete exploitation.
Second, prisoners within this system constitute one of the most systematically oppressed and exploited groups within the core.
Third, the exploited of the PIC must be considered an ally of the global working class and a base for revolutionary potential within Amerika alongside all other marginalized, exploited, and oppressed peoples.
Thus it is important to analyze the PIC not as a corrupt institution but as a functioning mechanism of imperialist-capitalism; understanding not only how it moves within the mode of production but how it shapes the class struggle as a whole. With this knowledge we can better hope to apply correct theory, organize effectively, consolidate our victories, and advance the global people’s struggle; ultimately to break the old and build anew.
 Karlin, Mark. 2013. How the Prison-Industrial Complex Destroys Lives.
 American Civil Liberties Union. 2011. Banking on Bondage.
 Wade, Lisa. 2013. Prison Labor and Taxpayer Dollars.
 Flounders, Sara. 2013. Workers World. The Pentagon and Slave Labor in US Prisons.
 McCormack, Simon. 2012. Prison Labor Booms as Unemployment Remains High.
 Jathani, Sagar. 2013. Union of the Snake: How California’s Prison Unions Subvert Democracy.