How Books Are Used to Perpetuate the Prison Industrial Complex

From Book Riot:

The prison industrial complex is a term you may have heard if you’ve looked into abolitionist thinking or learned about the contexts around social movements like Black Lives Matter. It’s a term that, as defined by abolition group Critical Resistance, describes “overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.” While the concept of the prison industrial complex covers a huge number of social structures, you’ll most frequently hear it used in discussions about mass incarceration, for-profit prisons, and how criminalising and imprisoning people benefits the rich and powerful (particularly politicians and CEOs) while doing nothing to tackle or prevent harm that takes place within society at large.

The term “prison industrial complex” was coined by activists as well as incarcerated people and their families. And a number of academics and writers have provided powerful critiques of the prison industrial complex — Angela Y. Davis with Are Prisons Obsolete?, Michelle Alexander with The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Elizabeth Hinton with From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, and many less formalised writings from abolitionist groups and activists.

. . . .

There has been a great deal of writing and literature about the prison industrial complex — but are books one of the structures supporting the system itself?

. . . .

In my earlier article on copaganda in crime books, I explored how literature, particularly the detective genre, has often bolstered a pro-police social agenda. The same is true for the prison industrial complex, and pro-carceral justice structures. In detective fiction, prison for the villain is often a major part of a happy ending — although in many crime books, the conclusion involves the murderer dying in a showdown with the hero, rather than being incarcerated. Literature often portrays prison as largely unproblematic, the only issue being when innocent people are imprisoned. While miscarriages of justice are enormously harmful, the prison system also enacts enormous and disproportionate violence on people who have committed the crimes they are accused of; however, social attitudes to this are very different, with the refrain “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” commonly thrown back at people who argue against carceral abuses.

. . . .

Throughout the majority of literature, prisons are represented as frightening but necessary institutions that largely keep the public safe, only harmful when people are incarcerated for a crime they didn’t commit. There is little focus on, or care for, the harm that prisons cause to people who have committed crimes, or their harm to society as a whole. The area of literature that has paid the greatest amount of attention to the harms of the prison industrial complex is the prison memoir, but, once again, the most successful examples of these are books by political prisoners, or people incarcerated because of racism or other forms of bigotry, such as Nelson Mandela or the Exonerated Five. These stories are incredibly important, but they also show how incarcerated people are generally only portrayed as sympathetic if the person is “not a real criminal,” but someone who has been done wrong by the system, instead of considering the possibility that the system of imprisonment is itself wrong. “Real criminals” don’t get the same kind of sympathy or humanisation in literature, and it is rarely suggested that the prison industrial complex itself may be the true villain.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

While PG does not characterize U.S. prisons as ideal surroundings for anyone, including prison employees or convicts, that doesn’t mean that prisons are a terrible idea or that anyone has found a better way of protecting people who don’t commit crimes from people who do commit crimes.

When you’re living in a relatively safe world, where chances of being injured or killed other than by old age or terminal illness, prison can seem to be cruel and overly-strict. However, no one is more relieved to hear that someone who has committed a serious crime that has harmed them has been locked up in prison so she/he can’t commit another crime for a good long while or retaliate against them for reporting the crime.

PG has visited people in prison in two roles – hired attorney and as a representative of the religion of the prisoner, e.g. pastoral visits.

He has yet to meet anyone who is incarcerated who PG didn’t think was a danger to his/her community and was the perpetrators of one or more acts that harmed other people.

The primary purpose of a prison is as a deterrent to all to not violate the law and to punish those who have done so. A secondary purpose is as to protect society in general from a repetition of the bad acts of an individual who, absent punishment, is likely to repeat those bad acts to the detriment of others, either individually or collectively.

The Prison Industrial Complex is manipulative Marxist-style term designed to manipulate perceptions to the detriment of the underlying purpose of prisons – to protect those who don’t commit crimes from the actions of those who do and is a typical Marxist creation designed to manipulate emotions. (See also, Military Industrial Complex)

Absent prior convictions, non-violent criminals tend to receive punishments lighter than prison – release on probation either after they’ve served a period of incarceration or, often with some prior time in jail prior to the hearing, probation, supervised or unsupervised, which usually involves meeting with a state or federal probation officer on a regular basis and a condition that the probationer not commit another crime during probation.

Depending on the jurisdiction, supervised probation may require weekly or monthly or, sometimes bi-monthly visits with a probation officer to discuss what the probationer has been doing, whether he/she is attending school, going to work or some other condition the sentencing judge may impose – attending Alcohol Anonymous meetings weekly, spending some time helping a local charitable organization, etc.

Some prisoners finish getting their high school or college diploma while incarcerated. Prison wardens are generally quite pleased with someone who does this sort of thing and it is a plus if the prisoner seeks early release for good behavior while incarcerated.

PG has yet to visit anyone in prison who does not acknowledge that he/she deserves to be there.

8 thoughts on “How Books Are Used to Perpetuate the Prison Industrial Complex”

  1. Whenever I see an article like this, my immediate thought is “And what do you suppose we should replace prison with, then?”

    Of course, the answer is always something like what is mentioned in the article: “community accountability and restorative justice.” That may do very well for theft and such (if said ‘restorative justice’ involves the malefactor paying restitution to the victim), but what are we to do with repeat violent offenders in a world without jails? Something tells me that such activists would be horrified at the notion that we should go back to the old Mosaic law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but what is the alternative to just letting such people either run about freely or killing them if we’re not going to jail them?

    The activists, of course, cannot provide such answers, for they live in a fantasy world in which there is no evil original to the human heart and everything is society’s fault.

    • The Underpants Gnomes of Southpark present the answer to many such questions. Their business plan is simple:
      1. Collect underpants
      2. ?
      3. Profit

      We can apply this lesson to the above OP.
      1. Eliminate prisons
      2. ?
      3. Utopia

  2. Ah, yes the old crime and punishment debate.
    Useful when you run out of issues.

    The matter of what societies do with internal threats (physical or ideological) has provided story fodder since…forever.

    It is fundamental to the ordering of societies since the times of the old ice age and before. And for all the wrangling and theorizing by the naive and/or politically-minded, there are and have always been but two effective solutions: exile and execution.

    Every “solution” actually is a variation of one or the other, be it house arrest, labor camps, chain gangs, or even “decriminalization/deincarceration”. Because, make no mistake, the latter is just a loose variation of internal exile/shunning predicated on ” out of sight, out of mind”.

    It is also a favorite of many flavors of fantasies, from medieval to cyberpunk.
    The recent Netflix Series, ARCANE, is an excellent example of what it leads to, the classic two-tier society.

    Heinlein’s COVENTRY and LUNA CITY are both examples of “futuristic” penal colonies, among many others. Soviet Gulags and Chinese labor camps are the real world examples.

    In fiction the exiles, internal or external, develop into alternate societies. “Decriminalization/deincarceration” is a relatively recent conceit but early signs from San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland suggest the fiction writers got it right.

    The other path, execution, is frowned upon by the more “enlightened thinkers” but it remains an option and not just through the long drawn out process of state execution, but more often through “prison justice”, the most obvious example of internal exiles evolving their own distinct culture.

    Pedophiles and other particularly distasteful specimens tend to have very short lifespans in prison. One likely candidate surfaced this:

    Another candidate is a man recently indicted for sexually abusing a two year old step daughter who died from the injuries.

    Would not insure either. If they’re lucky they might end up with bedsheet “suicides”. Even career criminals have standards.

    In fiction, Larry Niven postulated a world where the maturation of organ and limb transplant tech led to everincreasing demand for transplant fodder and an expanding crime of organlegging “involutary donation” which in turn led to the expansion of crimes punishable by execution for legal harvesting. (Both of which are common in China today.)

    Exile or execution.

    Neither ends well but are unavoidable. All societies practice at least one, most both.
    Note I say *societies* not governments. States aren’t the only form human tribalism manifests. Crimes against tribal groups take many forms but the punishment is always exile or death.

    Worth keeping in mind for worldbuilding.

    One example:

    Elon Musk actually gets his million human martian colony going.
    Out of a million people you’re bound to get a few rapists and pedophiles, if notbamong the first generation, definitely among the second. So what to do with them: exile them to a locked cell, consuming valuable resources until they die of old age, ship them at great expense to earth, condemn them to hard labor in mines or food production, or just shove them out the airlock?

    As to the politics of it?
    That bores me. 😉

  3. Yes, indeed, “military industrial complex” — a phrase popularized by that great Marxist thinker Dwight D. Eisenhower. And one wonders how much of the abuse of the phrase “prison industrial complex” comes from use of prisons historically to deal not with enemies of society so much as enemies of the state — just consider the “complex” around the Bastille in 1789 and the proportion of persons “residing there” for political crimes.

    The irony that simplifying complicated, historically embedded, multifactored conflicts to a “complex” actually betrays the ideals of those who would attempt to resolve those conflicts — almost no matter what those ideals are — appears to have escaped the marketing geniuses who came up with these slogans. Because that’s all they are: Slogans, no more reflective of “truth” than “Better Living Through Chemistry.”

    • Griping over the XXX INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX in general obscures the reality that some animals are more equal than others, namely the friends of the party. The XXX fuction may be necessary but how it is managed and funded isn’t necessarily so.

      The Motley Fool website this week highlighted this oddity:

      In 2015, ULA (Boeing and Lockheed’s old-space tie-up) charged the Air Force $400M per mission on sole source launch contracts. After SpaceX sued, won, and forced the Air Force to look at their commercial launchers, they were grudgingly given a handful of missions to keep them quiet. For the followup contract in 2020, after SpaceX proved their reusable rockets were at least as reliable as ULA’s, ULA somehow managed to cut their price to $218m per mission, still double to triple the SpaceX price but a 50% cut for the SPACE FORCE, now independent and run by a new separate cadre of officers.

      More recently, the USSF looked to extend the launch services contract and ULA bid $110M per launch. All the while, SpaceX (which is doing gangbusters business and doing 2-3 missions a week) has been bidding $60-90M depending on payload.

      So, somehow, ULA has miraculously found a way to trim 75% of their costs now that they have to sing for their supper.

      Equally curious, Boeing and Lockheed are now looking to divest their share in ULA.

      Makes you wonder about other government contracts, doesn’t it?

      The launches are necessary just as the military gear for the armed services are necessary but the way the money gets dished out (cost-plus contracts) is far from optimal. And it’s not always the companies’ doing. (Two words: pork. barrel.)

      Slogans are simple, reality isn’t.
      (A new slogan right there, right?) 😉

      Activists, however, are.

  4. Suprised no one has mentioned “copaganda”.

    In my earlier article on copaganda in crime books, I explored how literature, particularly the detective genre, has often bolstered a pro-police social agenda.

    Movies tend to cover more of the dark side then books.

    I suspect it mainly PR, first, people are going to say go “buy” my book , where someone survives by shoplifting for a decade before robbing someone and getting shot.Secondly movies can get away with people committing violence, they just have to look broody and wear leather. A book actually has to get into their head and motivations. Not saying it cant be done but it’s hard to make the character likeable and people tend to not buy books where they don’t like or understand the main character. It can be bad enough when you only disagree with their politics.

    • Books, more than movies, give the masses what they want.
      TV is the same.
      What the masses want is stability and certainty so they can live their lives in peace.

      That is why for every DEXTER or THE WIRE, you get a dozen BLUE BLOODS, NCIS, LAW AND ORDER, THE MENTALIST, etc. And why “law and order” issues win elections. (Willy Horton anybody? Or SF major Breed fighting her own party to enforce existing laws to stop the ongoing implosion of downtown San Fran. Gotta protect what remains of the tax base.)

      On a similar vein, just look at the messes Disney, Target, and Bud light have gotten into for forgetting where their money comes from. “If they won’t listen to our voices, maybe they’ll listen to our wallets,” say the customers. The stock market, at least, listened.

      Disney in particular is so self absorbed and deep in their own echo chamber they keep on pushing out the same internal-agenda driven content that nobody wants to pay to see. Look at the reviews on ELEMENTAL. Even the kindest point out the same themes have been done a dozen times and it simply beats a dead horse.

      Or look at the box office returns on the reworked LITTLE MERMAIND. At a time when mediocre movies make a billion off international markets, NY and LA came out big for the “modern audience” version of the classic danish fairy tale but the outside world gave it a hard pass. Losses in the 9-digit range.

      For a real disaster, wait a week and see how much much money they don’t make off the new INDIANA JONES movie. Message fatigue at work.

      Procedurals dominate because they sell. Its not state-driven propaganda but rather businesses serving a market, giving the paying customer what *they* want.

      Activists and ideologues don’t bring home the bacon, just empty echo chamber plaudits.

  5. One thing about The Little Mermaid is that they bloated what was originally a film of less than ninety minutes to over two hours. I cannot imagine what they were thinking.

    (Frankly, I think the suits rejoiced when the casting department brought in a black actress for Ariel. This way, they’ll be able to blame the movie’s relative unsuccess on “racism” rather than it being not that great of a movie.)

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