Almost five decades ago, I entered adult prison for the first time, at just seventeen years of age. I had never heard the term “Prison Industrial Complex” or its acronym PIC. But, in retrospect, everything about entering prison screamed that you had entered a huge machine that would use you until you had no value, before spitting you back out, full of hate and with a better education in the ways of criminal activity. You are released back into an unsuspecting world, wholly unprepared for successful reintegration into a society you no longer understand. If that wasn’t enough, you find yourself barred from many occupations, unable to work at anything paying much over minimum wage without outside support, making the criminal lifestyle you know to be so lucrative an easy choice. No wonder the recidivism rates are so high!
As I entered, I remember feeling a vibration. Even the air seemed to vibrate, almost alive with energy, like standing too close to a high power electrical line. I shrugged off the feeling, chalked it up to my own fear. I never thought that the vibrations could have been generated by the fear and hatred of nearly 2,000 captive souls being held in a bubble, a world unlike anything I had experienced before. My hair was cut off to the scalp by a prisoner who talked to another about a recent killing within the prison. I remember thinking, they seem so unemotional by the news of the killing, almost as if they were talking about the latest weather report!
Next, I was stripped of all clothing. My scalp, pubic area and buttocks were sprayed with an insecticide by yet another prisoner, before being shoved towards a communal shower with several other new prisoners. They had to make sure you had brought no foreign pests into the bubble because no one wanted anything competing with the cockroaches, mice and rats! I was given a much too small jumpsuit and told to put it on. Fresh out of the shower, with skin still damp, my attempts to my large body into this small suit were quite interesting, judging by the reaction of seasoned prisoners who had come to watch the show. They took several of us to be fingerprinted and photographed, after which we sat at a desk while a prisoner typed up our admittance paperwork.
Everyone who had arrived that day was herded into the diagnostic center where prisoners lived, two or three to a cell, for the next 30 to 45 days. While in the diagnostic center they poke, prod, test and vaccinate you to ensure you are healthy. And only then, are you seen by classification staff who talk “at” you, not “TO” you. They go over your test scores, the length of your sentence, your crime. And ultimately they determine what prison would be best to assign you to, based on several things such as your assigned security level and your ability to work any number of prison jobs. Only after you have been classified will you be sent to one of several prisons.
On arrival at your new prison, you quickly discover most all of the prisoners have jobs. And if you didn’t know before, you soon learn that even you will work. You see other prisoners moving here and there, mopping, sweeping, cleaning, restocking supplies, cooking meals for the population or heading to their factory job. Most every prison has an industrial factory or factories that produce such things as license plates, prisoner and guard clothing, furniture and soap products. Some state prison systems even produce their own toilet paper!
The prisoners are paid less than minimum wage, often working in hot, dusty factories. Many state prison factories would be shut down by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), if OSHA dared to inspect them. Many have outdated equipment, kept running by the removal of safety switches and guards, operated by prisoners who have been poorly trained by other poorly trained prisoners. You begin to see order in what must seem like chaos to the uninitiated. But to those living in the chaos, it is a well-oiled machine. And any pause in the routine throws the whole system into a state of total pandemonium that often takes hours or days to return to normality.
Do you think you are grasping the concept of the PIC? In reality, all that I described is the whitewash that keeps curious onlookers from seeing the true industry, the real PIC. Prisons are multi-billion dollar money pits taxpayers pay into, perhaps blindly, perhaps for some feeling of civic responsibility. It’s easy to think that taxpayers don’t care what goes on inside, as long as their money is used to keep the animals in their cages. This blind trust in their government, without meaningful oversight, has created an industry that generates hundreds of billions of dollars, money that does not go into the prison system but does pay handsome dividends to the stockholders!
Now I have your attention. Now you are full of questions and hope to find answers. In this little essay, there is no way I can give you all the answers, but I hope to give you enough so that you are no longer blind. If you are just a little curious, you too can hunt down the money trails and do your civic duty by bringing these abuses of our system to light through any or all of the media outlets available.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.