How the Prison-Industrial Complex Threatens Democracy in America

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• The prison-industrial-complex has expanded dramatically
over the last generation, becoming one of the fastest
growth industries in the United States of America; housing
over 2 million prisoners and supervising almost 5 million
parolees and probationers, America’s prison systems controls
the lives of 6,781,637 Americans. This means that 1
out of every 32 adults – and 1 in 3 black males – is incarcerated
in some form. Considering that each prisoner or
parolee’s hardships are shared by his or her family members,
we can safely assume that as many as 25 million
Americans find their lives dramatically hampered by our
nation’s obsession with crime and punishment.
• The rise of this punishment industry has caused a
terrible decline in America’s education system. For
example, the State of California now spends more
money on its prison system than on its once-celebrated
universities and state colleges combined. One result of
such political choices is that there are now more African-
American men in America’s prisons than in its colleges.
Furthermore, we know that 68% of state prison inmates
did not finish high school, meaning there is a direct relationship
between declining schools and expanding prisons,
between one’s access to education and one’s chances
of becoming incarcerated. Young people who do not finish
school are so much more likely to enter prison than
students who complete high school that some scholars
have begun referring to a “schools-to-prison pipeline.”
• Like the educational system, so the health system in
America has begun to suffer at the hands of the prisonindustrial-
complex. It has been estimated that as many
as 1-in-4 prisoners of maximum security prisons suffer
psychological illnesses that require treatment, not incarceration.
So instead of healing the sick we turn to the
prison-industrial-complex to punish the criminal.
• Despite both domestic and international outcries,
many U.S. states continue to practice the death penalty,
an ancient punishment that wastes tax dollars, does not
lower the crime rate, often kills innocent people, and
teaches citizens to accept brutality as a daily part of what
governments do.
• Amounting to over $20 billion per year, the Drug
War fueling the prison-industrial-complex wastes tax
dollars, does not lower usage rates, leads to militarized
police forces, clogs prisons and courts with non-violent
offenders, and disproportionately incarcerates people of
color, thus supporting the widespread assumption that
the prison-industrial-complex is a racist machine.
– Figures from The Bureau of Justice Statistics, Probation
and Parole in the U.S., 2002 (Washington, DC: U.S.
Department of Justice, 2003), 1 and The Bureau of Justice
Statistics, Prevalence of Imprisonment in the U.S., 1974-
2001 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 2003),
1; for overviews of the problem see Joel Dyer, The Perpetual
Prisoner Machine (Boulder: Westview, 2000) and
Christian Parenti, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons
in The Age of Crisis (New York: Verso, 1999).
– On California’s dilemma see “Education Not Incarceration,”
a report by The Education not Incarceration
Coalition available on-line at; in general,
see the documents collected as Reconstructing the Schoolto-
Prison Pipeline, including papers from a May 2003
conference hosted by The Civil Rights Project of Harvard
University and The Northeastern University Institute on
Race and Justice.
– See Paul von Zielbauer, “Report on State Prisons
Cites Inmates’ Mental Illness,” New York Times (22 October
2003): A25, and the four-part series of exposes by Mike
Ward and Bill Bishop, entitled “Sick in Secret: The Hidden
World of Prison Health Care,” The Austin American-
Statesman (16, 17, 18, and 19 December 2001), available
on-line at reports.
– For a quick overview of these issues see Stephen
Hartnett, “Important Death Penalty Information,” Broken
Chains (Summer 2001), 14-15; for a guide to the best
information on the subject see Kate Klehr, “Want More
Death Penalty Information?”, Ibid., 16, both available online
at (see vol. 17).

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