Incarceration in the United States is big business. There are now 130 private prisons in this country, with a total of 157,000 beds. The expansion of the U.S. inmate population to the political influence of private prison companies and businesses that supply goods and services to government prison agencies is the topic of the latest book by James Peterson.
In his latest work, Prison Industrial Complex for Beginners, Peterson has created a graphic narrative that attempts to refine and condense the fundamental components of what scholars, activists and artists have identified as the mass incarceration movement in the United States. It is a primer for how these issues emerged and how a nation’s awareness of the systems at work in mass incarceration might be the very first step in reforming an institution responsible for some of society’s most egregious civil rights violations.
“There are a lot of scholars who have done in-depth histories that inform the current state of affairs with prisons in America, but I wanted to go back further into the history and talk about how certain elements of the Prison Industrial Complex are still present,” says Peterson, associate professor of English and director of Africana Studies. “Even in transatlantic slavery, even before middle passage, before slave barracoons, you see it. I wanted people to think about how early prison structures are predicates for the structures of the system. This is a historically deep-seated institution, and if we want to reform it or abolish it, we need to understand it.”
Since the early 1990s, activist critics of the U.S. prison system have marked its emergence as a “complex” in a manner comparable to how President Eisenhower described the Military Industrial Complex. Peterson argues that, like its institutional “cousin,” the Prison Industrial Complex features a critical combination of political ideology, far-reaching federal policy and the neo-liberal directive to privatize institutions traditionally within the purview of the government. The result is that corporations have capital incentives to capture and contain human bodies.
The Prison Industrial Complex relies on the “law and order” ideology stimulated by President Richard Nixon and developed at least partially in response to the unrest generated through the Civil Rights Movement, says Peterson. It is, and has been, enriched and bolstered by the United States’ “war on drugs,” a slate of policies that have failed to do anything except normalize the warehousing of nonviolent substance abusers in jails and prisons that serve more as criminal training centers than as redemptive spaces for citizens who might re-enter society successfully.
“There are many private interests vested in incarcerating people,” he says. “When you ask yourself why we incarcerate more of our citizens than any other country in the world, that’s one of the answers we have to reckon with—that people profit from it.”
“We need a radical reordering of how we think about prison systems and how we think about people in the criminal justice system, how we think about how we deal with people with substance abuse problems versus people who are violently criminal. For me, the only way to think clearly about reform or abolishing the system is to understand the deeper history.”