Important to undergraduate courses in sociology, as well as more interdisciplinary courses like Area Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Women’s and Gender studies, is that students demonstrate an ability to recognize how historical material relations shape their present and future biographies, or as C. Wright Mills is oft quoted: “[to] grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society.”
In my Southern Studies course, I recently took this approach in teaching my students about the historical and contemporary formations of crime and punishment in the American South. Specifically, I focused on what Angela Davis and others have referred to as the Prison-Industrial Complex (PIC): the bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment in the U.S. and abroad even in the absence of need. Because this is a Southern Studies course, I focused specifically on how the South, as a geo-political space, has come to define, and be defined by, the formation of the PIC.
I start by examining the trends of crime and punishment over the last several decades. Students seem surprised to learn that, according to violent crime statistics kept by the FBI, the rate of violent crime has decreased dramatically since 1991, by about 20%. They were even more surprised to learn that despite this, the number of people in prison or jail has risen by almost 50% in that same time period.
This graph takes a historical view at imprisonment:
In looking at the graph, I ask my students to think about some possible explanations in the sharp increase in imprisonment following 1972. Did we simply become a more violent society? After giving them some brief context regarding the American public opinion on imprisonment in the 1960s, and how this changed dramatically following Nelson Rockefeller’s State of the State address in 1973, we begin to trace this sudden increase in imprisonment to more strict drug laws, including the return of mandatory minimum sentencing in 1986.
But in addition to imprisonment, we also looked at the corrections system as a whole, and how it has changed in just over three decades:
Not only are there more people in prison and jails, but there are also more people on parole and on probation. When you add those figures up, we have well over seven million Americans that are being monitored by the U.S. correctional system. For my Southern Studies students, I explained to them that this is more than the 2010 total populations of Mississippi and Arkansas, combined. Here, I asked my students whether these numbers imply that our criminal justice system is working effectively, since we are locking up more people than ever before. I then ask them how they think this compares to other nations around the world, both developed and developing. Many of them were surprised to see the following illustration:
With just under 5% of the world’s total population, the United States is home to 25% of the world’s total population of prisoners. The 2.3 million people we have behind bars, not counting those on parole and probation, is the highest overall number anywhere in the world, including China, which has a population roughly four times that of the United States. I then ask them to think about how China has been portrayed within U.S. media as a totalitarian state where freedom is restricted, and what a graph like this says about the restriction of freedom here in the United States.
I used the above information largely to set the tone for this class. Next, I segued into how it relates to the American South with this map:
Purple states reflect the highest growth of prisoners from 2006 to 2008. Green states had the 2nd highest rates of growth, and blue states had the lowest rates of growth. Many students have expressed in previous classes a sense of lawlessness and crime among the Northern states, particularly in urban regions. Yet, they were surprised to learn that the states with the sharpest increases in imprisonment during this time period were not states like California or New York, but instead states in the Delta and Cotton Belt regions of the United States.
When examining incarceration rates per 100,000 residents, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama all have rates that not only top the U.S., but are also higher per capita than both Russia and China. I asked my students to think about whether this is a reflection of the American South.
Next, we moved into another issue related to the Prison-Industrial Complex – felony disenfranchisement. Demonstrating that what constitutes a felony ranges from drug possession and distribution on one end, and violent crime like murder and sexual assault on the other end, I ask my students whether they think permanent or long-term disenfranchisement is an appropriate form of punishment for these types of crimes. I ask them to consider a felony DUI as a potentially disenfranchising incident, and whether they know of anyone who has been charged recently with one. Given that it’s a college classroom, it did not surprise me that many of them knew of friends or acquaintances that had been charged with driving under the influence.
Though the laws on how convicted felons can petition for their right to vote once released vary from state to state, when we map the variations of these laws, we see that the states that are most restrictive with regard to granting the right to vote to former felons are predominantly concentrated in the South, specifically in the Delta, Cotton Belt, and Appalachia regions:
From here, I build into the raced (and classed) components of felony disenfranchisement laws:
With Black men nearly six times as likely, and Hispanic men nearly three times as likely, to spend time in prison during their lifetimes as White men, and the vast majority of inmates coming from working poor and working class backgrounds, I ask my students how they think this impacts representational democracy in the United States over time. With trends like these, whose interests are most likely to be represented in the next twenty to twenty-five years in both local, state, and national politics?
To drive this point home even further, I showed my students this map:
Comparing disenfranchisement rates from 1980 to 2010, using U.S. census data, we see that while in 1980 states like Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama had rates of felon disenfranchisement up to 5%, by 2010 these rates had nearly doubled in Mississippi and Alabama, and in Florida exceeded 10% of the eligible voting population. In Mississippi, the African-American population exceeds 30%. Yet, when rates of incarceration for both Black men and women exceed those of White men and women many times over, and many of their convictions are felonies concentrated in drug possession and distribution, it becomes clear how these laws function to prevent large blocks of racial and ethnic groups from being able to effectively participate in the democratic process.
Finally, I turn to the increasing trend of prison privatization within the United States. It is no secret that, since the 1970s, prison construction and outsourcing has generated enormous revenues for large corporations, such as Corrections Corporation of America ($16B in revenue in 2008). I asked my students how they think this is impacting the South, economically and politically. Then, I showed them this map:
This is what happens when you map poverty over prison population growth. The red circled areas reflect those regions in the United States where prison growth and poverty rates are increasing most rapidly.
Because many of my students are from these regions, or near these regions, they are familiar with the slow decline, or disappearance, of previous economic anchors, like mining, agriculture, dairy farms, and manufacturing. Combined with the fact that these areas have very low per capita incomes among households, it creates an economic opportunity for prison corporations looking to expand. Depressed values in real estate, combined with high rates of unemployment, not only make these attractive areas to build and maintain a prison, but they also become selling points to local and state politicians and special interest groups looking to see even a marginal increase in economic activity. It is true that these prisons provide wages, an increase in local services bought, year round employment opportunities. Some even provide health care benefits and a pension. Further, prisons, unlike most other industries, are recession proof. In fact, they are one of the few industries that actually expand during economic downturns.
But when the driving force behind a prison is profit, what costs are associated with the above “benefits”? First, in looking to increase profit margins these companies are more likely to build their facilities using cheap materials, and cheap or free labor in the form of prisoners. Because of this, facility upkeep and improvement is largely placed at the feet of the prison population, and many of these facilities are quickly becoming run-down.
Second, these facilities are increasingly being staffed by untrained, or undertrained, personnel. Training requires more overhead, and when your goal is produce a profit, it is more likely that you will provide the minimum training necessary to meet state and federal standards, rather than the appropriate training necessary to meet civil and human rights laws.
Finally, I asked my students to consider this…if you’re running a for-profit prison business model, what is the one thing you need to have in order to grow as a business? (Answer: Prisoners). I then asked them what are some ways that large corporations like CCA can increase their prisoner population, or retain their current population? (Answers: lobbying for stricter prison sentences, not offering rehabilitative programming, depressing other economic activities in a region by building prisons).
Do you find this useful in demonstrating the Prison-Industrial Complex? What else could be included? What needs improvement or clarification?