Civilizations are remembered for the monuments they build, but what is seldom explored is the degree to which those monuments define and in some cases destroy the peoples that created them. The act of building monuments often necessitates the creation of interconnected groups and institutions: someone to feed and house the workers; someone to manage the flow of information and documents; someone to procure materials; someone else to transport them. These groups, united by interests and profit, are what we today call ‘industrial complexes’ and played a pivotal role in building complex and resource draining structures in two seemingly unrelated places: Easter Island, a tiny island famous for huge statues called ‘Moai’ and the United States of America the prison capital of the world.

 Easter Island is a small scrap of land about 2300 miles from Chile and 1300 miles from Polynesia’s Pitcairn Islands. Stone statues called ‘Moai’ are the island’s most popular attraction, 887 of which can be found scattered throughout the island. Moai average about 13 feet in height and 75 tons in weight, though there was one found under construction that would have been 70 feet in height and 270 tons if it had been completed. The growth in size over time suggests to authors like Jared Diamond, a kind of competition was under way. Though the Moai did not fulfill a practical purpose exactly, they did confer power and prestige on the builders and the financiers. The Moai represented high-ranking ancestors standing guard over the living protecting them from disease, famine and even war, but the dedication to their construction would have some unintended consequences. Construction of the Moai required vast resources and energy – lots of manpower, food, water, stone, wood and rope. Lots and lots of wood and rope, made from the 21 species of local trees, all of which were driven to extinction in the endless building sprees. Easter Island would become one of the most extreme cases of deforestation in history. Without a tree canopy, soil eroded, crops died and famine ensued. And what was the solution from the Easter Island elite? It was to build more Moai – each one a greater and greater hindrance to the original goal of security, each one contributing to the society’s ultimate collapse.1.

 In the 1820s, the state of Pennsylvania would begin construction on the nation’s most ambitious and expensive public building to date – a Moai of the American sort. It combined the philosophical, architectural and mechanical to achieve a goal that was both spiritual and practical. Its center was based on a design called the ‘panopticon’. It resembled the wheel with its spokes or even the sun with its rays. It allowed one man to observe many: to guide in their rehabilitation, redemption and reform. Like the Moai, the structure’s size and scale was intended to intimidate the onlooker – to imply something about the wrath of both God and man. This great monument was the Eastern State Penitentiary – the beginning of one of our most enduring and influential industrial complexes – the prison industrial complex.

 The term ‘industrial complex’ was popularized by President Eisenhower in his farewell address in January of 1961. In this televised speech, one of many he struggled with, he warned of a ‘conjunction of an immense military establishment and large arms industry” with the “potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power”2. What this ‘military industrial complex’ sought was a re-order of the normal national security hierarchy. Rather than policy leading to strategy that then determines operations and tactics, the military industrial complex pursued war profit and profitable wars.

The prison industrial complex operates in a similar way. In the same way that the military industrial complex concerns itself more with war than security, the prison industrial complex is primarily concerned with efficiency and profitability rather than the original goals of prisons – rehabilitation, reform or prevention. A discussion rooted primarily in reform, for example, might reallocate resources to community organizations, schools or even taxpayers’ pockets, but this is at odds with the goals of the industrial complex. What the industrial complex seeks is a co-dependent relationship with the government and the public – one that allows it to siphon public dollars for private gain, while doling out benefits to a growing number of people in the guise of jobs in some cases or public/private partnerships of one kind or another. This co-dependency contaminates the public mind, leading many to believe that the narrow interests of the industrial complex represent the broad interests of the public. The final result is collapse – the sacrifice of the original goal for the sake of the industrial complex.

 Co-Dependency with the prison industrial complex has many faces. In the old days it was very direct, with convict leasing programs which played a key – if not essential role in rebuilding the post Civil War South. In some cases, imprisoned former slaves worked on the same plantations from which they had been ‘freed’. In other cases they rebuilt state landmarks, like the Texas State Capital, that they had previously built as slaves. Prisoners in Georgia and Alabama paved the way to modernity. In Atlanta, GA they paved the first Peachtree Street. In Birmingham, they laid railroad tracks. The state of Tennessee went further than most, combining the grotesque and the economically efficient. They sold prison labor to mine coal. Then sold prison urine local tanneries for leather production. And when the prisoners could labor no more, their bodies were sold for ‘science’ at local university.

 The process is more sophisticated these days.

Today prisons are sometimes described as ‘warehouses for the poor’ – a kind of storage depot for folks unable to compete in our free market mecca -, but they are really like ‘big box retailers’ for entire communities. In the same way that a new Wal-Mart will affect local tax policy, attract some businesses and force others into bankruptcy, prisons are community ‘game-changers’. They create jobs – jobs that often pay higher wages with better benefits than the local average. In fact one out of every ten state workers, works for a prison3. They attract hotels intended to serve the families of inmates, gyms for guards, and restaurants for everyone. They also attract the kinds of subsidies that can get a politician elected in one year – or a number of years – then bankrupt the state in another. New York State even went so far as to use money intended for low-cost housing in the inner city to build prisons.  

 All of this means that free people rely prisons for a lot more than security and this dependency contaminates the public discourse and the public mind.

 The idea that prisons can incubate and intensify forces that are a threat to the public at large is not new or controversial. Many of the major mass movements of the last century – the Nazis, the Bolsheviks, Al Qaeda – crystallized in prisons. Hitler became a national hero and wrote Mein Kampf while incarcerated. Lenin and Trotsky met while they were both in exile having escaped from prison. Many of Al Qaeda’s first members– led by Ammon Zawihiri – met in an Egyptian prison.

 Prisoners also bore witness to some of the last century’s abuses: Solzhenitsan from the Gulag; Primo Levi from Auschwitz; Mandela from Robben Island; Dr. King from the city jail in Birmingham; Angela Davis from institutions in both New York and California. For good or ill the prisoner eventually rejoins ‘free society’ and brings his or her experiences with them then helps remake the world. In the era of mass incarceration this should trouble us.

 The reality of longer sentences, larger prisons and more inmates would lead one to believe that the goal of isolating the public from dangerous people and violent behavior is being accomplished, but that not so. Even in the era of mass incarceration people – some violent, many not – cycle in and out of prison affecting community norms. The aesthetic of prisoners becomes more commonplace – the sagging pants, prison tats. Prison terminology becomes popular in the streets – ‘fuck-boy’ is a good example. And gangs that originated in prisons – the Mexican mafia for one – come to dominate the streets.

 The middle and upper classes interact with prisons in a different way. Assuming they’re lucky enough not be taken hostage by escapees from a lax private prison, they might find themselves using products or services provided prisoners – telemarketing calls from MCI; shrink wrapped software from Microsoft; lingerie from Victoria Secret sewn by inmate labor. Even those who do not use these particular products and services will find their 401ks or pensions affected by the prison industrial complex. Private prison companies like CCA and GEO Group often get financial backing from larger corporations like American Express, All State, and Merrill Lynch. Prison lobbyists contribute billions at the state and federal level to politicians in both parties. They failed in their efforts to privatize the entire prison system of the state of Tennessee (turns out the Governor’s wife and the Speaker of the House, owned stock in the company vying for the contract), but succeeded in privatizing all of the prisons in South Florida4. Taxpayers even unwittingly participated in a prison bailout back in 2000, when CCA’s impending bankruptcy was thwarted by a series of government contracts to manage federal prisons5.

 The irony here is that prisons and prisoners come to shape the outside world, making it simultaneously less just and less free.

 There is a statistic that should give us pause – whether you consider yourself on the left or right; whether you’re tough on crime or not; whether you’re a bleeding heart or a hard ass. 95% of prisoners are released and re-enter society. 95%. So, the idea that prisons are a place separate from society at large is a delusion. This is a necessary delusion – a manufactured delusion – because if it did not exist: if we understood prison policy as an extension of social policy then we would realize that prisons without the prospect of rehabilitation are not prisons at all, but incubators of crime. And if as a matter of policy we are incubating crime, then the prison is not a symbol of security but of looming danger. This is collapse in our context. Not when the building comes crashing down, but when we build it higher and higher without any regard for its actual intent or implications.


Additional Reading:

‘The Prison Industrial Complex’ by Eric Schlosser, The Atlantic Monthly

“Are Prisons Obsolete?” by Angela Davis






  1. Collapse, Jared Diamond, pp.79-119 []
  2. ‘Ike’s Bluff, Evan Thomas, pp.3-4 []
  3. Inferno, by Robert Ferguson []
  4. America’s Prisons, p.32, Curtis Blakely []
  5. Prison Nation, p.144, Tara Herivel, Paul Wright []

I am a writer, filmmaker, and founder of Production Portal, Inc. an accounting and consulting firm specializing in film, tv and event management. I blog here about history, politics, and culture. I live in NJ and work in NY.

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