CI: Some Thoughts on Language and “Industrial Complexes”

July 02, 2014 at 5:29 pm by: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Economic Terrorism, Education, Intersectionality, Military Industrial Complex, Prison Industrial Complex

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Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

Some Thoughts on Language and “Industrial Complexes”*
by nancy a heitzeg

I write a lot about the prison industrial complex. And I think a lot too about the power of language, of naming and claiming and all that entails. Recent conversations and observations have led to questions about the proliferation of “industrial complex” as attached to nearly everything. Savior (mostly White) Industrial Complex. Ally Industrial Complex. Academic Industrial Complex. And yesterday, i saw this: Anti-Aging Industrial Complex. In some ways, this usage makes perfect sense. These  “complexes” do exist.  There is a Non-Profit Industrial Complex, an Athletic Industrial Complex, and a Medical Industrial Complex too — a term I have often used myself.

Since we live in a society thoroughly dominated by the multi-national capitalist corporation ( the Supreme Court of the United States will not let you forget!), I suppose at some point it might be fair to make the claim that the entire damn deal is an “industrial complex” of some sort or another. An interdependent, interlocking mess of political and economic interests. Self-reinforcing. Self-perpetuating. Forever and Ever. Amen.

But if  we call everything  “an industrial complex”, then what does that mean for those devoted to the critique and abolition of the prison industrial complex and its’ counter-part the military industrial complex? Does overuse trivialize the deadly meaning? Obscure the scope of this peculiar power over life? And death?

The original reference comes in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s last speech to the nation as President in 1960. In it, he warned of the rise of a new permanent armaments industry: “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.”  He warned of unwarranted influence and the immense sway of money. And as we have seen, when economic and political interests depend on and profit from War, then there will never be Peace.

It is this arrangement that Angela Davis references in her exposition of the prison industrial complex. There are many discussions and definitions of this term (see Critical Resistance or Brewer and Heitzeg) but her first remains the best:

 Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex, Angela Davis, Colorlines, 1998

Imprisonment has become the response of first resort to far too many of the social problems that burden people who are ensconced in poverty. These problems often are veiled by being conveniently grouped together under the category “crime” and by the automatic attribution of criminal behavior to people of color. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.

picPrisons thus perform a feat of magic. Or rather the people who continually vote in new prison bonds and tacitly assent to a proliferating network of prisons and jails have been tricked into believing in the magic of imprisonment. But prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings. And the practice of disappearing vast numbers of people from poor, immigrant, and racially marginalized communities has literally become big business.

The seeming effortlessness of magic always conceals an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes work. When prisons disappear human beings in order to convey the illusion of solving social problems, penal infrastructures must be created to accommodate a rapidly swelling population of caged people. Goods and services must be provided to keep imprisoned populations alive. Sometimes these populations must be kept busy and at other times — particularly in repressive super-maximum prisons and in INS detention centers — they must be deprived of virtually all meaningful activity. Vast numbers of handcuffed and shackled people are moved across state borders as they are transferred from one state or federal prison to another.

All this work, which used to be the primary province of government, is now also performed by private corporations, whose links to government in the field of what is euphemistically called “corrections” resonate dangerously with the military industrial complex. The dividends that accrue from investment in the punishment industry, like those that accrue from investment in weapons production, only amount to social destruction. Taking into account the structural similarities and profitability of business-government linkages in the realms of military production and public punishment, the expanding penal system can now be characterized as a “prison industrial complex.”

The connections between the military industrial complex and the prison industrial complex are not a matter of metaphor. They are literal connections that have only increased in the days since this was written,  as inmates produce military equipment and the military in turn provides surplus of the same to state and local law enforcement. And more. Central to both of these industrial complexes is  profiteering from sheer pain alone, from killing and caging, that as Davis notes “only amount to social destruction.”

And so, a reminder. While other “industrial complexes” may well exist and may even serve to buttress the mic and pic, the comparison is a pale one, and perhaps too masks the unmitigated monstrosity of this machinery. And the urgent need for Abolition.

* The opinions expressed in this piece are mine and do not necessarily represent those of my co-editor or CMP.

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg moderator


The prison industrial complex (PIC) is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.

Through its reach and impact, the PIC helps and maintains the authority of people who get their power through racial, economic and other privileges. There are many ways this power is collected and maintained through the PIC, including creating mass media images that keep alive stereotypes of people of color, poor people, queer people, immigrants, youth, and other oppressed communities as criminal, delinquent, or deviant. This power is also maintained by earning huge profits for private companies that deal with prisons and police forces; helping earn political gains for “tough on crime” politicians; increasing the influence of prison guard and police unions; and eliminating social and political dissent by oppressed communities that make demands for self-determination and reorganization of power in the US.

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg moderator

The Racialization of Crime and Punishment: Criminal Justice, Color-Blind Racism, and the Political Economy of the Prison Industrial Complex Brewer and Heitzeg (2008):

“The prison industrial complex is a self-perpetuating machine where the vast profits (e.g. cheap labor, private and public supply and construction contracts, job creation, continued media profits from exaggerated crime reporting and crime/punishment as entertainment) and perceived political benefits (e.g. reduced unemployment rates, “get tough on crime” and public safety rhetoric, funding increases for police, and criminal justice system agencies and professionals) lead to policies that are additionally designed to insure an endless supply of “clients” for the criminal justice system (e.g. enhanced police presence in poor neighborhoods and communities of color; racial profiling; decreased funding for public education combined with zero-tolerance policies and increased rates of expulsion for students of color; increased rates of adult certification for juvenile offenders; mandatory minimum and “three-strikes” sentencing; draconian conditions of incarceration and a reduction of prison services that contribute to the likelihood of “recidivism”; “collateral consequences”-such as felony disenfranchisement, prohibitions on welfare receipt, public housing, gun ownership, voting and political participation, employment- that nearly guarantee continued participation in “crime” and return to the prison industrial complex following initial release.)”