From the mid-1960s to the late 2000s, the number of people locked up in US prisons or jails, or forced onto parole or probation, increased from less than 800,000 to more than seven million. For decades now, this system of “mass incarceration” has aggressively targeted the poorest members of the working class, and one cumulative effect is that, at present, more than 20% of the US population has some kind of criminal record.

In order to make sense of this historically unprecedented rise, one must understand mass incarceration, as well as the “alternatives to incarceration” that have proliferated in recent years with bipartisan support, as mechanisms of bourgeois control that work to contain, stigmatize, and exploit immiserated and recalcitrant workers.

The political economy of mass incarceration

It is no coincidence that the punitive turn began as the working class was becoming increasingly militant in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. As urban rebellions took place throughout the country, the state responded with mass arrests.

In the wake of these rebellions, Byron Engle, the head of the Office of Public Safety, the US’s international police training program, testified before the Kerner Commission. “In working with the police in various countries,” he said, “we have acquired a great deal of experience in dealing with violence ranging from demonstrations and riots to guerilla warfare. Much of this experience may be useful in the US.” The Kerner Commission concluded that quashing urban militancy would require police “training, planning, adequate intelligence systems, and knowledge of the ghetto community.” Stop-and-frisk policing, SWAT raids, and Supermax prisons were all implemented around this time to repress insurgent groups such as the Black Panthers.

As Ruth Wilson Gilmore has argued, this law-and-order crackdown also had an important ideological effect: treating political militants as criminals framed the urban crisis as an individualized, moral problem. At the time, black leaders like A. Philip Randolph and Coretta Scott King were fighting for social democratic policies to remedy issues of drug addiction, poverty, and underemployment. But these groups were marginalized, and law-and-order was advanced as a more cost-effective and ideologically acceptable response to the socio-economic crisis.

In the late ‘70s, the economy suffered from stagflation, and Paul Volcker, head of the Federal Reserve, concluded that “The American standard of living must decline.” With the “Volcker Shock”, interest rates skyrocketed, along with rates of unemployment and small business failure, and the profit rates for large corporations was restored. In 1970, Nixon considered a similar monetary policy. However, as Robert Brenner has written, “the political costs of sustaining a serious anti-inflationary policy … quickly proved unacceptable.” Given the intensity of social protest taking place in 1970, this hesitancy makes sense — to manufacture an economic crises would have risked fanning the flames of leftist militancy.

However, a decade later, with radical groups decimated by state repression, the gambit was able to succeed. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, tropes such as “welfare queens”, “crack babies” and “superpredators” legitimated efforts to eviscerate the welfare state and treat urban poverty as a problem of black criminality.

As John Clegg and Adaner Usmani have shown, despite the racial overtones of the law-and-order discourse, “an absolute majority of African-American [congressional] representatives voted in favor of each of the major federal crime bills” of the past half-century. As black politicians increasingly took over the political machinery of large urban cities, Touré Reed reminds us that they were “pressured not just by the federal government, but by black constituencies in high-crime neighborhoods in cities rocked by deindustrialization.”

Political support for mass incarceration must also seen in its economic context. As Cedric Johnson writes, “aggressive policing is central to urban real-estate development and the tourism-entertainment sector growth, both of which serve as central economic drivers in the contemporary landscape.” At the same time, prisons became a “growth industry” in rural areas desperate to compensate for declines in farming, mining, manufacturing, and timber-work: between 1980 and 2002, 350 rural counties acquired new prisons.

We can see, then, that the prison-industrial complex is about more than private prisons and prison labor (both multi-billion dollar industries): it also includes the urban commercial districts that rely on police to keep poor people away, rural governments who rely on prisons for jobs and revenue, the companies that sell goods and services to prisons, prison guards’ lobbies, etc.

At the same time, capitalists benefit more indirectly from the ways that punitive policies discipline the working class, and function as a form of “extra-economic coercion in the workplace.” Consider the day-labor industry, which has become “a ubiquitous presence in poor, predominantly urban communities across the country.” As Gretchen Purser has noted, day labor companies heavily recruit among formerly incarcerated workers, often partnering directly with parole officers, as well as “re-entry” and social service organizations. Formerly incarcerated workers are not merely “excluded” from the economy; rather, they are relegated to “its bottom-most segments in what has recently been referred to as the ‘gloves-off economy’, where jobs are precarious, working conditions are perilous, violations of labor laws are pervasive, and wages are paltry.”

“When the prison is everywhere”

In the past decade, mass incarceration has come under increasing attack. Politicians and organizations on the left and the right — from prison abolitionists and families of the incarcerated to the Koch Brothers and The Economist — have decried the system’s various flaws: its racial injustice, its inhumanity, its costliness, etc. After the fiscal crisis that resulted from the Great Recession of 2008, 33 states implemented policies to reduce their prison populations.

As prison and jail admissions have decreased around 25% from their late-2000s peak, private prison companies have begun to invest heavily in “alternatives to incarceration”, such as probation facilities and GPS monitoring (a form of control which has increased 70% in the past twenty years and has become a $6 billion industry). These “alternatives” are presented as more humane, and cheaper, ways of managing criminalized populations. However, as the Moratorium on Deportations Campaign notes, these “alternatives” are linked “to a much broader process of expanding, informationalizing, and generalizing the prison … When the prison is everywhere, it is also invisible as the new form of social reality.”

As Bernard Harcourt has written, contemporary rates of incarceration match rates of institutionalization for “mentally ill” people in the 1930s through the ‘50s. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, largely as a result of shifts in federal funding and the political pressure waged by the anti-asylum movement, mental hospitals were emptied, and patients were shifted to community centers. When Reagan took office, he slashed funds to these centers, and many former patients became homeless, and were thus prime targets of mass incarceration. “There is a significant risk,” Harcourt concludes, “that any decarceration will simply produce new populations for other institutions, whether homeless shelters, inpatient treatment facilities, or other locked-down facilities. This is certainly what happened last time.”

When the modern prison emerged it also was presented as a humanitarian reform — to the system of corporal punishment. The danger for activists is that the prison reform movement will either be stalled and mass incarceration will continue untrammelled, or that co-opted reforms will only breed updated forms of bourgeois control. To avoid these twin dangers, efforts to resist the carceral system must coalesce with a broader socialist struggle for a more equitable distribution of resources and political power.

Mark Jay is the co-author, with Philip Conklin, of Marx in Detroit: A Radical History of the Motor City (Duke, forthcoming).

To read more, see: Mark Jay, “Cages and Crises: A Marxist Analysis of Mass Incarceration” in Historical Materialism, 2019.

Image: Kenny Karpov (with permission)