Cliff’s Notes from the Prison-Industrial Complex 101 Teach-In


Last night, Students Against the Prison-Industrial Complex (SAPIC) held a teach-in in Leung Gallery to “discuss the history of these institutions [the prison system and the prison-industrial complex (PIC)], their modern manifestations, and potential futures.”

When Brown and its student body presents opportunities to further our education outside the classroom, in ways perhaps more important, we’ve gotta hop on them. Thus, the PIC teach-in was one of those opportunities, opening students’ eyes wider about injustice in the justice system, the patterns it presents and perpetuates, and, most shockingly, how Brown and its corporation plays into that.

If you couldn’t make the event, have no fear–we’ve got you covered with BlogDH’s Cliff’s Notes: an extensive yet abridged guide to what we all should and need to know.

What is the PIC?

  • As defined by Critical Resistance. Refers to the vast networks of institutions and systems that promote “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.”
  • Also a vehicle for perpetuating violence against marginalized people in society – including but not limited to the poor, youth, people of color, homosexual…

Who is SAPIC?

  • A group focused on changing the ways people speak about the PIC.
  • Acknowledge that the incarcerated are not present at the event and they are just Brown and RISD students.
  • Important to remember: Brown stole its land from native people during colonization and Brown’s funding goes back to slave money
    • Slave labor built most of the buildings on the Main Green.

What are prisons? What purpose do they serve? 

PIC history

  • Black codes post-Civil War
    • Vagrancy laws in nine southern states saying that every black man had to be employed at all times or would face arrest.
    • Convict laws in eight southern states saying that plantations could hire prisoners for little or no pay.
      • This is the precursor for convict leasing.
    • Overturned during the Reconstruction Era.
  • Jim Crow era
    • 1877
    • Lasted almost 100 years.
    • Begin to see the mass criminalization of black bodies.
    • New set of vagrancy laws (blacks convicted for minor offenses, such as “mischief”) and convict leasing (prisoners were contracted out as labor to the highest bidder).
  • Social attitudes shifted during WWII
    • In part due to hypocrisy of American attitudes toward the Nazis.
  • New discourse based on the foundation of race blind rhetoric
    • Draws on existing racial biases of black inferiority.
    • Examples: advertisements for McDonald’s using black families, using black models for domestic abuse prevention campaigns.
  • The War on Poverty
    • 1964, led to the distinction between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor.
    • Moynihan Report blamed the social pathologies of the poor on the overly generous relief by federal welfare.
  • The War on Drugs
    • 1971, declared by Nixon.
    • Explains our dropping crime rates but highest incarceration rate globally.
    • Zero tolerance policies came into being, such as the three strike law (after three convictions, one is sentenced to life without parole).
    • Maintained a language of race blindness.
    • The most racialized aspect was the difference between crack and power cocaine sentencing.
      • Crack was associated with black people, sensationalized by the media.
      • Crack was punished in a 100:1 ratio with cocaine.
      • Obama changed the ratio to 18:1, though destructive differences between the drugs has been largely disproven.
  • Racial bias–who will be arrested?
    • 1 in 9 of all men
    • 1 in 17 of white men
    • 1 in 3 of black men
    • 1 in 6 of Latino men
  • From 1980 to 2015, the prison population has grown from 350,000 to 2.5 million due to changes in law and policy, and not due to crime rates.

How prisons are profitable to government and private companies

We can’t understand the modern prison system without understanding the flows of money.

  • Creates jobs for prison officials and those building facilities.
  • “Insourcing” – companies such as UNICOR use prison labor to make everyday products
    • On average, prisoners make 93 cents an hour, and, at the lowest, 16 cents an hour.
  • The following companies use prison labor:
    • Starbucks, Nintendo, Victoria’s Secret, JC Penney, Sears, Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Eddie Bauer, Wendy’s, Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Fruit of the Loom, Motorola, Caterpiller, Sara Lee, Quaker Oats, Mary Kay, Microsoft
  • This system is similar to the convict leasing system used after the Emancipation Proclamation.
  • Private/for-profit prisons: prisoners are confined by a third party (private company) contracted by a government agency.
    • The government pays the facility a certain amount of money per day.
    • If beds aren’t filled, the states still have to pay the prison companies for the unused beds. This creates financial incentives for mass incarceration.

Immigrant detention

  • There are for-profit prisons only for illegal immigrants that house those convicted of “illegal reentry.”
    • These convictions have raised 183% since 2004 due to George W. Bush’s Operation Streamline.
  • An example of this is the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Rhode Island, where a man died from abuse and negligence in 2009.

Correction Corporation of America (CCA)

  • The largest private prison company in the US.
  • Currently under FBI investigation and facing numerous lawsuits for neglect and abuse of human rights.
  • However, CCA will run the next largest immigrant detention center.
  • What are the implications of the government simultaneously handing over the reigns of its newest detention center to CCA?
    • Shareholders in CCA include: Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and ING Investment Management among others.
    • Brown’s corporation board includes members from three of these companies: Morgan Stanley (Nancy Fuld Neff), CEO of Bank of America (Brian T. Moynihan), Goldman Sachs (Andrea Terzi Baum and Richard A. Freedman, as well as former president Ruth J. Simmons).
  • Where does this information position Brown in the PIC? 
    • Student responses: lack of transparency between corporation and student body is evident, investments occur for wealth attainment and not for political intent, it shouldn’t matter how neutral the intent of investment is if people are negatively affected by it.

Housing segregation and policing

  • Controlling and policing based on race and class becomes much easier when the populations live in the same area.
  • Redlining–when banks deny home loans and insurance to black people because of their race.
  • Policies
    • Broken windows policing–constant patrol and surveillance
    • Street-level racial profiling–e.g. stop and frisk
    • Municipal police departments have monthly quota systems

School-to-prison pipeline: What is it?

  • School suspensions for men of color (in particular) lead to arrests later in life.
  • Out of every 35 suspended students, 15 are black.
  • 40% of students expelled from US public schools each year are black.
    • This is a mirror image of the statistic that 40% of incarcerated people are black.
  • There are direct and indirect connections between school and prison. Architecturally, schools and prisons are often similar.

How are students disciplined?

  • Zero-tolerance policies in public schools impose severe punishment regardless of the circumstances of an infraction.
  • Annually there are 3 million suspensions in US schools.
  • There is a lack of due process once a student is expelled or suspended.
  • It is a juvenile (in)justice system.
  • No matter how affluent a neighborhood is, minorities are still targeted.

Criminality post-incarceration

  • In 11 states, one can never vote if he or she was once convicted. Creates second class citizens.
  • Only VT and ME hold no voting restrictions.


  • Stable housing is a prerequisite for fighting recidivism.
  • Corrections departments don’t address long term housing.
  • It is harder for ex-convicts to attain federally subsidized housing.
  • Many refuse to live next door to those with a criminal record.


  • Applications ask: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”
  • The “Ban the Box” movement was passed in RI.


  • Omnibus Crime Bill (1994) – 4 million incarcerated people were no longer eligible for Pell grants.
  • Common App
    • Asks applicants if they have been previously convicted. Brown uses the Common App.

Paradigms for addressing the PIC

  • Prison reform
    • Prisons are necessary to society
    • Found on liberal and conservative agendas
    • Focus on restructuring, not dismantling
    • Examples: better health care, separate female facilities
    • Problems with it: operates on the assumption that the broken system can be improved
    • “A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect” -a quote retweeted by Rihanna
  • Prison abolition
    • Has a goal of ending policing, imprisonment, and surveillance, and to instead come up with alternatives to create a society that no longer needs prisons to function
    • Focused on restructuring education, health care, housing, etc. outside of prison walls
    • A long term goal to work towards.

“[Prison] relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.” –Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?

Image via SAPIC.

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