Why it Pays to Imprison: Interrogating the Prison-Industrial Complex

by Andrew Krinks (published in The Contributor, April 2010)

In a February 22nd special feature spotlighting nine new and innovative Nashville “Entrepreneurs of the Year” who show extraordinary promise in excelling their business in 2010, The City Paper celebrated the entrepreneurial expertise of the owner of Prisoner Transportation Services (PTS) of America, LLC, “a prisoner extradition company that transports inmates for state and local agencies.” Taking advantage of a key niche in the market, PTS is proving not only to possess “‘a lot of room for growth,’” but is even “recession-proof”—which, as the editors note, is surely the mark of “doing something right” in our current economic climate.

As any expert in free market economics knows, the key to successful entrepreneurialism lies less in being able to summon profit from scratch and more in identifying and narrowing in on those areas of the market-at-large that bear unique potential for profitability. In the case of PTS, the cue very well may have been taken from national politics, specifically the growing resentment at an ever-increasing influx of illegal immigrants coming across the U.S. border. Riding a ground swell originating most recently in the Bush administration, and seemingly continuing through the present one, the company’s owner is right to expect continued growth. As The City Paper explains, “Crackdowns against illegal immigration are helping to grow a new line of business for PTS—sending planes full of deportees back to their home countries and continents.”

In all honesty, it is not so difficult to understand why such business is celebrated, even held up as an exemplar of ideal entrepreneurialism. After all, who can deny the significance of a company that has somehow managed to increase its profit 13-fold in the span of a few short years—in a recession no less? And so, in one sense, there is no question that PTS is most definitely “doing something right.”

Unfortunately, though, in an economy such as ours, it is all too often the case that the mark of “doing something right” in terms of financial profit is precisely the mark of doing something wrong in terms of human life and its flourishing. Of course, such isn’t the case with every entrepreneurial endeavor, which is why it is important (if we hope to become better judges of what, exactly, constitutes “good” business) to ask better questions of a company than “did it increase its profits last year?” Indeed, we might even begin with a more thorough engagement with that that age-old question: what is the measure of success?

Of course, it is rare today to find such a question asked seriously, if at all. But this should be no surprise, for it is risky—dangerous, even—to call into question what philosopher Cornel West calls our “tacit assumptions and unarticulated presuppositions,” especially when doing so might very well jeopardize not only our business’ bank account, but the very systems whose purpose it is to maintain the profitability of such business in the first place. For while it is most definitely the nature of “good” business to take certain risks, it is most definitely not the nature of “good” business to take the risk of self-examination; institutions, by their very nature, are in the business of self-perpetuation at any cost, and self-perpetuation, by definition, excludes the asking of questions.

Therefore, in the spirit of what we might call truly “good” entrepreneurialism, let us endeavor to take our own risk. For it would be anything but risky to simply echo the praises of The City Paper toward what it considers to be an exemplar of successful entrepreneurialism. Likewise, it would be playing it just as safe to react in a demonizing, self-righteous, fire-and-brimstone posture toward the company at hand. Indeed, both responses allow narrow emotional impulses to eclipse the more important task of critical reflection. In moving beyond these rather mundane options, let us opt instead for a more thorough—and perhaps more difficult—examination of what exactly is going on beneath the surface-level of our perceptions when a company makes its profit off the imprisonment and deportation of human beings.

*     *     *

To start, it is important to acknowledge that companies like PTS don’t just originate from scratch. By no means the first to make a profit off the transportation of prisoners and the deportation of illegal immigrants, PTS (along with similar companies) is the grease that keeps what is often referred to as the “prison-industrial complex” running. The prison-industrial complex, loosely defined, is the multi-faceted network of companies and organizations that keep both state and local correctional facilities operating by offering their services on a for-profit basis. Existing independently from the state itself, companies that comprise the prison-industrial complex make their profit by doing the job of the government, only more efficiently and effectively, as an outside party. Since it is in the best interest of the state to get the job done well, it makes sense to outsource their work to for-profit businesses rather than taking on the burden of paying workers internally out of what seem to be constantly diminishing budgets. And just as in the equally omniscient “military-industrial complex”, there is serious profit to be made in a country like the United States where the annual military budget (upwards of $600 billion for 2010) and the number of incarcerated men and women (over 2 million in recent years—nearly 25% of the world’s inmates) far surpasses every other country on the globe.

Indeed, crime is good for business.

Now on one hand, it could be argued that contracting out the work of the prison system in this way—thereby resulting in the very creation and sustaining of the prison-industrial complex as we know it—is in the best interest of the economy as a whole: it creates jobs and allows various pocket niches to emerge in the marketplace, leading to more competition, which is the foundation of any capitalist system. And to be sure, in a recessed economy, the creation of jobs is crucial—not to mention jobs that appear to make our communities safer by punishing offenders of the law.

But there is another side to this coin which demands serious reflection.

To begin with, it is important to note that a system (i.e., the criminal-justice system) becomes an industry when its core elements—“justice”, “correction”, and, most importantly, human subjects—are transformed into commodities and goods. And in order for something to be conceived of as a commodity or good, it must first be reduced from whatever it was prior to a “raw material” to be used in the “free”, unrestrained exchange which takes place in the marketplace. Thus, when the criminal-justice system is transformed from a site of (supposed) “justice” and “correction” into a marketplace, men and women who have offended the law are transformed from subjects into objects—no longer primarily men and women, but the raw goods of industry and market. In this setup, prisoners of the state are identified not only by their assigned number, they are even identified, as raw materials, into those numbers and statistics which make up end-of-year business report sheets, thus existing as numbers (at least) twice over.

Thus, we might make the observation that the prison-industrial complex is in the business of transformation: the transformation of human subjects into raw materials; the transformation of crime into a site of profit-making; and the transformation of “justice”, “correction”, and prison itself into the realm of market and economic exchange. Of course, the prison-industrial complex might also purport itself as effecting transformation: the transformation of crime-committing individuals into “corrected” (non-crime-committing) individuals, creating jobs in the process; the transformation of society from a state of danger at the hands of criminals to a state of relative safety at their being locked away, creating profit in the process—in short, the harmless utilization of business and market for the purpose of transforming injustice into justice.

So which transformation is it? In order to ascertain, we must make another observation. When a person or thing undergoes transformation, they are fundamentally changed, made into someone or something new, seen in a whole new light. The question truly worth asking, however, is does the act of transformation increase or decrease the inherent dignity of the person or thing? Certainly, the prison-industrial complex and its network of businesses (like PTS) effects transformation—but, I would suggest, a dangerous sort of transformation: the transformation of persons, places and things into raw materials and expendable objects to be used in the making of profit. Indeed, without such minimizing acts of transformation, businesses within the prison-industrial complex would not only suffer, they would cease to exist, for the sustenance of the whole system depends upon it.

Now it would be a mistake here to paint in strokes so broad that the finer details of a complex system are overlooked. Indeed, it would be an even graver mistake to mirror the very diminishment I am here accusing the prison-industrial complex of by diminishing the very men and women who manage and operate such facilities. As St. Paul instructs, the problem is not so much flesh and blood, men and women; the real problem is those forces, those powers and principalities, those systems and institutions whose sole purpose is self-perpetuation and profit, whose “spirit” is such that it cannot apprehend the complex reality of human life.

So on one hand, it is appropriate to acknowledge that good things do often arise out of those institutions which make up the prison-industrial complex: rehabilitation, job-training, education, and so on. However, it would be a mistake to concede that such things comprise the heart and soul of the industry. On the contrary, the heart of the industry would cease its beating if its core mission was truly the rehabilitation of individuals, for the rehabilitation of individuals cannot exist in the same space as the systematic diminishment and reduction of individuals—which is precisely what keeps the wheels of the industry turning.

Indeed, if we can be certain of one thing, it is that the spirit which makes such rehabilitation possible is not the same spirit which makes its profit off the systematic diminishment and objectification of men and women. For authentic rehabilitation and restoration do not even compute to a system whose “bottom line” (increased profit) excludes the possibility of engaging its raw materials (prisoners) as dignified persons. Authentic rehabilitation is not the product of a system that can only operate as a diminishing force; authentic rehabilitation is a seed that subverts such systems. And the fact that such seeds are allowed access to such systems is, for me, a source of great hope: “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”

*     *     *

If it is true, as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger once said, that “language is the house of being,” then there is much to learn from looking to the ways in which language is used (or misused) in the lexicon of the prison-industrial complex. To follow Heidegger’s metaphor for a moment, it might be said that one can “be” in a “house” in one of two ways: either inhabiting it with full and serious attention—to its foundations, its architecture, learning to make of it not just a house, but a home—or with apathy, interested in little more than the mere fact of four walls and a roof, unable to take it seriously as a space that shapes and forms us. The former understands language as a gift to be handled with care, as all gifts are to be handled; the latter relates to language as it relates to all other objects: as a tool to be manipulated and discarded along the path to self-perpetuation.

The prison-industrial complex, more often than not, fits into the latter category. And there is a notable irony to the fact of their carelessness with language: as a system which claims to operate as an executer of “justice”, the prison-industrial complex is guilty of failing to take the word “justice” seriously enough. Not only does it exhibit a lack of imagination with words like “justice”, it follows suit with much of its core vocabulary. Allow me to explain.

To start, when it comes to a more authentic vision of “justice”, I find the prophets Amos and Jeremiah to be helpful guides. As they see it, one cannot be “righteous” (one who fosters justice, one who makes things right) before God if, on their way to the synagogue (or church, or mosque), they trample upon a poor beggar, or sell him in exchange for a pair of sandals (transforming a poor person into a raw material to be used for profit). Likewise, if one praises God for the gift of a beautiful home, with spacious halls and walls made of the finest wood, and yet pays his workers a wage so meager they could never live off it, then their praise is nothing more than what St. Paul might call “clanging cymbals” or “a resounding gong” in the ears of God.

We might then question what sort of system it is that claims to foster “justice” by means of the definitively unjust act of diminishing human persons into the raw materials of business. In short, the answer is: an unjust system. Too, we might even question the authenticity of “correction” if the means of correcting is only possible thanks to the sort of entrepreneurialism that thrives off higher crime rates and deportations. How just, how correcting, can a system be if it depends upon the transformation of men and women into raw materials, the transformation of subjects into objects?

Such a separation of ends and means effectively results in the breakdown of language: if we fail to take our language seriously enough, more and more of our language fails to pack any punch, to make any lasting difference; such language fails to make physically manifest the fullness of what we evoke with our words. The same effect can be seen in the lives of politicians: for many politicians, language is a tool to be used and discarded for the purpose of self-perpetuation. As a result, word and deed are separated, which results in all sorts of scandal.

So what we discover in the language of the prison system—as well as those businesses which make a profit off its smooth running—is that conceiving of “correction” or “justice” in these terms is to exhibit a failure of imagination. Now if “justice” is primarily achieved by way of retribution, of equalizing wrongdoing with equal wrongdoing (violence for violence, an eye for an eye), then the prison-industrial complex fosters justice. But I would argue that conceiving of justice or correction in these terms is to fail to envision something richer, more peculiar, and altogether more redeeming.

Thus, in a paradoxical twist, we discover that what really needs to be made right, to be corrected just as much as those men and women who have offended the law in very real and serious ways, is the very system which claims the execution of “justice” and “correction” as its own.

*     *     *

It has been said that “an enemy is someone whose story you have not heard.” If we hear an enemy’s story, chances are, they will cease to be our enemy. And since having an enemy to loathe and fear helps fuel much of what passes as politics in our world, it follows that there is not a whole lot of storytelling or listening going on. And indeed, it is a great deal easier to keep enemies rather than submit ourselves to the vulnerability of standing in someone else’s shoes for even a moment. To make ourselves vulnerable to the ways in which other people live, to the dark and messy complexity of their sometimes grievous histories and contexts (enemies, prisoners, “illegal aliens”, homeless individuals), is to submit ourselves to a death of sorts—the death of our “unarticulated presuppositions,” our limited worldviews, our solipsistic prejudices about the ways of the world.

In like manner to the quote above, Will Campbell says that anyone “who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.” The social, economic, spiritual, historical, and geographical factors that give rise to such things as crime (and tragedy) are such that a black-and-white system of retributive punishment—a form of “taking of sides”—will never be effective in either rehabilitating or restoring an individual. Since the factors which give rise to crime—and illegal immigration for that matter—are infinitely complex, it follows that our responses ought to be more complex, more nuanced, which means being vulnerable, flexible, and open to failure. Such may be foolishness to the world, and baffling to those systems which claim to execute justice, but it is the sort of foolishness so peculiar that it is in fact the very fullness of wisdom—a foolishness the world cannot do without.

In the end, it is important to recognize that human diminishment is the root of all violence. Whether the more explicit violence of crimes like assault or murder, or the more subtle violence of reducing complex individuals into flat, objective numbers or commodities, it all begins with the act of diminishment. Thus, when a person enters prison for a violent (or non-violent) crime, they are handed violence in return—not necessarily a violence as explicit as the kind they may be in prison for, but a more subtle, more systemic and insidious form of violence. Anywhere human beings are diminished, made invisible, their dignity rendered irrelevant or nonexistent, then, regardless of whether anyone has been inflicted with physical harm or not, violence has been done. It is for this reason that a “justice” system which operates on the basis of human diminishment can never actually be “just”, for true justice does not diminish human beings, no matter how “criminal” they may be. True justice restores, rehabilitates, and resurrects; true justice “makes things right” by remembering that all human beings are beloved—by re-membering those who have been dismembered from the rest of society.

So what does this wider vision of correction, this more authentic, more foolish (wise) model of justice look like? For starters, it begins with self-critical reflection. If I hope to adequately judge what makes for authentic justice, I have to begin with myself. For just like those who claim to execute justice but actually inhibit it, I too am guilty of a separation of word and deed, of ends and means. If I am willing to acknowledge my own unjust ways of being in the world, to examine, as well, what it is that gives rise to such behavior, I will also be willing to make myself vulnerable enough to acknowledge the reasons that cause others to inhibit justice, and to act mercifully in response. Because in reality, listening well is more important than speaking well, confession is more subversive than accusation, and allowing ourselves to be made vulnerable is more powerful than making ourselves strong.

Once we’ve acknowledged our complicity in the unjust systems of the world (when we “take sides” in situations in which it is, in reality, impossible to do so), it becomes more possible to treat those who work within systems such as the prison-industrial complex with greater dignity, realizing that it is not individuals but institutions that are the real perpetrators of injustice. Thus, in the end, it is a matter of either submitting to the inevitability of such systems and thus remaining complicit, or taking the risk of choosing another way.

As for those who have chosen another way, I am grateful to count many of them as friends. I am thinking of those who harbor enough foolishness to practice contemplative prayer with those men who sit on death row at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, those men who wait for their name to be called, their day of death to be determined. I am thinking of those who break bread and drink wine with those the state has condemned as criminals, untouchable, the ultimate sinners. I am thinking of those who are mad enough to think it a worthwhile use of time to spend countless hours advocating for those whose very presence within our borders is literally defined as “illegal”. I am thinking of those who have made it their vocation to create opportunities for education within a prison’s walls—education that dignifies and illuminates, and even subverts. They are the witnesses to a more imaginative manifestation of what is called justice, and I count them as those men and women faithful enough to hold such a small candle against such a mighty wind and an overwhelming darkness.

On a more personal level, when my wife and I sit in a circle reading poetry and talking about how language works with those of our friends who live within the walls of the Tennessee Prison for Women, we are not sitting with raw materials or even with “prisoners”—we are sitting with beautiful, complex, and intelligent women. When I sit at my desk to write a letter, when I open the mailbox and see the return address (name and prisoner number both), when I open the envelope and read what has been written—the poetry, the creative non-fiction—and receive the bright spark of human connection, I am not skimming my eyes over the invisible voice of a stranger, I am receiving the presence of a friend.

In the midst of these experiences—both my own and those of my peers—I have encountered a fascinating truth. When a person convicted of a crime enters prison, they are given a new name—their prisoner number, and by it they are theretofore identified. Likewise, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, when a person (convicted of sin) enters the kingdom, they are also given a new name (Jacob/Israel, Simon/Peter, Saul/Paul, for example). In the kingdom, a new name is a sign of belovedness; in prison, however, a new name is a sign of nothingness. One gives life, the other takes it a way; one illuminates, the other diminishes. The wisdom of those who visit people in prison is that they possess the foolishness by which to proclaim a deeper truth within a context that does not know what to do with such truth: the truth that each man and woman behind those prison walls is not primarily a number, a “criminal”, or a raw material, but a name, a face, and a beloved child of God.

*     *     *

To bring our discussion of PTS and the nature of the prison-industrial complex full circle, let us make a few final observations. First, let us say that an entrepreneur is a person of faith. Possessing the willingness to risk personal wellbeing and security by stepping out into the unknown (starting or purchasing a company that could very well fail, for instance), an entrepreneur leaps through the darkest corners of the marketplace knowing that outcomes are never quite predictable. And yet, because, in a certain sense, they “hope in things not seen,” entrepreneurs are willing to take the risk anyway.

Let us say, also, to channel the German theologian and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that there is not one, but at least two kinds of faith: “cheap” faith and “costly” faith. Cheap faith is the sort of faith understood within the parameters of personal reward: how will my risk-taking benefit me? What is the payoff? Costly faith, on the other hand, is concerned less with what personal reward lies on the other side of our risk-taking, and more with how our risk-taking brings life to others—even if it costs us our own life. Cheap faith asks what’s in it for me? Costly faith knows better than to ask such a question (because the answer could very well be death) and chooses instead to ask what’s in it for others?

Thus, it is high time, once again, to ask: what is the measure of success? If our answer is summed up with the question “did they increase their profits last year?”, then our measure of success is not only inadequate, it lacks imagination.

Truly good entrepreneurialism, truly good business, contrary to popular belief, is not mutually exclusive with the fostering of human flourishing in all sorts of places, or even with good profit and financial growth. But at the same time, good profit and financial growth is all for naught if it doesn’t submit itself to something outside itself, namely others, especially those on the margins of society.

Therefore, let those whose expertise is in money and markets and business leap into the unknown; let them take risks, let them have faith in what is not yet seen. But—in the name of God—let it be faith that is not cheap but costly. Though it flies in the face of what is called “success” by the rest of the world, it is my conviction that history will indeed prove it to be successful, though a different, more foolish sort of success. Indeed, such “success” is not without its own reward, for the reward lies precisely in the moment when prisoners of the state and “illegal” aliens cease to become objects and raw materials, and are transformed once again into men and women, into individuals with stories to tell—if only we come close enough to listen.

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