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What is the Prison Industrial Complex?

The Prison Industrial Complex is what the title suggests: A complex issue. Read a broken-down explanation of the PIC and an overview of its effects.

An Overview:

In the United States, it is clear that there are many injustices within our criminal justice system. The Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) is one of the main systems in our country that perpetuates these injustices. According to Critical Resistance, an international movement aiming to bring an end to the PIC, “The prison industrial complex 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.” The PIC, not just the prisons themselves or incarceration, is an interlocking web of many different systems that assure the powerful will stay in power.

Some of these systems include prisons, the bail system, the police, courts, and more. Mass media helps to depict a large variety of oppressed peoples (people of color, poor people, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, youth) as criminals or people who need to be stopped. Private prison companies rake in huge profits for incarcerating people and politicians garner support for being “tough on crime.” All of these people and companies profit greatly from incarcerating, transporting, feeding and exploiting prisoners.

Issue #1: Private Prisons

Private prisons are a large component of the PIC and possibly the most problematic. Essentially, private prisons hold inmates according to contracts with the government and receive profits based on how many inmates they can hold and for the average length of inmate sentences. Private Prisons make more profit with more inmates, so instead of working with the goal of rehabilitating people and returning them to society, they work with the goal of keeping as many inmates incarcerated for as long as possible. This then contributes to the cycle of over-policing and longer sentences.

“Incentivized by the need to keep jail cells full and the pockets of company executives even fuller, privatized prisons thrive off of the mass incarceration of individuals, both guilty and innocent,” said Cynthia Yue, a writer from the Equal Justice Under Law nonprofit in an article discussing how companies are exploiting the incarceration of individuals in order to increase profits.

When the role of the government is handed over to private companies, it is no longer about helping the people in prison, it is about profits and gain. Safety precautions have been overlooked, guards are not properly trained and the bail system has been privatized. The PIC is a vicious cycle of mistreatment, injustice and profit. As stated by Angela Davis, “Mass imprisonment generates profits as it devours social wealth, and thus it tends to reproduce the very conditions that lead people to prison.”

The private prison system not only profits off of locking people up, but also are not even required to disclose how they spend their money, have very little oversight and are often filled with inhumane treatment and prison labor.

Issue #2: Prison Labor

Prison labor has been around ever since slavery was supposedly abolished with the 13th Amendment being added to the Constitution in 1865. Before and during the Civil War, the U.S. economy became dependent on slave labor, especially in agricultural areas in the South. Once enslaved men and women were freed, the South no longer had an unlimited labor pool which led to an economic downturn. When the 13th Amendment was added to the Constitution, it stated that slave labor was illegal, except as punishment for a crime. This loophole, paired with the economic depression in southern states led to the creation of “Black Codes,” mass incarceration and prison labor. “Black Codes” were laws that specifically targeted people of color in order to criminalize and incarcerate them. These people were then forced to do slave labor while in prison. Because of that loophole in the 13th Amendment, prisons are allowed to force their inmates to do hard manual labor with little to no pay for large corporations. Even today in our country, prison labor contributes to a large part of our economy.

In a segment of NPR, host Darius Rafieyan describes how many large companies take advantage of prison labor: “Companies like Walmart, AT&T, Whole Foods, Victoria's Secret have all relied on the labor of incarcerated people. And right now there are people in prisons all over the country working for little to no money, making hand sanitizer and face masks to help fight COVID-19.”

Later in the same segment, another host explains that it's difficult to know exactly how large the prison labor industry is, because the last nationwide census of prisons was conducted in 2005. The host said that in 2005, “... it was estimated that there were nearly 1.5 million incarcerated people working, and that included 600,000 people in the manufacturing sector. At the time, that was more than 4% of all manufacturing jobs in the country.” Since then, it has been left up to the state legislators and the prisons themselves to regulate prison labor.

Empty Cages Collective, an organization dedicated to sharing information about the PIC and prison abolition, asserts that, “The prison industrial complex has effectively created a whole new industry to make the rich richer and profit from the caging of human beings.”

The Bottom Line:

The Prison Industrial Complex exploits incarcerated people on a daily basis. Private prisons not only make a profit just from holding incarcerated people, but can also force those people to partake in prison labor due to a loophole in the 13th Amendment. Our criminal justice system is riddled with injustice, but the PIC creates and upholds some of the most inhumane and unjust systems.


Constitutional Rights Foundation -

Federal Bureau of Prisons -

Malta Justice Initiative -

Are Prisons Obsolete? - Angela Davis

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