These decisions, however, are just two strands in the vast web that comprises what we might call the Prison-Industrial Complex, a social institution responsible for the fact that the United States, while making up around 5 percent of the world’s population, is home to almost 25 percent of its prisoners.
In the United States, the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime.” This means that it is constitutional to force prisoners to work against their will, which is exactly what happens in many prisons.
Black Americans in the late 19th century had their freedoms harshly restricted by the “Black codes” in the southern United States, which created heavy fines for trivial offenses like “vagrancy” and forced black men into penal labor.
The modern prison-industrial complex truly blossomed, however, with Richard Nixon and the “War on Drugs.” It’s not mere conjecture that black people were specifically targeted by the “War on Drugs." Take it from Nixon’s Assistant for Domestic Affairs, John Ehrlichman, who said:
"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities, we could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."
The “War on Drugs” under Nixon would be expanded further under the Reagan and Clinton administrations with their “tough-on-crime” policies and mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
These sentences tend to disproportionately affect the poor and people of color. For example, Black Americans compose 12 percent of regular drug users in the United States but make up 38 percent of those arrested for drug offenses.
So, what’s the motivation for this system of exploitation? Quite simply, profit. There are few things corporations and the government love more than cheap labor. The federal prisoner makes a maximum nominal wage of $1.15 per hour, with a minimum of $0.23 per hour. In some state prison systems, they are paid nothing at all.
A lot of recognizable brand names take advantage of forced penal labor. Wal-Mart, BP, AT&T, Microsoft, Whole Foods and Starbucks are all companies that use prison labor. And of course, as mentioned earlier, prisons themselves are a lucrative business. CoreCivic, the largest private prison corporation in the United States, had a revenue of $1.8 billion in 2015.
But don’t bother, if you are an entrepreneurial business major, to try breaking into the private prison game. The two largest private prison companies, CoreCivic and GEO Group, control 75 percent of the market.
The main purpose of the American prison system is not to rehabilitate criminals. If the government wanted rehabilitation, it would decriminalize drug use and provide medical assistance for drug addicts and the mentally ill rather than just locking them up.
The American prison system does not work to deter crime. If the government wanted to prevent crime effectively, it would focus on alleviating the poverty that forces to people to sell drugs or steal in order to make ends meet. Make no mistake: the American prison system works to criminalize people of color and the poor and provide forced cheap labor to corporations. Until we completely restructure the way we implement “justice,” there will be nothing “just” about it.