Questioning crime: social harms and global issues
Questioning crime: social harms and global issues

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

3.1 The prison industrial complex

Criminologists, politicians and media commentators interested in the role of prisons have tended to focus on how far prison ‘works’, and its role in the treatment and/or punishment of convicted criminals or those on remand. However, some criminologists have been involved in research and debates about the legitimacy of prisons, exploring their purported purposes, their ideological functions, and claims that they cause pain and suffering. This then suggests that a social harm approach to prisons could also be useful. A key debate relates to the idea that prisons are part of a wider industry of crime control and punishment, with a complex and wide-reaching network of organisations involved, including the state, private (for profit) companies, and charities and not-for-profit organisations. Angela Y. Davis (2003) refers to this as the ‘prison industrial complex’, as an industry consisting not just of prisons, but of a host of surveillance, crime control, punishment, and ‘correctional’ activities, organisations, and institutions. Figure 7 illustrates these activities and institutions within the prison industrial complex.

Described image
Figure 7 The complex relationships within the prison industrial complex.

The diagram of the prison industrial complex shows crime, the state and issues of harm as intimately connected. For example, the treatment by the state of convicted criminals in prisons can have a negative effect on the mental health of prisoners. The diagram also suggests that inequalities play a crucial role in the prison industrial complex, for example in relation to the way that poor education, unemployment, debt and racial profiling increase the chances of being incarcerated. Inequalities in power are also evident in this diagram for example in terms of the way that exclusion from politics limits the influence of marginalised groups who are more likely to be imprisoned.

However, what also stands out from the diagram, is the role of powerful non-state actors, such as those involved in the running of private prisons (or state-run prisons that outsource some of their work), the media, prison construction companies, investment banks and think tanks.

Multinational corporations and other non-state powerful actors have also had (and continue to have) roles in the New Orleans context (the site of the analysis of Hurricane Katrina), but in this section you will use concept of the prison industrial complex for further consideration of the relationship and debates about crime and harm, and the connections with inequality and power. However, in this section you will focus particularly on the role of powerful private corporations in relation to these, and to highlight the role of ‘the global’ in what might appear to be ‘local’ issues.

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371