How the American Prison System became reliant on corporations and African American bodies

Police brutality towards African Americans has become the focus of many recent films including those by 2019 Oscar nominated Barry Jenkins - notable court cases regarding the brutal killings of Trayvon Martin and brought media attention to the daily injustices of the Law Enforcement systems, but while police brutality has become more visible in recent years, this problem speaks to powers larger than heated violence on the streets.

America is home to 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. Black men, who make up 6.2% of America’s population, accounting for 40.2% of of the prison population. It has become a system designed to keep people in once they’ve been put there, and due to long standing images, narratives and presumptions about the black male body as a symbol of predatory criminal, and the legacy of slavery - it has become African American men who face the majority of time behind bars, and likelihood of arrest. They are the direct products of this redesigned racial caste - a modern prison system supported by corporations, and reliant on the inherancies of slavery in America.

The American Prison System has a legacy of relationships with corporations who hold large monetary stakes in bill making and prison infrastructure. A major player continues to be ALEC - the American Legislative Exchange Council, who provide legislative bills between corporations and politicians - mostly Republicans. They are funded and supported by a number of corporations, past and current supporters include Fed-Ex, Comcast, Statefarm and Pharama. Walmart - the biggest seller of guns in the U.S. - also funded ALEC for a number of years, whilst dropping ALEC in the late 2000’s, the Walmart family continue to fund them. Although ALEC have since adopted a stance supporting prison reform, they still attain a financial interest, and their impact on industrialism the prison system, is still contributing to mass incarceration.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s the baby boom generation became adults and due to simple demographic changes, crime rate in America rose. Political discourse reacted; in search of a blame for the rise in crime, Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in 1971, imagining an enemy in a specific youth generation. President Reagan continued the war-rhetoric, and the discourse soon took up the phrase “superpredator” - describing young black men who had become accused of crime. Bill Clinton took even more drastic moves to enforce a mass incarceration, his 1994 Crime Bill brought in mandatory minimum sentences, and a “3 strikes and out” law, meaning three convictions meant life in prison. These measures meant longer sentences, and ultimately it became much harder to get out once you were in. The system made sure of this because, as it became increasingly profit dependent, people getting out of prison meant losses. Black men became the inevitable targets of the system due to ingrained assumptions of guilt and a legacy of predatory imagery associated with them.

The powers that be remain firmly in place. While political rhetoric informed the militarization of American prisons, ALEC and corporate involvement has ensured the financial sustainability of mass incarceration. This is overwhelmingly affecting black Americans, and what’s more, even when convicts finish their sentence, a symbolic incarceration continues - they are permanently denied the right to vote after conviction. Author Michelle Alexander calls this the “new Jim Crow” - segregation and disenfranchisement re-visioned.