Carceral Colonial Logic: Taking Time


Editor’s Notes: This is Part II of a three part series on carceral colonial logic and the prison industrial complex.  Part I can be found here and Part III can be found here

“The function of a social structure is to set up institutions to serve man’s needs. A society that drives its members to desperate solutions is a non-viable society, a society to be replaced” - Frantz Fanon, Toward the African Revolution

Where does settler colonialism take place? The dominantly-rehearsed origin story of the United States stages colonists as inhabiting a remote and discrete history. A history transfigured—from British to American—by donning an indigenous dress, thereby erasing the coloniality of Americaness. Staging our colonial history as always “back then”, each rehearsal further abstracts the intensity of our historical legacies and thereby further strips the already dispossessed. Sarah Ahmed correctly identifies this kind of abstraction as a dragging away: “abstraction is a drag in drag.” The process of abstraction—dragging prisoners from their concrete enclosure to the realm of big bright concepts. And is this not what we see when we hear the usual liberal pantomime of the “founding” of North America? We are dragged from our current prison condition to learn that there are a few “neat” colonial moments that constitute our country’s “origin”: genocide of the indigenous people, the occupation and exhausting of the land, and kidnapping a slave workforce from the shores of Africa.

On the contrary to this merely backwards narrativization, I propose that the settler colonial logic is alive and well today in our institutions across North America, shaping their practices and that the fight to decolonize is as exigent and necessary as it has ever been. Of course, the United States is rife with horror shows. There are numerous institutional practices we could highlight to render the settler colonial logic constitutive of our society clear: the historical and present day imperialism in the Middle East, our bloody partnerships with other settler colonial states such as Israel, the DAPL, police violence which disproportionately targets Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people, or the zoning laws that push historically oppressed populations into atrocious environmental conditions (producing the below average life expectancy of indigenous peoples on reserves, the toxic water in Flint Michigan, or the fatality of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans).

“A maximum security, or stomp down unit. This is hell. You’re not going anywhere, damned to your cell—‘the house.’ We were all damned to this place: to crazy, not civilized, this time is life now.” - Eddie Paredes  

In this discussion I will focus on a particularly American institution, which has been taking up more space in our everyday discourse, the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). I will first outline some basic coordinates of the PIC for context and discuss a few common themes in the discussion thereof, such as abolition vs. reform, the structure of power vs. individual moral punishment, and the assumed immutability with which we discuss the “naturalness” of the punishment paradigm. Second, I will turn to the work of Andrea Pitts on white supremacy and mass incarceration to examine the continuum of a larger colonial movement pooling in mass incarceration.

The primary takeaway from this carceral-colonial linkage discussion should be that fighting racism, decolonizing, or anti-capitalist struggle is not abstract nor disconnected from the everyday. Rather, we must attack as a people the institutions which force and enforce this destruction. Thus, the Prison Industrial Complex is at once a material institution physically abstracting vulnerable people at accelerating rates from hopelessly underserviced neighborhoods, themselves riddled with so much state violence that they resemble colony conditions patrolled by a brutal police force, and also an epistemological stranglehold on our imaginations suppressing the radical injunction: decolonize!

Time: Prison Industrial Complex, Mass Incarceration, Abolition

The term “Prison Industrial Complex,” or “PIC,” arrives in the 1990s elaborated by social theorists of many disciplines. PIC refers to the capitalist expansion of correctional facilities and related for-profit corporations that serve correctional facilities in the United States. Angela Y. Davis, who has with grace and eloquence taken up the problems inherent in punishment paradigms in the West and the legacy of slavery that both causes and sustains the PIC, writes of a comparison between the expansion of prison industries and military industries:

Both systems generate huge profits from processes of social destruction. Precisely that which is advantageous to those corporations, elected officials, and government agents who have stakes in the expansion of these systems begets grief and devastation for poor and racially dominated communities in the United States and throughout the world. (Pg 12 Are Prisons Obsolete?)

In short, the PIC is the racist agent of social destruction which dialectically reproduces both the wealth and the dominating forces of rich people with political power.

The current liberal approach to the question of prisons would be laughably insufficient if it did not do so much harm. Reformist liberal discourse has isolated for-profit private prisons as the boogey man of mass incarceration, and the general public is right to feel disgusted at these institutions, but wrong to think that they are extraordinary iterations of the PIC.

Any historical assessment of the PIC that’s up to snuff cites the economic forces at play in the early development of prisons long before their current privatized forms. The earliest forms of the prison industrial complex were global capitalism’s need to retain a slave workforce after the Thirteenth Amendment, hence the immediate development of the convict leasing system in tandem with the Black Codes. The latter ensured that newly liberated slaves would return to the labor in the plantations, and the former institutionalized the labor of incarcerated people. Thus, even today state prisons are extremely lucrative institutions for those in power. The for-profit and “normal” state prison distinction prevalent in liberal discourse on the PIC already misses the point of the sheer pervasiveness of state violence.

How long have we had the prison? Michel Foucault’s The Punitive Society lectures mark the inception of carceral practices as emerging at the turn of the 19th century. This is surprisingly recent to most of us in the global Northwest, since our experience of the prison is so ideologically entrenched that it seems like the very telos of societal punishment. Prior to the prison, Foucault claims that there were essentially three models of punishment: Infamy (marking or exile), Talion (eye for an eye), and slavery (hard and public labor) (68-69). In Foucault’s analysis the “prison-form,” as he calls it, is the most recent punishment model, which evolves out of slavery about 220 years ago.

“County is death, the revolving door of visits and phone calls, of family and lawyers, it all pressurizes the wait for the final judgement.” - Eddie Paredes

Most of us in the global Northwest are told when we are still very young that endemic to our futures is a moral bifurcation: if you are good you can go to university and get a good job in whatever you want, but if you are bad then you will go to prison and be raped. This regulatory moral binary that shapes our self-understanding and self-projection at once gives the PIC its valence of permanence and simultaneously normalizes the state violence that the working class and racialized populations will inevitably face throughout the duration of our comparatively shorter lifespans. Labor and Prison.

Foucault points to the wage-form and prison-form as “twin historical movements” that structurally mirror each other. So, just as a wage is awarded to a period of labor, a period of liberty is stolen as the price of disobedience. This is no mere metaphor in that when one cannot afford to pay for a ticket or fine one must serve a quantified amount of time in county jail. Moreover, if a prisoner makes trustee status, i.e. if they agree to work for the jail during their stay, their days earn them more time: e.g. two days served for one day’s labor. These twin historical forms introduce time itself into the capitalist system of power and into the system of penalty. Linda Evans and Eve Goldberg write in their pamphlet, “The Prison Industrial Complex and Global Economy,” that for private business, prison labor is an invaluable resource: “No strikes. No Union Organizing. No health benefits, unemployment insurance, or workers compensation” (84).

Incarcerated workers serve as capitalism’s constitutive underbelly, similar to outsourced labor, because they are surefire for doing labor like data entry for Chevron, telephone reservations for TWA, making circuit boards, limousines, Victoria’s Secret lingerie, Whole Foods soap, and on and on. To do time is to have your time exploited at a more exaggerated and intensive rate than the ordinary free world exploitation of it. The irony here is bloody: the state extracts workers from racialized and poor spaces where it refuses to build jobs, job programs, and good primary education, only to abduct them and fine them for not having access to these very things.

Thinking of the beginning of the PIC in economic terms should not in any way elide the historical and material role of white supremacy and European settler-colonialism in its construction. Instead, the PIC is itself the strategic intertwining of three phenomena: white supremacy, colonialism, and global capitalism. Before any attempts at unknotting these forces, we should first reflect on the degree to which the prison is also an ideological phenomenon. Angela Y. Davis continues later in Are Prisons Obsolete?:

The prison… functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers… it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism. (Pg 88 Are Prisons?)

Individualist paradigms will stick to a “do the crime, do the time” narrative. This is lazy and incorrect. The supposed correlation between crime and punishment ignores the larger historical trends, ideological commitments, and economic forces at play in every level of the PIC. There are no rich people in jail: if you can afford to pay an extortionate bail, you can wait for and prepare your trial in the free world. If you can afford to migrate to the United States or Western Europe through the “proper channels,” you will be less likely to end up in immigrant detainment camps and county jails for being caught walking without your papers. If you do get in serious trouble, the better you pay a lawyer, the more likely you are to not do time regardless of the severity of the case.

Even still, the individualist might protest, poor people should do the time for the crime. The sheer reliance on prison labor from many international corporations is the only viable heuristic for understanding why, “Prisons began to proliferate precisely at a time when official studies indicated that the crime rate was falling” (85). There is no statistical correspondence between crime rates and the wildfire of prison construction. Moreover, a recent study shows that 95% of all prison growth in the last twelve years has been due to prisoners waiting on their “speedy trial” on the inside, and thus unable to afford their outrageous bail costs. The only way out of this situation is to accept predatory plea bargains that involve an admission of guilt and a shorter sentence.

"A transfer unit is limbo. You’re moved constantly, people come and go, random movies fill the days. One open space where we all hurry up and wait." - Eddie Paredes

One of the most salient examples of this process has been the case of Kalief Browder, who recently spent three years on Riker’s Island for allegedly stealing a backpack, and most of his sentence was spent in solitary confinement. Upon being released and cleared of all charges, Browder committed suicide in the free world because his trauma from the inside was unbearable. This was an innocent child who the state tortured into his suicide even though he never did the crime in question. How can we reconcile the mounting number of unconvicted bodies filling ever-expanding prisons and the unaffected crime rate? This is not yet even to ask what constitutes a crime, and how the establishment strategically criminalizes, nor the Clinton era minimum sentencing laws and three-strike rules.

The bottom line is that incarceration rates are not only dissimilar to crime rates but that they target historically vulnerable people almost exclusively. And yet, we cannot seem to imagine an alternative to the PIC. Our spontaneous thinking about crime, that is to say, our ideological presuppositions prevent us from thinking outside of the tightening web of jails, prisons, immigrant detainment centers, and the increasingly militarized police force. To begin the thought work, which is necessary for the organizational work, we must break with the individualist moral framework that sustains and re-creates the racist and colonial conditions necessary for the PIC. In short, not only do we have to attack the physical institutions which contain and torture millions of black, brown, queer, and poor people in a profit-driven evolution of institutional racism, but also become vigilant in ridding ourselves of the thinking these institutions engender. The institution and ideology of the PIC are symbiotic, and we cannot hope to abolish one without the other.

Within a politically unjust system of punishment and social destruction, all prisoners are political prisoners. On George Jackson’s sentence, Foucault had this to say: “Ten years in prison for 70 dollars is a political experience—an experience of hostage, of a concentration camp, of class warfare, an experience of the colonized,” and this scenario profoundly describes the majority of prisoners held hostage today  (Simone Browne quoting “The Masked Assassin (GIP report), Dark Matters 43). Who is going to prison and for what are both fundamentally political questions.