The prison industrial complex often is defined as the system that uses incarceration as a way to correct criminals as well as problems such as unemployment, homelessness, mental illnesses and drug addictions. The system is encouraged, some believe, by businesses and agencies that profit by building prisons or by providing services for prisons. This can include companies that make video surveillance equipment and other technology, construction firms and prison employees provided by private firms. Other businesses that can benefit include those that provide laundry services, food preparation or telecommunications services.
One aspect of the prison industrial complex is the incarceration of people for extended times on lower-level criminal offenses. Critics believe that this is done as a way to make money off services and goods. Further, this viewpoint maintains that making money takes precedence over a desire to reduce crime rates or punish and rehabilitate prisoners. It even is seen as an abuse of power by law enforcement or the government, in some cases.
Beyond the legal and business aspects, the prison industrial complex also is an abstract concept. It sometimes is referred to as a mindset that encourages the removal of certain groups of people from society. Some studies show that certain minority groups and economic groups are most likely to become part of the prison system. People who are unemployed, homeless, mentally ill or addicted to drugs and alcohol can find their way into prisons, in addition to those who do not fall into these categories but commit crimes.
The prison industrial complex also can serve to remove various social problems from society or from public view. This can have two effects. It can keep the problem out of the public eye, and it can make the public think that social problems are not as serious as they are. Supporters might argue that there is nothing wrong with getting rid of social problems in this fashion.
Jobs often are touted as a positive aspect of the prison industrial complex. New prisons can increase jobs for the public, including everything from prison guards to counseling and maintenance. When people move into a small town for prison jobs, it also can lead to spin-off spending in local businesses.
The prison industrial complex in the United States typically is funded by taxpayer dollars. Corporations can view this constant revenue stream as a stable foundation for basing a business. Taxpayers also have raised questions about how the money is used and whether the number of prisons in existence is the correct number or is excessive.
Another aspect of the prison industrial complex is the free labor that it can provide. Prisoners can be used to perform menial tasks that can save significant costs for the government and businesses. Some view this as forced labor or even “slave labor.”