The Roots of Mass Incarceration are in the Prison Industrial Complex

Over the last few decades, the U.S. has experienced a drastic rise in incarceration rates and prison investment. This rapid expansion of incarceration in the U.S. has origins in the 1970s during which particular policy and legislative decisions that continued to be supported in proceeding decades, created the effects of mass incarceration we see today. For instance, in the early 1970s, the prison and jail population was close to 360,00 people, while in 2023 around 1.9 million people are confined in our nation, away from their families, loved ones, and communities. With this terrible reality of our criminal justice system, it’s hard to ignore who benefits from the prison system, and key decision-makers who uplift policies to support high incarceration rates. The related interests and benefits of certain parties from the prison system are recognized as the prison industrial complex. Economic and political incentives motivate maintaining federal and state policies, and legal systems, that uphold high rates and growth of the populations, construction, and investment in the U.S. prisons. 

The policies and legislation that created the drastic rise in prison populations began in the mid-1960s when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his “War on Crime” and enacted a new form of policy that enhanced the federal government’s scope in local criminal justice systems. For instance, the Law Enforcement Assistance Act passed in 1965 grants the federal government the ability to provide funds for training of state and local police, as well as offer grants for projects to both state and local agencies responsible for law enforcement. Johnson’s War on Crime policies set precedents for future policy. President Nixon’s “War on Drugs” repeated types of punitive policies that disproportionately impacted low-income and Black and Brown communities. It has even been exposed that a domestic policy advisor for Nixon during his presidency confessed that the policies designed under the “War on Drugs” were motivated to harm and disturb Black communities and activists, as well as the anti-war movement. In this effort, the Nixon administration continued practices of raising federal funding for drug-control agencies and enforcing mandatory prison sentences for drug crimes. Along with enhancing federal spending for crime and police, Nixon also implemented the Drug Enforcement Administration (1973). Reagan’s “Tough on Crime” continued this political legacy. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 set forth mandatory minimum sentences, with a drastic disparity of 100 to 1 in crack power versus cocaine sentencing that unfairly targeted Black people. The Comprehensive Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1984 enacted a federal sentencing commission and removed parole for federal prisons. 

These policies created precedents for the U.S. criminal justice system and investment in policing and prisons as a means to solve crime and uphold the high rates of incarceration we witness today. The laws and policies that protect the maintenance and growth of prisons benefit particular key players of the prison industrial complex including politicians, state and federal lobbyists, and private companies. These players can be identified in three major categories in terms of their relationship to prisons: prison beneficiaries, prison suppliers, and prison stakeholders. The San Francisco Living Wage Coalition has a report on this relationship between different levels of involvement in the prison system, and the ways that City and County of San Francisco tax dollars and public property are used to benefit companies who have a connection to the prison system. Prison labor in the present day has evolved into a multi-billion dollar sector. Those who are incarcerated engage in a wide range of activities, spanning from constructing office furnishings and producing military gear to manning customer service centers and engaging in 3D modeling. There are companies that either sell products to prisons or exploit prison labor for their production. 

One of these companies historically includes Verizon. Verizon is making substantial profits by utilizing cheap prison labor in call centers, where wages can be as meager as $0.90 to $4.00 for a day’s work. In 2013, the Prison Reform Movement blog reported that prisoners were offering telecommunication services to Verizon for under $1 per hour. The City and County of San Francisco has a tie to these exploitative labor practices of Verizon, in their agreement for telecommunication services for up to $21 million over a four-year contract. 

The rental car company Avis has employed inexpensive prison labor by utilizing call centers within prisons to manage customer reservations. Avis leases facilities and premises for their car rental brands, Budget and Avis, at the San Francisco International Airport, with an annual lease exceeding $11 million. According to the Malta Justice Initiative, a website focused on reducing prison recidivism, Avis employs incarcerated individuals to handle reservations, compensating them at rates ranging from $0.90 to $4.00 per hour. 

The City and County of San Francisco also has a relationship with beneficiaries, United and American Airlines. Both airline companies have apparently used prison labor as call centers and customer service issues like flight reservations. San Francisco International Airport receives $4.4 million a year for terminal space from American Airlines. United Airlines has a contract with the San Francisco Airport Commission for about $25 for ten years to keep its maintenance base open. United Airlines also has a $6.2 million contract for 10 remain-overnight aircraft positions at the airport. 

Along with prison beneficiaries, prison suppliers are companies that provide goods to prisons or operate private prisons, and have contracts with local, state and federal government to incarcerate members of the public. Aramark provides food, facilities, and uniforms to about 500 correctional facilities in the U.S., and has a $20 million contract with the City and County of San Francisco. The company Industrial Plumbing Supply produces equipment they advertise to correctional facilities and has a contract with the San Francisco Office of Contract Administration and Purchase Division to provide various plumbing supplies. 

Prison stakeholders are companies that have financial relations with private prisons. For instance, BlackRock is an investment management company that holds a contract with San Francisco and the County Employees’ Retirement System to structure investment portfolios of exchange-traded funds. BlackRock has invested over $208 billion in companies that participate in the prison industrial complex. Along with BlackRock, J.P. Morgan has a contract with the San Francisco County Employees’ Retirement System to authorize management securities distributed by investment funds, while the company also has about $19 billion invested in the prison industry. 

These are just a few companies that benefit and profit from the labor and existence of prisons in the U.S., and would therefore have a desire to prolong policies that secure the high incarceration rates present today in prisons and correctional facilities. These companies also have relationships with the City and County of San Francisco, which invest in them for city-related services. This study speaks to how major city institutions rely on and take advantage of the exploitation of low-wage prison labor. While many companies have been pressured to disinvest and update their labor practices as a result of criticism for using prison labor, the prison industry still holds a major presence in the United States. To challenge those parties including companies and politicians who perpetuate the prison industry, we need to call for legislation to demand transparency for prison connections among city departments to hold them accountable and disincentivize ties to prisons.

Written Angelisa Rodriguez and Gabriela Muro