Christian Parenti & Jeff Derksen: A Private Riot Going On? (2004)

The link between culture, society, and prisons is not easily envisioned through definitions of culture as either the coherent core of a national or ethnic identity or as the liberating humanistic project a historically built social imagination – that is, as cultural production. The positive and instrumental aspects of culture, as aesthetic production or social progress and collective knowledge would seem to clash with the prison’s discourse of containment, discipline, rehabilitation and punishment.

Yet the frightening thing is that cultural “progress” like prisoner “rehabilitation” is, historically speaking, an easy fit with the political projects of racism and class exploitation. In part, this tension and weird compatibility arises from the silence that surrounds the everyday details of prison: What goes on in there? Who really goes to prison? How exactly are we on the outside connected by ties of blood treasure and fear to world of the big house?

To culturalize prison is also to naturalize its social role and to occlude its place within a larger political economy of capital accumulation based on exploitation, social exclusion and an inevitable degree of poverty. Although the terms “culture industry” (to describe the instrumental role of culture as an apparatus of the capitalist state) and prison industrial complex (to draw a comparison to the military industrial complex in the U.S. miss each other by decades, but the overlap in the terminolgy points to a parallel in the transformation of these two complexes. Both culture and prisons are spaces of neoliberalism, having had deeper layers of the ethos of deregulation (an actual reregulation) of production combined with new technologies of surveillance embedded into them. This is seen in the ongoing attempt of the Federal Communication Commission in the U.S. to allow for mega-media corporations to own and control a greater percentage of radio, television and cable outlets and in the increased privatization of prisons during a time of massive industry expansion.

By building a small walk-in container in the commercial and pedestrian center of Graz Martin Krenn and Oliver Ressler emphasize and warn, in European Corrections Corporation, of the movement in Europe from state-run prisons to “partially priviatized” prisons run by corporations such as Wackenhut and Corrections Corporation of America. The tarpaulin that covers this container is printed with an architectural representation of an imagined refurbishing and expansion of the nearby Graz-Karlau corrections facility. The fictional corrections corporation that Krenn and Ressler devise to run the prison is EUCC (European Corrections Corporation) and it comes complete with a detourned website. Along with pointing to the EU as a newly spatialized economic (and therefore disciplinary) territory, the name projects the founding of pan-European private corrections companies as the industrial and economic strategy waffts over from America. Although, private prisons are, politically speaking, actually less important than the more general critique of the over-use of incarceration by western state more generally. The imagined plans for the retooled Graz-Karlau prison show a space doubled in size to incarcerate more prisoners, but also to include production space that will use the prisoners’ labor power to generate surplus capital for the fictional EUCC.

Coupled with this installation is a video derived from interviews with British prison activist Mark Barnsley. Barnley’s interview tells the tales, in part, of his own struggle to resist the prison as a production site in which the prisoners are forced to work for low wages and without usual or minimum health and safety regulations or employment rights. Barnsley’s narrative highlights, in one sense, the transition from a provisionally social discourse of prisons as the site of rehabilitation and the production of fit citizens to production sites which generate surplus value for private corporations as the labor power of prison is seized. For Barnsley, private prisons are a microcosm of the ideal neoliberal capitalist economy because the corporation owns the prison and receives state funds for keeping the prisoners there, yet the corporation also owns the workshops where the prisoners produce goods for the corporation and also owns the store where the prisoners can spend their money. This no-leak machine for capital accumulation also keeps its “workers” in the ideal capitalist situation, Barnsley proposes – either locked up or working. Yet, despite the microcosm of the perfect capitalist machine, the cost of running prisons is excessive and this cost is spread to the state in the public-private partnership in which the private companies cream of the surplus created through state subsidy.

But Barnsley also redefines the prison as a site of resistance to the neoliberalization of production that has accelerated with globalization. In a sense, Barnsley folds prisons back into a larger social discourse of struggle rather than having them set off in a liminal space, or “secret world” as he designates it, cloaked by the secrecy provided by prison architecture and the general social sense that prisons are on the outskirts of the social, filled with those who did not hold up their end of the social contract and therefore forfeited or suspended their rights of citizenship.

Krenn and Ressler bring this representation of a prison cell and of a prison in its entirety back into the public sphere in Graz at a moment when prisons are moving more into the shadowy and increasingly corrupt world of privatization as part of the general trend toward privatization – a trend that has progressed unevenly yet steadily. This gesture is not to propose that public prisons is more desirable (as Richard Vogel asserts “all prison reform must always be revolutionary”), but to avoid the turning away of a public gaze on the shape, materiality, and function of prisons – as well as the economic role that privatized prisons play in capitalist accumulation and the manner that prisoners are used in that accumulation. In Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis identifies how prisons, and their functions, have been naturalized and taken for granted as a part of our society: “Thus, the prison is present in our lives and, at the same time, it is absent from our lives. To think about this simultaneous presence and absence is to begin to acknowledge the part played by ideology in shaping the way we interact with our social surroundings. We take prisons for granted because of the realities they produce”.

By moving the model of the prison cell into a public square Krenn and Ressler make this turning away or absence all the more difficult and serves to interlace and complicate the private corporate function of the prison with the issues of public space. There is a movement of the privatization of public space, and the creation of hybrid public-private spaces such as malls and sidewalks, that structurally parallels the privatization of state companies and state functions (and this goes from prisons to medical services to pensions). With prisons, this movement more obscure in that both the privatization process and the role of these newly private-public prisons is cloaked.

While European Corrections Corporation casts prison growth as caused by prison interests (that is, prison as an industry) there linger deeper critiques of state power in that the installation and video that can be brought forward, critiques which have an impact both on North America and Europe. Ultimately, the whole of capitalist society is greater than the sum of its corporate and non-corporate parts. To understand the complexity of the west’s current incarceration binge and criminal justice crackdown, we must move to a holistic class analysis that looks at the needs of the class system and class society in general and not just at the needs of prison firms and their methods of generating profit. Prison corporations can be seen as articulated into the class system as a whole.

Capitalism needs the “surplus population” which the prison system, and other mechanisms of social exclusion, create. Capitalist production requires and reproduces poverty, but its is also threatened by the poor that it produces. Prison and criminal justice not only creates political obedience and controls the poor and excluded citizens that it needs, it also regulates the price of labor. That is what the repression of the capitalist state has historically been about, from the enclosures and the Atlantic slave trade, to the many bloody wars against organized labor, to the militarized ghetto of today in North America. Capitalism was born of state violence and repression will always be part of its genetic code and a mechanism of expansion.

To understand the wider political effects of state violence it’s worth contemplating the opposite: state assistance for poor and working people. As Frances Fox-Piven and Richard Cloward wrote in the New Class War, “the connection between the income-maintenance programs, the labor market and profits is indirect, but not complicated.” Too much social democracy, they imply, and people stop being grateful for poorly paid, dangerous work. So too with the converse, the link between state repression and labor markets and profits is indirect but not complicated. Repression manages poverty. Poverty depresses wages. Low wages increase the rate of exploitation and that creates surplus value, which, at one level, is what all forms of capitalist accumulation is all about.

This dynamic works at a macro-scale upon the society and economy as a whole. Policing and incarceration – directly profitable, or more likely not – are thus part of a larger circuitry of social control. Incarceration is the motherboard but other components -– jails, immigrant detention centers, the militarized border, psych wards, halfway houses, hospital emergency rooms, homeless shelters, skid row, and the ghetto — are wired into the circuitry. All of these locations share populations and all serve to contain and manage the social impacts of poverty.

But a question still remains: If capitalism always creates a surplus population why did it not use criminal justice to absorb, contain and isolate these groups in the past? To some extent it did. But in each epoch and place capitalist societies have developed specific and unique combinations of co-optation, amelioration and repression to reproduce the class structure and deal with the contradictions of inevitable poverty. But over the last three decades an international crisis of over-production, declining profits, has lead to a stead erosion of the social democratic method of class containment and a move toward great poverty (as an instrument to lower wages) and with poverty a turn towards more and more aggressive politics of repression. In this epoch, this shift has been from coercion to the other pole of hegemony – force.

To restore sagging profit margins capital launched a multifaceted domestic and international campaign of restructuring. Though the cause of the profit plunge was multifaceted – the rising organic composition of capital, and general over production and saturation of global markets – class struggle was also a key part of the equation.

And finally, the political discourse of criminal justice helps to reproduce racism in a fashion that is sufficiently coded and thus ideologically palatable enough to be mass marketed in the present day and age as part of a social necessity. The acceptance of prisons in the social landscape is also the acceptance of racism in that landscape as well — but it is ideologically cloaked in terms of safety for society in general and in the rhetoric of rehabilitation and repaying one’s debt to society (and appeasing the quest for retribution by victims or families of victims). It is no coincidence that people of color are the most likely to be incarcerated in the UK and the USA. As Angela Davis notes, in California in 2002, the racial composition of those in prisons cuts against the demographics of the state with 35.2% Latinos, 32% African-Americans, and 29.2% white prisoners. The modern class system in the west is imbricated with the traditional racism born of mercantilist slavery and colonial conquest.

One must also remember that prison spreads its surveillance and fear out beyond the walls into the social landscape as a whole. In California, the bureaucrats at the Department of Corrections (CDC) describe a strange geography of power. Rather than focusing solely on prisons and prisoners, the officialdom speaks of “the system” containing a “total CDC population” of nearly 290,000. About sixty percent of this population is “under the custodial control of the Department.” The remainder are “serving the rest of their sentences in the community” as parolees – members of a semi-free sub-caste. In the mind of the prison bureaucrat the prison regime does not stop at the gate, “the system” extends into the streets and the line between the convict inside and civilian outside becomes blurry.

An estimated 6.6 million Americans live under the control of the criminal justice system: either in jail, prison, on parole or probation (which is usually a county level program used for low-level offenders in lieu of incarceration). The majority of this population, oscillating back and forth between courts, jails, prison and parole, are poor and dark skinned.

The massive fourfold increase in incarceration over the last two and a half decades has translated into an increased flow of politically marked, criminalized bodies through the circuitry of social control. One frequently overlooked space in this circuitry of social control is “the community” where parolees and probationer serve “street time” as the “unjailed” legal zombies of the court system.

Parole and probation are not just simple functions of prison; instead each component in the system amplifies and feeds the others. As the criminal law has become more punitive so too have the surveillance and policing mechanisms of parole grown more intense. Just as the total number of ex-cons hitting the streets has increased, so has the proportion of that group who are sent back to prison. And within the subset of those who “fail” parole, a greater proportion than ever are sent back to the joint for simple “technical violations” like missing a meeting with a parole agent or failing a “whiz quiz” – that is, showing traces of drugs in their urine.

Thus we see prison as increasingly self-sufficient, generating its own population. The propellant in this process is the continually expanding infrastructure of routine identification and surveillance. By this means, prison extends its social power outward into the free world, feeding itself and creating a sub caste of permanent convicts. And, as Barnsley notes in the case of the UK, the emergence of the private prison also saw the rise of the per capita number of people jailed – as more and more people were fed into them to help generate the profits (aided by state funding) for those corporations. Alongside this, as Richard Vogel notes, the rise in prison population is tied to the partner of production – deindustrialization. And deindustrialization effects minority groups is a greater manner.

Looked at holistically, the incarceration binge and criminal justice acceleration has an economic, class, racial and social angle. Along with these, it has an ideological effect of obscuring its own nature by appearing to be natural and a necessity of our society. Here the ideological role and effect of prisons reveals the ideological and social role for cultural production. Cultural production, and especially under global capitalism, should reveal and seriously engage with the structure of our society and how that structure is being reproduced globally. European Corrections Corporation is positioned as an unambivalent warning of the effects of accumulation strategies that continuously create new territories for exploitation – from DNA, to biodiversity, to water and it warn, perhaps indirectly, about the role of state violence in all of this. It also warns of the danger of global flows bringing new and reprehensible strategies via a transatlantic crossing from North America.

Works Cited

Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003).
Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, New Class War (New York: Pantheon, 1983).
Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Regulating the Poor (New York: Pantheon, 1971).
Christian Parenti, Lockdown America: police and prison in the age of crisis. (New York: Verso, 2000).
Richard D. Vogel, Capitalism and Incarceration Revisited.

in: Martin Krenn & Oliver Ressler: European Corrections Corporation, Berlin, Revolver – Archiv für aktuelle Kunst, 2004