Abolishing the Carceral State: Race, Capitalism, and the Prison-Industrial Complex

A radical rethinking of the criminal justice system in its entirety is warranted if a more just and equitable society is to flourish.

To build a multiracial working-class revolution, a grassroots socialist movement must work to liberate Black and brown lives. The specters of mass incarceration and police violence plague Black and brown communities across America. Racial injustice, oppression, and capitalism are inextricably intertwined, and the carceral state is its insidious outcome. The politics of racial and economic equity concur with the abolition of the prison industrial complex and the many manifestations of racism that undergird American capitalism. A radical rethinking of the role and scope of the criminal justice system in its entirety is warranted if a more just and equitable society is to flourish. It must be stressed how deeply antidemocratic the American criminal justice system is. One outcome of the prison industrial complex is the explicit disenfranchisement and disregard of Black and brown communities. While police abolition and prison abolition are long-term political projects, immediate policies to remedy racial inequity include the enfranchisement of formerly incarcerated populations, the establishment of employment protection laws regardless of criminal background, outright drug decriminalization, and defunding swollen police and prison budgets.

A pretext for the incarceration and policing of Black and brown communities was the War on Drugs. While the War on Drugs was not the beginning of the war against minorities, it did signal a shift in the priorities of a society led predominantly by white people. Because the explicit racial policies of Jim Crow had become institutionally unacceptable, racism and racial rhetoric had become sublimated into rhetoric about crime, drugs, or safety. Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow discusses how the sublimation of explicitly racial rhetoric into notions of crime, drugs, or safety solidified concepts of racial animus into the collective political psyche. This legitimated racism under the guise of innocence and guilt. Whites were depicted as innocent victims of the ravages of criminal transgression and social ill, and communities of color were seen as inherently suspect, deviant, or presumed to be guilty of crimes.

One of the legal manifestations of this racial discrimination is Terry v. Ohio. The Supreme Court upheld in Terry v. Ohio that insofar as reasonable suspicion was evident, Fourth Amendment rights against warrantless searches could be limited in the context of an officer’s safety. As Alexander states, “Known as the stop-and-frisk rule, so long as a police officer has ‘reasonable articulable suspicion’ that someone is engaged in criminal activity and dangerous, it is constitutionally permissible to stop, question, and frisk him or her – even in the absence of probable cause.” The issue is that this presumes guilt, and legal justifications for discrimination like this are used predominantly against Black and brown people.

Although stop-and-frisk events have indeed plummeted since Michael Bloomberg was the mayor of New York City, communities of color are still disproportionately profiled by police. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, 13,459 stop-and-frisk events were reported in 2019. 59% of the people subjected to these stops were Black, 29% were Latinx, and 9% were white. Additionally, 66% of those individuals stopped were innocent, indicating the relative ineffectiveness of stop-and-frisk policies.

Racial minorities are specifically targeted by the policies of the failed War on Drugs and would consequently bear the brunt of its consequences. Vesla Weaver and her co-authors in “The Great Decoupling: The Disconnection Between Criminal Offending and Experience of Arrest Across Two Cohorts” discuss how crime decouplings are racially inflected. The decoupling of the occurrence of crime and the execution of arrests based not on actual behavior but on racial identification represents the racially-motivated tendencies of policing itself. Following this logic of “decoupling,” there is necessarily a racial disparity between the occurrence of crime and the actual enforcement of the law. As Weaver observes, “In the 1997 cohort, black men were more likely than white men to be arrested and report no illegal activity.” Weaver also states that “white men were more likely than black men to indicate engaging in criminal offenses but not being arrested.” If stop-and-frisk policies are relatively ineffective and inherently racist, then why are they used at all? This is because the existence of policing itself operates under the schema of racism.

Leaders and punitive criminal justice supporters often used the crack cocaine epidemic as a way to target Black and brown communities. John Conyers, Jr. in “The Incarceration Explosion” discusses how the 100-to-1 crack-to-powder disparity in sentencing guidelines discriminated against primarily Black and brown people. As a result of this guideline, African-Americans were likely to serve as much time in prison for drug offenses as a white person would for a violent offense. Furthermore, drug arrests for crack cocaine possession rose drastically for all racial groups between 1980 and 1989, but the increase was far more dramatic among the Black population. According to Cassia Spohn in “Race, Crime, and Punishment in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries” between 1980 and 2006 the arrest rate for crack cocaine possession rose by 135% for white people and 271% for Black people. Also, Black people comprised about 15.6% of crack cocaine users but 63.1% of those arrested for crack cocaine offenses, and whites comprised about 68.8% of crack cocaine users but accounted for only 26.3% of arrests for crack cocaine possession. This indicates the tendency for African-Americans to be arrested at significantly higher rates than whites despite using crack cocaine at an overall lower rate. This also indicates the existence of law enforcement disparities between racial groups during the crack cocaine epidemic that was a large catalyst of the War on Drugs. Multiple factors may reveal why such a disparity existed. One of these factors is racism. Another factor is the proximity of African-Americans to police. Police are far more likely to patrol Black and brown communities.

In Carceral Capitalism, Jackie Wang discusses how PredPol, a “predictive policing” tool, discriminates against minorities despite its marketing as a “colorblind” law enforcement tool. As Wang states, “PredPol is a software program that uses proprietary algorithms (modeled after earthquake aftershocks) to determine where and when crimes will occur based on data sets of past crimes.” And where does this software indicate law enforcement should patrol? This software indicates that law enforcement should patrol minority communities. Software like this assumes that crime will occur in certain areas. This is inherently racist and stereotypes communities based on race. What is even more concerning is that the designation of an area as a crime “hot spot” by proprietary software such as PredPol can be used as a factor to determine reasonable suspicion. As Nick O’Malley states in “To Predict and to Serve: the Future of Law Enforcement,” “Civil rights groups are taking the former concern seriously because designating an area a crime hot spot can be used as a factor in formulating ‘reasonable suspicion’ for stopping a suspect.” The assumption that Black and brown people are already always criminals is concerning, and algorithmic policing is not “colorblind,” as many supporters of this software might indicate. It singles out Black and brown lives and draws police resources to marginalized communities, which causes more hatred and violence. Amie Shuck in “Examining the Community Consequences of Arrests for Low-Level Criminal Activity” discusses how police efforts in marginalized communities may cause more harm and do not reduce crime rates. Shuck’s study concludes that “The results indicated that more aggressive enforcement was associated with less capacity for informal social control.” Shuck also states that “… trust and confidence in police may be reduced for those residents who experience the costs associated with low-level arrests. Regardless of the short-term effects, if aggressive low-level policing undermines the effectiveness of social control systems in the neighborhood, communities will be less safe in the long term.” Communities must be granted authority over their own destiny, and the police necessarily perpetuate crime, hatred, and danger in the communities that they police because of their mere presence. By actively attempting to “destabilize” communities by introducing police resources, the police actually reduce the ability of communities to regulate themselves. Too often, police do not care and often disregard the very lives of Black and brown people in communities that they are supposed to serve.

The reckless disregard of Black and brown lives by the police demonstrates that these lives are not considered “grievable” or of any value at all. In The Force of Nonviolence, Judith Butler argues “For those lives not considered grievable (those treated as if they can be neither lost nor mourned,) dwelling already in what Frantz Fanon called ‘the zone of non-being,’ the assertion of a life that matters, as we see in the Black Lives Matter movement, can break through the schema.” To transcend the inequity associated with racial oppression and discrimination, the very lives of minorities, including incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, have to be seen as alive, worthy of life, and valuable. Without these preconditions, a socialist movement cannot uplift those who are the most marginalized by institutions of punitive power.

Statistics indicate that Black people are disproportionately shot and killed by police. Too often, the police do not regard Black and brown lives as living at all, and the tendency for the police to shoot and kill unarmed Black and brown people indicates this. According to Stephan Schwartz in “Police Brutality and Racism in America,” African-Americans comprised approximately 13% of the U.S. population, yet they accounted for approximately 36% of unarmed individuals shot and killed by police in 2015. Unfortunately, these statistics have not improved from 2015 to 2020. According to Brita Belli in “Racial Disparity in Police Shootings Unchanged over Five Years,” there was a significant statistical decline in white deaths as a result of police shootings but no change for people of color. Belli states, “Among unarmed victims, Black people were killed at three times the rate (218 total killed), and Hispanics at 1.45 times the rate of white people (146 total killed).” These statistics are startling and indicate that even among “unarmed” individuals, the police still shoot and kill people of color at higher rates than white people. Racial animus, oppression, and discrimination are ingrained in the institution of policing. These outcomes are indeed abhorrent, but these outcomes are the symptom of systemic racism in American society. Also, would the killing of these individuals be justified if they had been armed? According to Belli, “In the case of armed victims, Native Americans were killed by police at a rate three times that of white people (77 total killed). Black people were killed at 2.6 times the rate of white people (1,265 total killed); and Hispanics were killed at nearly 1.3 times the rate of white people (889 total killed).”

Is whiteness a pretext for innocence? Does whiteness absolve individuals of their guilt? Does whiteness make those stopped by police less dangerous? In the case of the racial schema that is inherent in the institution of policing itself, notions of whiteness necessarily reinforce an individual’s innocence. Who is to determine whether those lives that have been killed by the police are grievable? The police should have no right to determine whose lives are grievable or worthy of life.

In “Against Innocence,” Jackie Wang discusses how “innocence” is often used as a pretext for grievability, and notions of “innocence” are therefore suitable for mobilizing anti-racist political campaigns. As Wang states, “These campaigns often center on prosecuting and harshly punishing the individuals responsible for overt and locatable acts of racist violence, thus positioning the State and the criminal justice system as an ally and protector of the oppressed. If the ‘innocence’ of a Black victim is not established, he or she will not become a suitable spokesperson for the cause.” Wang also states, “Social, political, cultural, and legal recognition only happens when a person is thoroughly whitewashed, neutralized, and made unthreatening.” In essence, innocence is only established once a victim embodies the core attributes associated with whiteness. This drives attention toward individual victims and neglects notions of community inherent in the concept of justice. The violence caused by punitive institutions of power can only be remedied by actively attempting to occlude the occurrence of these violent acts themselves. Violence cannot be a remedy to violence. The institution of policing belies this point.

Alex Vitale discusses how police often assume a warrior-like mentality in The End of Policing. As Vitale states, “Part of the problem stems from a ‘warrior mentality.’ Police often think of themselves as soldiers in battle with the public rather than guardians of public safety… militarized units like Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) proliferated during the 1980s War on Drugs and post-9/11 War on Terror only fuels this perception, as well as belief that entire communities are disorderly, dangerous, suspicious, and ultimately criminal.” People need each other more than they think, and the state-sanctioned violence granted to the police necessarily occludes the social bond. The militarization of the police reinforces this tendency. When a person assumes the role of a police officer, the power that they are granted corrupts this role. And, quite frankly, it corrupts them as individuals while they are in this role. They are quite literally granted authority over life and death, who lives and who dies. Violent institutions, such as policing, reinforce individualism and necessitate social cleavages. The state authorizes violence to prevent violence. Too often, police destroy communities under the guise of safety. The law protects citizens under the guise of security, and the capitalist state monopolizes violence and incarceration to devalue the lives of Black and brown individuals.

Just as the police instill violence and fear in marginalized communities, mass incarceration is another insidious outcome of racial capitalism. Earl Smith and Angela Hattery in “Incarceration: A Tool for Racial Segregation and Labor Exploitation” discuss how mass incarceration is a tactic to create a new underclass. Smith and Hattery highlight how mass incarceration is deeply rooted in former racist institutions such as slavery, the plantation economy, as well as capitalism. As Smith and Hattery state, “The relationship among race, the economy, and incarceration is complex and deeply rooted in the peculiarities of US history: namely the wedding of slavery, the plantation economy, and capitalism.” There is no doubt that African-Americans are overrepresented in prisons. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Black inmates account for approximately 38.2% of all federal prisoners. According to The Sentencing Project, Black Americans are imprisoned at a rate that is approximately five times the rate of white people in state prisons.

This may be the case for multiple reasons, but because implicit racism pervades American politics and the economy, it is clear that whites may actually benefit from the mass incarceration of minorities. This is grotesque and unfair. As Smith and Hattery include in their work, “… Whites, especially White men, implicitly or explicitly, benefit from the sending of hundreds of thousands of African American men to prisons; specifically, high levels of incarceration effectively remove African American men from the competitive labor force and upon release they are disenfranchised in the political system and permanently unemployable.” The evidence does indeed suggest that mass incarceration is systemically racist for this reason. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in December of 2021 Black or African-American people over the age of 16 had an unemployment rate of 7.1%, and Latino or Hispanic people over the age of 16 had an unemployment rate of 4.9%. This is compared to whites who had an unemployment rate of 3.2% in the same period. According to a 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, a staggering 27% of formerly incarcerated individuals were unemployed. And unlike cities such as San Francisco’s “Fair Chance Ordinance,” which at least gives felons a chance at finding a job, many areas across the U.S. do not support formerly incarcerated populations. Policies that do not support formerly incarcerated individuals have the potential to increase recidivism. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, an increase in employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals can reduce recidivism. Thus, policies like “Ban the Box” are worth exploring to solve this issue.

One reason that prisons exist is to extract free or cheap labor from inmates. While inmates are in prison, their labor is exploited. Smith and Hattery state that inmates are often paid less than $1 per hour, are required to pay back a portion of their paycheck to the prison, and do not receive any benefits. As a result, corporations that rely on prison labor are able to substantially reduce labor costs. Thus, the prison industrial complex is a vicious cycle of capitalist and racial exploitation, for felons in and out of prison are exploited for their labor. In the former, prisoners are paid very little or not at all. In the latter, it is difficult for felons to find jobs and must often settle for minimal pay. The quality of life, wellbeing, and the very existence of felons are disregarded under the punitive paradigm. Society has contempt and total lack of regard for the lives of felons in almost all circumstances. Consequently, it can be reasonably argued that the entire prison industrial complex relies upon a genocidal epistemology. Butler argues that a life can only register as life if people view it as such, and racism necessarily “forecloses” the idea of life. In essence, the prison industrial complex “nullifies” the living character of a population by incarcerating, exploiting, and isolating the individuals subjected to this injustice. Insofar as police and prisons exist, Black and brown lives will never register as life. Black and brown lives are physically segregated, politically disenfranchised, and viewed with contempt because the very preconditions for value are informed by notions of whiteness.

Supporters of the punitive paradigm often argue that the disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated individuals is necessary to prove a point, send a message to criminals, or prevent crime from occurring in the first place. But this is flatly false. Voter disenfranchisement policies specifically target minority populations. Robert Preuhs in “State Felon Disenfranchisement Policy” discusses how voter disenfranchisement policies stem from racial politics of oppression. As Preuhs states, “Felon disenfranchisement policies impose restrictions on a felon’s right to vote. Since these policies disproportionately affect minority citizens, legal scholars and others argue that felon disenfranchisement is a result of racial politics, aimed primarily at undermining the electoral power of black and latino citizens.” And while felon disenfranchisement policies may seem “colorblind” because they do not explicitly implicate minorities, these policies are indeed racist because they disproportionately affect minority populations. In “Felon Disenfranchisement and Democratic Legitimacy” Matt Whitt discusses how while felon disenfranchisement policies may operate on retributivist grounds, they do little to deter crime. As Whitt states, “Disenfranchisement does not deter crime; nor does it help rehabilitate former offenders or incapacitate likely offenders. It might be justified on retributivist grounds, but even this fails because disenfranchisement imposes excessive and temporally open-ended losses not only on offenders but also on their communities, and this violates retributivism’s commitment to proportional punishment.” The only purpose of felon disenfranchisement policies is to strip people of their rights. And while it could be argued that felon disenfranchisement policies operate under political, moral, or philosophical grounds, it only produces more political inequity in marginalized communities.

Instead of relying on a punitive approach to crime, society should look for new ways to reduce or deter crime. This involves dismantling and defunding the police, as well as abolishing prisons. But this also involves increasing education funding, developing violence interruption services, and providing adequate mental health treatment to at-risk populations. Studies show that an increase in education services is an excellent deterrent to crime. Studies also show that an increase in poverty is related to an increase in property crime. In Poverty, Ethnicity, and Violent Crime James Short Jr. discusses how violent crime may be more closely associated with poverty or changing social and economic conditions rather than race or ethnicity. To reduce crime, communities must work to better their collective economic conditions.

People have become socialized to believe that prisons are the only solution and deterrent to crime. In this sense of the word, the existence of prisons has become “naturalized.” As Angela Davis in Are Prisons Obsolete? states, “This is a measure of how difficult it is to envision a social order that does not rely on the threat of sequestering people in dreadful places designated to separate them from their communities and families. The prison is considered so ‘natural’ that it is extremely hard to imagine life without it.” Prisons exist because people think they must. People think that prisons must exist, and so they do. This does not mean that society should deny the immorality of crime or not hold people accountable for their actions, but it means that society should affirm and reaffirm the humanity of every single individual to produce better outcomes. Simply locking people away is not at all socially productive. Instead, society should channel negative energy into positive social outcomes, and this includes leaving decisions to communities themselves. In We Do This ‘Til We Free Us Mariame Kaba states, “Mistaking emotional satisfaction for justice is also not abolitionist.” Abolition should not be about one’s feelings. This only creates and recreates the punitive conditions that already encompass the American criminal justice system. People need to let go of feelings of anger. People need to let go of feelings of vengeance. People need to let go of feelings of hate. People need to have solidarity.

One initial solution to dismantling the prison industrial complex is the immediate decriminalization of drugs. Instead of funneling public dollars into the prison industrial complex to deal with addiction, tax dollars should be spent on humane public health and educational measures to reduce drug use. Marijuana legalization and drug decriminalization are becoming more mainstream in American politics. According to a 2021 report by the Pew Research Center, an overwhelming majority of Americans, approximately 91%, support the legalization of marijuana for either medical or recreational purposes. Similarly, Oregon decriminalized the possession of small amounts of heroin and cocaine, and now those who are found to be in possession of such drugs will be required to receive a ticket or opt into drug treatment. Tax dollars raised from the legalization of drugs could be used to bolster social services including public education, mental health treatment, community housing initiatives, and other non-punitive measures to combat drug use, addiction, and crime.

Although it may seem like creating more diverse police forces will solve racial inequity in the criminal justice system, this is largely untrue. According to a 2020 report by the N.Y.P.D., it is now a majority-minority police force. The percentage of uniformed white officers in the N.Y.P.D. was 46.4%, followed by Hispanics at 29.3%, Black people at 15.2%, and Asians at 9.1%, respectively. Despite this, minorities are still racially profiled at higher rates and arrested at higher rates than whites for all crimes. The only solution is police abolition, but it will take time to realize this goal. This begins by defunding the police, enfranchising felons, and decriminalizing drugs. But there is still much more political organizing to be done.

Overall, minorities are disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs, as well as mass incarceration and police violence. American society has historically relied upon the punitive paradigm to enforce justice, and this is largely ineffective. The prison industrial complex and police violence are, in essence, the tangible manifestations of systemic racism, and capitalism has aided and abetted this process. Capitalism has incentivized mass incarceration vis-à-vis the interconnectedness between big business and the prison industrial complex. The American carceral state must be dismantled, the idea of crime must be rethought, and the shape and scope of policing in its entirety must be dramatically altered. Decarceration is possible. Decarceration is necessary. Abolition is achievable. We have to will it into existence.