Just outside prison walls: hedging the risks of movements against the prison industry

See also:  “Archipelago of Risk: Uncertainty, Borders and Migration Detention Systems,” (New Formations, Volume 84-85, 2015, pp. 163-183) and “The Time of the Contract: Insurance, Contingency and the Arrangement of Risk,” (South Atlantic Quarterly, 111:4, 2013).

In a recent article “The Business of Mass Incarceration,” Chris Hedges wrote

Poor people, especially those of color, are worth nothing to corporations and private contractors if they are on the street. […] This use of the bodies of the poor to make money for corporations fuels the system of neoslavery that defines our prison system.

Incarceration has become a very lucrative business for an array of private contractors, most of whom send lobbyists to Washington to make sure the laws and legislation continue to funnel a steady supply of poor people into the prison complex. These private contractors, taking public money, build the prisons, provide food service, hire guards and run and administer detention facilities. It is imperative to their profits that there be a steady supply of new bodies.

In the US, and to a lesser extent in places such as Australia, there has been a renewed emphasis on the simultaneously deeply racialising and lucrative economics of mass incarceration.

There have, of course, been many who have long focused on the issue of prisons, most notably Critical Resistance, Angela Davis, and many others. More recently, the prisoner hunger strike in California, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and increasing pressure on President Obama to call an end to the War On Drugs (given it resulted in little more than an escalation of imprisonment rates) have brought questions about the role and existence of prisons to the boil. And, within this, there have also been a range of significant attempts to address the issue without losing sight of its manifold dimensions, such as Nat Smith and Eric Stanley’s anthology, Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex. There is so much more that could be said here.

Californian prison hunger strike poster, 2013
Californian prison hunger strike poster, 2013

My intention, however, is not to write a history of the politics around the prison-industrial complex, which I’m sure others are far better placed and informed to do than I am.

I did want to flag a question that, as far as I know, has not been particularly prominent, but which seemed implied by Hedges’ choice of words. When Hedges writes that “Poor people, especially those of color, are worth nothing to corporations and private contractors if they are on the street,” I am not so sure that is quite as true today as it was just a year or two ago. And when I read the following, it gave me pause.

In poor communities where there are few jobs, little or no vocational training, a dearth of educational opportunities and a lack of support structures there are, by design, high rates of recidivism—the engine of the prison-industrial complex.

As it happens, I’ve been researching the rolling out of Social Benefit Bond pilot schemes from New York to the UK to Australia. (See here and here.)

The two principal areas in which those schemes have been applied are foster care and recidivism. In Australia and the US, and to a lesser extent in the UK, foster care agencies have largely been oriented around Indigenous people and African-Americans respectively. The same is true of recidivism programs.

So, let me be more specific. The role of the bonds in recidivism programs is that they enable investors to (among other things) both make money from incarceration and hedge against the decline of imprisonment rates by holding bonds as part of a strategy of portfolio diversification.

In other words, there is already a financial strategy in place that means — to rewrite Hedges’ remarks — that poor people, especially those of color, might well be worth something to corporations and private contractors if they are, perhaps not quite on the street, but just outside the prison walls.

There are lots of other things that could be said about the bonds. And the above should certainly not be taken as an argument for the continuance of the prison-industrial complex or the War on Drugs that has in large measure fueled it.

My question is, instead, to what extent are the campaigns against the prison-industrial complex implicitly or explicitly being directed toward supporting Social Benefit Bonds, and if so, to what extent has there been an explicit discussion of this and of the politics of the bonds?

Capitalists approach most things as a question about risk — and, to an extent, the bonds are one (albeit still emerging) finance capital response to the risk of declining profitability in the face of movements against the prison-industrial complex.

There might be some questions to ask along the way, such as: what are the conditions and effects of recidivism programs, particularly those contracted out to private agencies [1] and mediated by financial institutions such as banks?

Those might not seem like the most pressing questions to ask when juxtaposed to the rates and experience of imprisonment. But, let’s be clear: it is precisely the clear distinction between imprisonment and the time just after release from prison that the bonds make irrelevant from the perspective of ‘those who want to make money from poor people.’

Within the terms of the bonds, recently released prisoners are very much an asset class with a relatively high rate of return.

In this sense, there might well be a debate about whether the concept of — and opposition to — the prison-industrial complex includes those agencies that work just outside the prison walls, in prison release and recidivism programs.



1. I should possibly add that while my first prompt for writing the above was that Chris Hedges’ particular choice of words seemed, given what I know about the bonds, to rule out a perspective that might be critical of the bonds, the second reason I had for singling his article out was my perusing his more recent article on the same site, “Cornel West and the Fight to Save the Black Prophetic Tradition.” My initial response was that, as far as I’m aware, the Obama Administration (or, more precisely, the Democratic Party) has sidelined if not always excluded a number of African-American perspectives, so I was not entirely sure what the particular concern here might be. That was why I gave an albeit very brief summary of the history of opposition to the prison-industrial complex, giving particular emphasis to those contributions that both of Chris Hedges’ articles tends to erase.

And then I wondered what Cornel West has had to say about the ways in which funding has been directed to various religious organisations through the Faith-Based Initiative established under Bush and continued under Obama. A good part of the funding for prisoner recidivism programs comes under the remit of the Faith-Based Initiative, of course. And, as far as I’m aware, Cornel West’s criticisms of the Faith-Based Initiative have focused almost exclusively on warning that religious institutions might be ‘co-opted’ by government policy. To be honest, I do not think that this amounts to a criticism so much as a demand that public money be disbursed to religious organisations to do as they see fit without oversight. This is not to suggest that governments should, by contrast, do as they please.

But given that I already know that many of the specific performance indices of Social Benefit bonds have been shaped by religious doctrines, I would not underestimate the extent to which there are reasons for not wanting to raise critical questions about the bonds within campaigns and movements against the prison industry.

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