CAGING THE POOR | The Case Against the Prison System | Prof John McMurtry (2000)

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While we live in an era of intense concern about crime and victimization, heralded by calls for increasingly harsh punitive approaches, it is increasingly clear that more harm is inflicted on people by corporations and nation states than by individuals.

The Case for Penal Abolition marshals convincing arguments from a number of scholars and activists not only for abolishing imprisonment, but overhauling our entire penal injustice system. The movement for penal abolition is as old as prisons themselves, which from their beginning have failed to achieve any of their stated objects: individual and general deterrence, rehabilitation, and restoring a sense of justice. Given the failure of penality in addressing individual (“street”) crime, how then should penal abolitionists respond to corporate (“suite”) crime? Abolitionists have traditionally opposed increased control. Should they now consider increased control for these new kinds of criminality?

The Case for Penal Abolition challenges us all – theorists, lawyers, justice system workers, activists, inmates, victims, and citizens – to move away from failing penal systems towards a new democratic global humanity in resolving human conflicts and legal issues.

Table of contents

I. Introduction: Abolition as a Hopeful Critique of Penality
1. Introduction to the Case for Penal Abolition W. Gordon West and Ruth Morris, Canada
2. Conceptualizing a Comparative Critical Criminology of Penal Abolition W. Gordon West, Canada
3. An Introduction to Penal Abolition: Assessing Penology and Social Control Viviane Saleh-Hannah, Canada
4. History of ICOPA Ruth Morris, Canada

II. Traditional Issues: How Could Penalization of “Street Criminality” Be Abolished?
5. Serve the Rich and Punish the Poor: Law as the Enforcer of Inequality John Clarke, Canada
6. The Race to Incarcerate Marc Mauer, USA
7. But What About the Dangerous Few? Ruth Morris, Canada
8. Toward Safer Societies: Punishment, Masculinities, and Violence against Women Laureen Snider, Canada

III. New Issues: How Could Penalization of “Suite Criminality” Be Abolished?
9. Caging the Poor: The Case against the Prison System John McMurtry, Canada
10. Regulating Toxic Capitalism Frank Pearce and Steve Tombs, Canada/UK
11. Reconciled with Whom? Wrong Criminals, Wrong Goal Ruth Morris, Canada
12. Relocating Law: Making Corporate Crime Disappear Laureen Snider, Canada

IV. Critique and Hope: New Questions, New Directions
13. International Conference on Penal Abolition: The Birth of ICOPA Lisa Finateri and Viviane Saleh-Hanna, Canada
14. Empathy Works, Obedience Doesn’t Hal Pepinsky, USA
15. Towards a Theology of Transformative Justice Jim Consedine, New Zealand
16. Community Conferencing: A Supply Side Contribution to Prison Abolition David B. Moore, Australia
17. Towards the 21st Century: Abolition – An Impossible Dream? Thomas Mathieson, Norway

V. Afterword 18. Jubilee in 2000? Ruth Morris and W. Gordon West, Canada

McMurtry, J. (2000) “Caging the Poor: The Case Against the Prison System” in (eds) Gordon West and Ruth Morris, The Case for Penal Abolition. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, 167-87.

The Case Against the Prison System


We need to recognise from the outset that prisons are not there for the reasons they are said to be there. In truth, they do not morally reform lawbreakers. They do not protect society from violent criminals. They are not retributive institutions. All of these rationalizations of the prison system are myths. This paper will refute each in turn, and then explain the underlying function of the prison system which has not yet been recognised.

For over two centuries, theoretical justifications of prisons have expended their time on arguing which of these competing myths is valid. They have not considered that none of them are. Scientific criminology studies since have assumed the prison institution as a given, and then attended to the institutional details of the various steps and types of its incarceration regime.1

We have seen the same structure of blinkered thought in oppressor institutions for an epoch – in the enslavement of foreign peoples as “civilization”, in public executions of the unemployed as “the law of the realm”, and in the savage beating of children as “parental correction”. We see now the same conventionalised cruelty in caging people to “make them more fit for society”.


Let us consider first of all the claim that prisons are corrective of behaviour which is harmful to others. Although this ideal is the official category of description for the prison system – “the corrections system”, “reformatories”, “correctional facility, “penitentiary”, and so on – the moral reform function which is affirmed of the prison system does not stand up to elementary scrutiny, as either an organisational goal or, even less so, as a plausible pattern of outcomes. This is not surprising. The Tower of London was not intended to rehabilitate, nor was the Bastille of France, nor are the mushrooming prisons of North America today. There is no body of evidence ever compiled that shows any lock-up prison system anywhere to be rehabilitative in regulating aim, or effective results. All the evidence we have points in the opposite direction. Prisons dehumanise. Lawbreaking behaviors persist after imprisonment, and intensify and spread as an effect of the pathogenic medium of the prison’s totalitarian regime.

This outcome is perhaps predictable. Depriving individuals of all responsibility does not and cannot teach individual responsibility. Caging persons while intermittently threatening them with further violence and deprivation cannot teach them respect for others’ rights. Yet the prison regime abolishes self-directed action as well as respect for other humans around the clock. To imagine that such a system can evolve responsibility or civility is obviously delusional.

From the standpoint of scientific reason, what more efficient method could there be for construction of a sociopathic character? From the standpoint of normative structure, how can the removal of all civil rights and responsibilities with force and contempt as the ruling currency of interaction ever develop anything but a like culture in those regulated in this manner? Such a system is bound to create monsters or human wrecks, and it does.

What, we might ask, would we think of a criminal gang who abducted, caged and terrorised people for years on end because they broke a gang rule? And then declared to us that this was all for the victims’ “own good”. We would think they were criminally insane. Yet is what the prison system does to mostly non-violent offenders so different? What, we must eventually come to ask, most needs reform – prison populations, or the prison system itself?


The dominant justification of prisons today, as we know, is no longer rehabilitation of the prisoner. The dominant rationale is that putting criminal offenders into prison “protects society by putting them behind bars“. Given the pattern of corporate media presentation of underclass convicted offenders as violent madmen, and the systematic defunding of life-serving social programs, we might decode the new prevalence of this rationalization as an expression of a deeper-lying pattern to replace the welfare state with more police and prisons. To confirm this pattern, just track where more and more public revenues are going to – police and prisons, even while violent crime falls. Then track where much greater public revenues are being taken from – social programs serving the needs of the less privileged.

The claim that prisons protect society is really a cover story for a deeper design. The state is being restructured from its progressive post-war function of serving the disadvantaged with life-enabling benefits at a cost of higher corporate taxes, to locking the offensive poor in prison in ever greater numbers for corporate profit.2

Thus the “prisons are to protect society” justification is what we might expect from corporately funded politicians and mass media vehicles in a time when less and less social connection remains between the increasing underclass with less money demand than they need, and the simultaneously increasing financial and business class who have ever more money demand than they need. This is the ultimate dividing line between those who end up inside prison and those who almost certainly never will, and its increasing nakedness requires a marketable justification to sustain it.

If increasing profits can be made from a privatised prison industry, and media violence entertainments in which the targets and victims of the exponentially expanding prison system can be demonised and blamed at the same time – well, that is what might be called a “perfect market”. Its implementation will keep “growing business” the more the poor are impoverished and perceived as threatening. This is not to mention the simultaneously increasing domestic and foreign markets for armed forces, private weapons and security commodities. That is where we are today.

We must bear in mind that the underlying function of prison systems since their inception has been a way of walling off the rebellious poor from nuisance to those with property. Prisons remain in general what they always have been – a legal licensing of abduction and institutionalised caging of those perceived by the privileged classes to be a threat to the invulnerability of their social privileges. The “keep them behind bars” slogan marketed to unthinking members of the working and lower middle classes is a manifest expression of the latent function of keeping the insurgent poor in their place.

If one doubts this deep-structural function, try to find a legal jurisdiction anywhere in the Americas in which 90% or more of all prison inmates do not come from the poorer and more deprived groups and families. The figures for the prior income level of those found guilty of crimes, one finds, are not officially featured. One can conjecture that this is because transparent public records of the consistently low and insecure money demand of those who are imprisoned would expose the nature of the prison system: that the blind scales of justice which put them are, in fact, weighted so as to select for the poor. The parallel court, prison and criminology systems are, that is to say, specifically structured not to see that the basic determinant of imprisonment is the poverty of those imprisoned. And so figures are even now not officially kept which lay bare this deep-structural general fact. Yet other figures do allow us to infer its underlying pattern. Thirty-six percent of those caged in Canada, for example, have less than a grade nine education. At the same time, fifty-two percent of all prisoners in Canada had no job prior to the offence for which they were imprisoned.3

On the other hand, try to find anywhere where the privileged and rich of society – those with at least two times the national average of money demand – have any representation in that society’s prisons. We need to keep in mind here as we look that those who do the most premeditated grievous harms to any society’s natural and human life forms are almost always from this group, and are almost never imprisoned for their actions which are primarily responsible for systematic and extreme violence to persons and environments. This freedom from prison remains even if these richer offenders are convicted despoilers of entire ecological systems, or the killers of thousands of innocents by illegal working conditions and criminal wars.4 If prisons were really there to prevent violent criminals from continuing their violence against innocent persons, then this class of persons who are the most dangerous to society and who are uniquely sensitive to this penalty as a deterrent, would be in prison. But they are not. So the protect-society rationalisation of the prison system fails most of all in the cases where it could be most plausibly defended.

The hard fact is that prison is not the place where the most premeditatedly vicious are “kept behind bars”, nor is it remotely designed to serve this claimed function. Nor is “society protected” by those who are identified as criminals and thrown into prison. The myth that it is the most violent criminals who are behind bars rivals the claim centuries ago that it was those who Satan most possessed who were burnt at the stake.5 The great murderers and robbers are almost always found at the top of the system that imprisons the most people – as the last 50 years of Nazi, Stalinist and neo-colonialist rule have shown us more clearly than any time in history. If the enormity of this general pattern is not registered, society continues to develop an ever more effectively enslaved population in fact, and by terror of that fact – quadrupling prison populations over the last 20 years in the U.S., for example, while simultaneously terrorising ever more of the unimprisoned young, poor and non-white members of society.6

At the bottom of the prison institution’s monstrous construction are two complementary facts refuting its primary justification:

Jails and prisons: (1) do not confine those who most threaten society with violent and life-destructive crimes;7 and
(2) the majority of those they do confine are neither violent nor life destructive.8

The worst crime of all according to law and custom is murder, and it becomes worse in proportion to the murders. But no war crime or crime against humanity, the ultimate crime of violence, has – outside African Hutus and former Yugoslavians – yet been subject to application of law and imprisonment to those planning and commissioning the crimes since the internationally binding terms of the Nuremberg Charter and Tribunal over 50 years ago.9 Reflect on that fact, then add to it the immediate and locally present mass and serial killings caused by identifiable wealthy corporations in the US and elsewhere by deadly labour conditions in violation of law and established norm, lethal products scientifically known to disease and kill their users, and calculated actions that deprive people of their livelihoods and security so as to cause disease and death in predictable numbers. None of the continuing perpetrators of these murderous crimes normally goes to prison to protect society. Yet they tend to be at the forefront of barking for stricter punishment by imprisonment for others who are not nearly so dangerous to innocent others, but are poor, younger and of colour.10

Now consider the most compelling, and appalling, refutation of the protect society justification for putting people into prison. The imprisoned are not just the less moneyed and less dangerous to others. They are dominantly the criminally harmless. According to the most recent F.B.I. statistics in the U.S., 88% of the 680,000 people arrested for criminal offences in 1999 were charged with possession of marijuana.11 Here we see the clearest expression of the underlying logic of the criminal-charge system selecting for people to put into jails and prisons. This system is not structured to protect people from violent offenders at all. For marijuana possession is a victimless offence. There is also little or no scientifically sound evidence that it is harmful even to its users.12 But what is very clear is that it is the categorisation of an offence as criminal that drives public acceptance of the prison system. For it spreads as a guilty stigma over all offenders the violence and danger to life of a minority, permitting almost any offender to be caged by the discretion of the sentencing system. This system, incredibly, does not require violence to persons as a qualifying condition for being locked up. This is perhaps the most alarming irrationality and absolutism of the entire regime. It not only contradicts the public presumption that it is the dangerous and violent who are imprisoned, but it opens the gates to the discretionary power of those in police uniforms and judges’ robes who can as they choose put others in cages and destroy their lives although they have committed no crime against the person or even raised a complaint of harm. Almost anyone without the money-demand resources to defend themselves is, thus, made vulnerable to forcible seizure, imprisonment and permanent social stigma for a purely self-regarding choice or another-harmless transgression (e.g., a private act of consumption or exchange, or a petty infringement of public property). When this brutally indiscriminant system of institutional cruelty has been left behind, can there be any doubt that this arbitrary power to arrest and cage persons by the millions for non-injurious acts will be regarded as a cultural barbarism?

How could such a structure of affairs be accepted in an age which, at the same time, is distinguished by its repudiation of practices of arbitrary cruelty as uncivilised? The reason is that not only is this nature of the prison regime unrecognised, but it invisibly serves the private sectarian powers of ascendant groups and their retinues to oppress different and weaker out-group members of society. That is its unseen and regulating function, a caste function if you will against the designated “untouchables” of our era, the poor and the marginalised. Categorisation of a non-conventional behaviour as a criminal offence, that is, achieves an omnibus function of wide-cast vulnerability, accusation, charge, stigmatisation, unaffordable costs and threat of imprisonment for any transgressor of ruling norms: but essentially the legal destruction of almost any person who is poorer than the most privileged (i.e., those without a private home or secure employment). The great majority of young poor people between 15 and 30 with even marginally rebellious tendencies are thus made vulnerable to criminal charge and prosecution although they harm no-one. The crime-and-imprisonment regime becomes in this way the modern counterpart of the lettre de cachet of the ancien regime of France. The jail or imprisonment to which a criminal charge may lead is a veiled threat of terror for anyone – in particular poor youths – who might get out of line.

The deeper substructure function of the prison system to keep the poor and the marginalised in their place here emerges into light. The terror of being caged and brutalised applies to all who are not in prison as an ever present shadow of what can happen to anyone without a lot of money-demand who transgresses the system and, in particular, who might offend or cross police or juridical figures who are permissively armed with great latitudes of discretionary power to lord over, violate and subjugate them, and perhaps destroy their lives. The young without private homes of their own are the most vulnerable target group. From pre-revolutionary France to the late-capitalist order, the prison system is in its most general function a terrorism, selecting most of all for those whose sin is to be poor. But now as then, even the privileged can be put behind the bars of the prison cage if they publicly defy the ruling system on behalf of the dispossessed – as demonstrators against state policies to dispossess the poor of their jobs, traditional rights, social benefits or public space learn across the world every day in the “new world order”.13

What normally legitimates the inhuman act of putting people into cages is that a criminal charge has been judicially proven against the victims. Since the word “criminal” connotes a dangerous offender, this legitimation translates into the now dominant justification of prisons as “putting proven criminals behind bars where they belong”. This rationale becomes credible for an unexamined reason. People unthinkingly assume a non-sequitur line of thought as a self-evident truth. The reasoning is this: If a criminal charge has been laid against a person, and that criminal charge has been upheld by a court of law, the offender must therefore be a threat to others.

That is the great and hidden mind-slippage which single-handedly sustains the prison system as justifiable in the group mind.

The assumption represses basic inferences which do not begin to follow. If, for example, a young person without financial resources is charged with possession of a forbidden substance, or with trespass to defend environmental or human life, the danger to others of this act is not even alleged by the charge. Yet 88% of all criminal charges in the U.S. now are, as we have seen, for the private possession of marijuana alone. This is the most overwhelming refutation of the “protect society” justification of prisons one could imagine. For it is refuted by the nature of the criminal charge itself which does not anywhere allege, imply or require to prove any damage of any kind whatever to anyone.

This undermining of the integrity of the criminal law is itself an immeasurably harmful practice of violence against the person. It could be corrected easily by withdrawal of the barbaric right to sentence to jail or prison anyone who has done no harm to anyone. Yet the use and threat of jail or prison for those who have not harmed anyone is not the exception in our contemporary criminal justice systems. It is the general rule. And this general rule fills jails and prisons everywhere with poorer people who are not dangerous to any citizen or other’s wellbeing. Ninety-seven percent of police-reported U.S. crimes involve no injuries at all to victims, and in 86% no violence whatever to another person is involved.14


Those who are seriously violent to others, especially to unprivileged others who pose no threat to them, are not defended by this argument. From one standpoint, they deserve the worst from society in proportion to the damage they do to innocent and helpless others. But a more wide-lensed view would question the social order that produced such vicious behaviour, and then seek to ensure that conditions did not arise which produced such crimes. A responsible society, that is, would not identify only one condition of a crime as the sole condition that produced it.15 It would be more impartial, and not seek only to attack what may only be the individual symptom of an underlying social disorder. For there can be little doubt that behind most heinous crimes of individuals in a society lurk accepted social conditions by which it was caused to grow – for example, permitted parental violence against children which is almost invariably the causal background of violent criminal offenders.

But, in fact, only a few percent of prison inmates are there for violent crimes. According to Goldberg and Evans, only a very few are in prison in the current U.S., which has “the highest per capita incarceration rate in the history of the world”, for their violence against innocent and helpless others, and almost 90% of the remainder are in prison for no violence to the person at all.16 Prisons, it seems, are not truly directed against violence, but are themselves the primary producer of systematic violence against persons.

There are vicious killers, rapists and extortionists who do belong behind locked doors – not only to protect society, but to learn what has gone wrong in the social background and mind-set that produced their pathological behaviours. But such exceptions cannot justify the caging and torment of the majority who are not violent offenders. Again we see behind the most compelling justification of prisons and jails the very reverse of the justification. As with slavery, which imprisonment reproduces in contemporary form, a presupposed social program still confines the group-mind within blind reflexes of reaction.17


What is the way out of a cultural insanity? The prison institution survives only because it is still socially acceptable. It is socially acceptable, in turn, for only one reason. Citizen bodies have as a whole not yet consciously recognised its underlying terrorist function selecting against the non-violent poor.

Yet there remains the most venerable justification for imprisoning people of all – that the terror of imprisonment is a just retribution for their crime. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, in the words of this justification’s most ancient formula. People who see through other excuses for putting people in cages are apt to retreat to the retribution justification as a final refuge of mental comfort in the face of a socially accepted institution of cruelty to the weak. This is a brutish inheritance. Torture of children, the burnings of witches, and the right to kill inferiors have all been justified as right and good by intelligent people, and prisons are no exception to this pathology of instituted structures of terror and violence against underclasses.

Retributivists, however, never mention that only the poor are likely to be imprisoned – even if all of the prison population comes from the bottom economic classes. The facts are obscured in striking back at those whose life condition is a remonstration to the more privileged. For the facts cannot be seen if the retribution justification is to make any sense. The rich offender deserves under any coherent retributivist argument far more punishment than the poor offender because his criminal intention is formed with lawful options amply available. But that does not awaken the retributivist from the comforts of punitive dogma. The retribution argument is especially popular among philosophers and theorists who exclude social circumstances from view as a method.18

Yet even the fact-blind retributivist cannot ignore the internal incoherence of the retributivist argument. For to re-tribute is to pay back, and there is no pay-back in caging and ritually bullying someone for years in return for their petty theft or possession of a prohibited plant substance. In fact, one can go through almost the entire roster of imprisonable offences and not see a single imprisonment that is deserved as re-tribution. The “debt owed to society” and “paid” by “time in prison” is, in fact, not like a debt or payment at all. For the payment of one’s life being caged is absolutely incommensurable with any offence it is imposed for. The loss of the mind in such a metaphor of exchange that makes no sense whatever, but is conditioned into social consciousness as self-evident axiom, should jolt us into recognition of the madness at work here. But it is not yet seen in the field of daily affirmation of the prison system in every newspaper and police television show. When one examines its moral exchange, however, the retribution argument is seen for what it is. It is insanely unbalanced – assuming as certainly right a wild disproportion between a person’s probably non-violent transgression of a law and their life being caged in return. There is no intelligible similarity or proportion here between offence and the re-talis for it. It is not an eye for an eye, but the loss of all rights of personhood for what is in most instances a violent offence against no person. It is not a holding another responsible for their offence by punishment. It is an abolition of their conditions of responsibility.

The retributivist justification of prisons is not only unbalanced. It is also vicious and violent in its own right. It demands as “just” the seizure, torment and forcible imprisonment of millions of people in exchange for nothing remotely similar in violence from them, and in the majority of cases, no violence at all. As with past monstrous systems of cruel and systematic oppression, we see how morally blind the conventionalised mind-set can become.


At the bottom of the mental impasse is a missing link. The primeval function of prisons from their inception until now has never been recognised. It is the brute right of established ascendant force to publicly defeat any perceived adversary by a victory of force so total that not a single accessible dimension of autonomous human being remains.

The hidden ruling principle of the prison regime is not to punish, to discipline into order, to pay back, or to protect society – the competing rationalisations that have distracted critical analysis from Locke to Foucault.19 All are false to the actually ruling goal. It is to break human beings into subjugated animals.

Every moment of the imprisonment ritual and ceremony, every overt and covert operation of the prison process afterwards, every commanded surrender of prisoner move and position by the guards serves and is exactly regulated by this overriding but never stated purpose: the total defeat of the human status of the prisoner. One cannot begin to make sense of the vast panoply of oppressions at work in every moment of the subterraneanly evolved prison subjection until one recognises this underlying principle by which all are unified as a single unstated program – the breaking of all connections and rights whatever to human being, the reduction of an individual person to an inhuman body.20

Consider the exactly ritualised procedures which deconstruct the prisoner. The inner logic of every step is to relate to every distinct capability of being human so as to annihilate it – to manacle the human hands and its opposable thumbs, to reduce the upright carriage to animal postures at command, to control the wide-spectrum eyes and the bipedal walk within mechanical ranges, to forcibly disconnect the prisoner from family, friends and every human relationship developed over a lifetime, to prohibit all privacy from being watched, to abolish the right to human voice and language by enforced silence and obedient sounds, to remove all the clothes and signs of individual and juridical identity, to liquidate all free access to humanity’s civilised tools of reading, writing and creative inscription, and above all to deprive the huge 150,000,000,000-neuron brain of the evolved human of its every normal stimulus, space, time and medium to connect, to self-direct, and to create.

It is the human’s unique powers of thought and sensibility that the prison-cage is most of all structured to put on the rack of continuously shackled time and break. Its presupposed regime is to lay waste human identity itself. For it is only in terms of this covertly regulating principle that the jail and prison regimes can be understood, that all their constitutive steps cohere. Their spaces and order systematically and pervasively deprive the individual of every outlet, choice or relationship by which to live and think as human, and their enforced routines close down every aspect and step of free will around the clock and into every region of life. The confinement to the “hole” for any assertion of human resistance to the program, the living amidst one’s body waste as an animal, the ever-present terror of attack or animal rape from the jungle all around – all of these are signs pointing to the underlying master program. From start to finish, the regulating design that operates beneath speech or written code is to strip the prisoner of human status. To crush it absolutely. The prison system is the reduction of the person to an animal’s body at the feet of the omnipresent sovereign.


The prison system thus remains in a way the judicial murder it began as a first step of – the holding place for the condemned before execution. The former ritual of the sovereign’s vanquished adversary – to be publicly mutilated, hanged, beheaded, drawn and quartered – is here drawn out as a set time of the living death of human being. The reforms of this mad triumphalism of absolute power have been significant over the last 300 years. The hideously sadistic violence as show of majesty has been discontinued because of rising human repulsion. Public executions have been abolished altogether, or reduced to the crime of murder, and taken behind closed doors for ritualised enactment still reeking of the medieval past. But the propertiless poor are more and more mass imprisoned instead. Their bodies are made first inhuman, and then chained and guarded functions to labour as beasts.

We still face the deep obscenity of the privileged savagely avenging themselves on the poor to show their superiority, with the dehumanization of them by cages instead of scaffolds as the means of reduction. The prison thus remains in principle what it started as – the impress of absolute power on the subjugated to dispose of at will as bodies.

The recent movement beneath public debate to private-profit prisons should be seen in the light of the prison’s history. Like the rest of the life-blind corporate agenda of which it is part, it is an atavistic throwback to the rule of sadistic absolutism in which the first prisons incubated. It is a turning of the clock back to convict galleys and workhouses for the poor, and the use of their living bodies for slave-labour inputs instead of scaffold detritus, a regression back to the methods of vampire capital centuries ago.

A revealing marker of this New Dark Age is that the emerging corporate workhouses multiply their caged inmates – by three to four times in the U.S. since 1980 – even while violent crime rates unprecedentedly drop in an aging population. From a rational point of view, this contradiction between ever more prisons for a decreasingly violent population demography is sheer insanity. But from the point of view of transnational corporate stockholders who are beneficiaries of costless slave labour and rising public monies to house it, it’s a bull market.

Let us then consider the bigger picture within which the corporate prison is an incubus. The public purse was in 1980 the biggest unopened revenue source and market since the age of overseas colonies began in the sixteenth century. Better still, far more than the money-demand equivalent of past Americas gold was in the U.S. orbit of industrialised countries themselves – lying piled high and apparently forever in the limitlessly rich public coffers of governments spending on social services, with the majority world following suit. Next to the inexhaustible supply of wealth here, gold in the Americas was hinterland fortune. The military took most of it in the U.S., and then tripled the amount after the Reagan administration began the counter-revolution in 1980. Bondholders received 25%-plus compound-interest accumulating on a trebling debt at the same time. 1990’s stockholders hollowed the rest out as beneficiaries of world-wide “structural readjustments” which massively privatised public services, slashed reduced taxes for the corporations and the rich, and opened up trillions of dollars of public revenues for education, health, diplomatic, transportation, resource, pension and other public budgets to corporate control and appropriation. All of this was permitted, and then enforced by, trade-and-investment deregulation across the world.21

The gargantuan and unsatiable feeding frenzy by rootless financial and business classes on the world’s public sectors for the last 20 years knows no remote parallel in modern history, and perhaps all of history. From this condition, the tumorous growth of corporate prisons is more or less to be expected. The fact that there is a $50-100,000 public payout for every individual in prison is not a fact that could escape any corporation geared to bid on escalating public revenues for “getting tough on crime”. Underclass prisoners, worthless in the market with little or no money demand, now multiply their worth by what can be charged to the public purse to lock them in prisons. Corporate media and law-and-order politicians accordingly demand and get “tougher penalties for criminals” – changes in the laws, longer terms, three-strikes legislation, target programs, bigger budgets for non-pharmaceutical drugs, larger multi-level super prisons, more military ordinance – all of which translates into ever more public monies spent on the prison system, and correspondingly more police to catch and put people into them. The military-industrial complex long secured endless demand for expensive weapons by talking up the dangers of “communism” and, now, “rogue states”. The prison industrial complex can deploy the same tried-and-true formula of bleeding the public purse and victimising the poor by selling the same line about “criminals”.

There is no internal limit to this game. You can put every second poor person into prison for whom there is no job – and you get an ever wider-mouth siphon into present and future public revenues, plus a multiplying army of slave labour. It’s the ideal circuit for what I have elsewhere analysed as “the cancer stage of capitalism”, feeding on the social body the more its invasions deprive formerly contributing functions of their means of life. The lock-in of this circuit occurs when the game is then sold to the insecure and angry as “getting tough on crime”. The success of this story, in turn, opens up more markets for violence entertainment on hunting down and hog-tying the poor who step out of line, and for selling private weapons and security devices to protect against them when they get out from behind bars. The death-spiral of the system deepens as oppression itself becomes more and more a growth industry.

When the prisoner has risen above the worst that others can do to him by an integrity of being that cannot be shaken, the system begins to collapse from within. In the twentieth century, Antonio Gramsci, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, George Jackson, Aung San Suu Kyi and Ken Sara-Wiwa are famous prisoners who would and could not be broken because they were fighting a war for freedom from the larger social prison around them. Few of these social prisons stand for long once such stand-ups begin within the inner sanctums of their oppression.

Today the social prison is held in place by the manacles of the mind. They keep the public captured within a program of conditioned appetite and obedience, in “freedom” outside of the dread place where offenders against the system go. But as these manacles of the mind are recognised for what they are, and confinement within the mental prison awakes to the primeval brutality of the iron prison behind it, the connection across walls opens up a common human cause. As the Bastille of two centuries ago, the prison system we know today is the nadir of a larger oppressor structure that has delinked from shared responsibility for the world of life. Sustaining its regime of cruel indifference and life-blindness are history’s deepest and most incorrigible criminals – those who seek in no way to serve the better life of all, but only to deprive the most deprived more for their private gain. Only they can be justly imprisoned, but even they are unlikely to benefit from it. The prison is an historical anachronism of the absolutism of power, and must be abolished – step by step.

Abolition will begin with the principle of imprisoning only those who are deliberately and physically injurious to others – the bestial people of all classes who are still with us. This civilizing of a barbaric institution of the past can be achieved in a single stroke by exact judicial and sentencing standard.

Abolition will continue by a mounting social intolerance of the role models and conditions of mindless cruelty and deprivation out of which violent criminals of all kinds develop on both sides of the prison’s walls.


  1. In general, we can discern in criminology the structure of not seeing by which all oppressor institutions are sustained. The statistics and studies of prison systems are regulated by the presupposition of the prison system as a set of scientific facts. Then analytic attention is preoccupied by “security” procedures, classifications, populations and results, while the dominant pattern of millions of persons being caged for no violent offence never arises as an issue.

  2. Telling indicators of this pattern are that black women are the fastest growing prison population in the U.S. in a two-million prison population that is 70% non-white, and that prisoners have multiplied by eight times since the height of the “war on poverty” began to wind down in 1970. Under the 1995 U.S. Welfare Bill, 11 million poor American families lost income, 2.6 million people and 1.1 million children dropped below the absolute poverty line, and 8 million families lost an average of $1300 (U.S.) each in food stamps. (These figures are drawn from Avery Gordon, “Globalisation and the Prison-Industrial Complex: An Interview with Angela Davis,” Race and Class, 2/3 (1998-99), 145-46 and “Do-Gooders Rally To Plight Of The Poor”, Washington Post, May 4, 1997). The general hypothesis suggests itself here that there is a direct, inverse correlation between increase of public funds spent on police and prisons and decrease of public funds spent on social programs directed at the poor. See my The Cancer Stage of Capitalism (London: Pluto Press, 1999) for the inner logic of the systemic societal pathology of which this pattern is an expression.

  3. Figures are drawn from Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, The Jurisdat Reader: A Statistical Overview of the Canadian Justice System. Toronto: Thompson Publishing, 1998. See also Jeffery H. Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison. Boston: Prentice Hall, 1998.

  4. An estimated 500,000 deaths a year in the U.S., prior to the full effects of deregulation by the Reagan regime, were “attributed to occupationally related diseases, the majority of which are caused by knowing and wilful violation of health and occupational safety laws by corporations” (R. Kramer, “Corporate Criminality” in E. Hochstedler (ed), Corporations As Criminals (Beverley Hills: Sage Publications, 1984, p.19). 56,000 U.S. citizens die annually from such diseases while on the job (“10 Worst Corporations of 1996,” Multinational Monitor, Dec. 23, 1996). As for war crimes and crimes against humanity by U.S. and/or allied forces in the third world since 1945, there were millions of such deaths commissioned in Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia alone between 1965 and 1973, while war crimes or crimes against humanity since in Chile, Guatemala and Iraq (the list is long), run in the hundreds of thousands. With a very few exceptions, there has been no imprisonment of those legally responsible for these crimes of murder and extermination.

  5. The most vicious human cages today are short-term jails within which 3 to 7 million people a year are confined every year in the U.S. (in addition to those already in federal and state prisons). Although “the cruellest form of imprisonment,” sociologist John Irwin tells us, “jails operate as “catchall asylums for poor people”. “With few exceptions, the prisoners are poor, undereducated, unemployed, and belong to minority groups”. They are more subject to “discretionary abuse and intentional meanness”, have “less space and fewer resources and amenities”, and are “sought out” by the police who “never patrol used car lots – and never raid corporate board rooms” but who “are always on the lookout” for the poor committing petty offences (John Irwin, “The Jail”, in T.J. Flanagan, J.W. Maruart, K.G. Adams (ed), Incarcerating Criminals: Prisons and Jails in Social and Organizational Context. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 227-35).

  6. Angela Davis points out that, “More than 70% of the imprisoned population [in the U.S.] are people of colour”, and argues (my emphasis) that “an explicit linkage between slavery and punishment was written into the US constitution precisely at the moment of the abolition of slavery. In fact, there was no reference to imprisonment in the constitution until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment declared chattel slavery unconstitutional. The Thirteenth Amendment read: ‘Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime – – shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (“Globalism and the Prison Industrial Complex,” Ibid., pp. 146-151).

  7. As Chair of Jurists of the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Tribunal at the 1989 Toronto World Summit of international heads of state, I heard days of testimony by eyewitnesses of crimes against humanity in which these heads of state were indicted by extensive documented evidence of (I quote from “international law recognised by the community of nations”): “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, persecution or other inhumane act or omission that is committed by against any civilian population or any identifiable group of persons” (Canadian Criminal Code, Chapter 37.1.96) as well as or including (I quote from the Nuremberg Charter and Geneva Convention derived articles, now enforceable under Article 2 and 3 of the International Criminal Tribunal For The Former Yugoslavia at the Hague): “the wilful killing of civilians and the wilful infliction of great suffering and serious injury, wanton destruction of civilian property not justified by military necessity”, “the wanton destruction of cities, towns and villages and devastation not justified by military necessity”, and “the employment of poisonous weapons and weapons calculated to cause unnecessary suffering”. The evidence of these very grave and systematic crimes of violence against the person on a serial and mass basis was then and since well documented, but is almost nowhere reported in any mass media, including those who provide readers with a daily diet of crime and violence altogether trivial in comparison. Such is the pattern of selection of dominant opinion which expresses its concern to “protect society against violent criminals”.

  8. Most people who are imprisoned are not only jailed for victimless or non-violent offences (i.e., for personal possession of banned substances or for petty property offences), but are besides selected for imprisonment because they are non-white and/or younger than average. Canadian statistics show that only 29% of “high risk” offenders are incarcerated for “a crime against the person”, while for 51% of all prisoners there is no conviction for such violence (Jurisdat, pp. 59-60). (Note here that prisoners which the system deems “high risk” and, thus, to which it assigns more stringent “security” measures, are far less likely to be convicted for “violence against the person.”) As for the less powerful groups whose members are more likely to be in prison, Canadian prisons as a whole house more than eight times as many indigenous persons as non-indigenous persons, and select for those aged 20-24 (almost a quarter of all prisoners: Jurisdat, p.57 70% of Saskatchewan’s prison population are first nations’ people, while Canada’s Young Offenders’ Act – continuously charged with being “too soft on crime” although Canada’s violent crime is one-quarter of the U.S.’s – allows criminal charge for such offences as eating crab apples off a tree (Felicia Daunt, “At War With Our Kids,” Briarpatch, November 1998, pp. 3-4).

  9. The binding nature of this criminal law is often overlooked. But see the terms of Chapter 37.1.96 of the Canadian Criminal Code, for example, cited in Note 7.

  10. See Note 4.

  11. C.N.N. News, October 11, 1999. The 88 percent figure of total arrests reported by C.N.N. is not, as it may seem, inconsistent with the much lower percentage of marijuana offenders in prison. Although U.S. drug arrests have stunningly multiplied by more than nine-fold since 1968 (from 162,000 to 1,476,100 by 1995: Jeffrey H. Reiman, The Rich Get Richer And The Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class and Criminal Justice. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998, p. 37), by no means all arrests on marijuana charges end with the arrested person in a federal or state prison. This is a crucial point to bear in mind in understanding that prison is only the end-point of an escalating system of terror in which abduction and temporary imprisonment by arrest has many points between it and the full caging of the convicted person. The arrest for the alleged offence must extend into formal charge. The formal charge must continue to be pressed past possible ties with people in the system, legal representation or other successful external assistance.  There must then be movement to legal trial on the charge without other disposition of the case in the interim, trial without plea-bargain release, finding of guilty rather than innocence on the charge, and, finally, imprisonment rather than conditional discharge, probation or other penalty in place of full caging. Each of these steps of the caging system selects for the young and poor, and is open to discretion of officers in charge at various levels – a point that is not lost on either side in the long and harrowing process of stigmatization and subjugation from initial arrest to conviction behind bars. It is this larger system of social terror, which can target a large part of the population at any time, which needs to be recognised in the full extent of its oppression, although prison proper be only the final, total subjugation for those arrested on “a marijuana offence.”

  12. The justification for claiming harm in these cases is examined in John McMurtry, “The Ethics of Compulsory Drug Testing”, Westminster Review 1:1 (1987), 3-4. While the mainly poor are being imprisoned for drug possession – 400,000 in U.S. prisons in 1999 – the pharmaceutical corporations quadrupled their inflation-adjusted revenues between 1970 and 1998, “24 percent of these affecting the central nervous system.” “The drug wars and the drug boom are interrelated”, contends Harper’s Joshua Wolfe Shenk. Leading “the drug-free America” crusade are “the former CEO of Johnson and Johnson [and] – the philanthropic arms of Merck, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Hoffman La Roche”. Yet “legal medications are the principal cause of between 45,000 and 200,000 American deaths each year – [and] no federal agency collects information on deaths related to illegal drugs” (Harper’s Magazine, May 1999, pp. 38-50).

  13. An unpublicized feature of demonstrations of this sort which I have observed over 30 years of eyewitness and on-site camera footage is the structuring of police systems to terrorise lawful participants in assembly against long documented, institutionalised oppressions – by massive display of weapons of violence, masked black-uniformed squads, lines of armoured vehicles and prison vans, senseless discharges of toxic sprays and club swingings against nonviolent citizens, and maximally painful, limb-torquing manacling of passive resisters before caging. Here the terrorist function of the imprisonment system is clear independent of any dangerous behaviour by its victims. Its most recent publicly observable display, but not observed by media commentators, was in Seattle, December 1-2, at the World Trade Organisation meetings where over 700 persons were arrested and imprisoned.

  14. These figures are taken from the superb documentation of Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans of the Prison Activist Resource Center, Berkeley California, “The Prison Industrial Complex and the Global Economy”, Nexus (June-July) 1999, 17.

  15. When I wrote my M.A. thesis in philosophy on the concept of causation many years ago, I learned a remarkable conceptual fact. Our notion of “cause” derives from the etymological root of “accusare”, and what is accused, the cause, is determined by the principle of what deviates from the norm. See, for example, Hart and Honore’s classic study, The Concept of Causation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957).

  16. “The Prison Industrial Complex,” p.17.

  17. The key to understanding the prisoner-state relationship is that the prisoner is the property of the state (or its delegated stand-in as with new corporate prisons). Property means the right to exclude all others from the object of property, including the prisoner. There seems to be a deep structure of consciousness in which thus “owned”, anything can be done to the object owned, even humans, who have as property no civil or human rights as persons. This is the legal moment of the reduction of the prisoner to non-human which is analysed ahead. It is also the lock on the unthinking mind which cannot get beyond the regulating mind-sequence of criminal = violent = rightfully owned body of the state = no treatment of this object can be wrong.

  18. It is interesting to note in this connection that not only judges, but the law itself is structured to select poor people for prison by, for example, requiring one one-hundredth as much cocaine possessed by crack possessors to receive a mandatory prison sentence as for pure cocaine powder, the choice of the rich (cited in Goldberg and Evans, p.19). Jefferey H Rieman provides ample documentation of the wildly discriminatory treatment between white collar criminals and the poor in their judicial sentences (The Rich Get Rich And The Poor Get Prison, passim).

  19. Foucault writes in a summative line of his Discipline And Punish: The Birth of the Prison: “The perpetual penalty that traverses all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institutions compares, differentiates, hierarchizes, homogenizes, excludes. In short, it normalizes” (Foucault’s emphasis, Paul Rabinow (ed), The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, p. 195). Foucault does not penetrate the prison institution deeply enough. Its regime precisely does not normalise. It denormalises at the profoundest level possible, reducing the human person to the non-human. In his post-modern impulsion to attribute all brutality to the ordering forces of totalizing scientific modernity, Foucault misses the primeval and subterranean nature of the prison system.

  20. Angela Davis comes closest to penetrating this inner logic of the prison cage by aligning imprisonment to slavery. But the key difference is that no slave was kept who was not an instrument of the private owner’s will, normally for a productive purpose. Prison reduces to animal status prior to and independent of the prisoner serving any productively instrumental function to the prison’s masters. Indeed, prison typically prevents productive function and vastly increases input costs by its regime of absolute repression of human properties. The corporate prison seeks to extract productive labour and money profits, but its greatest cost is in the reduction of prisoners to animal status, a cost far beyond productive enslavement which even corporate cost cutters do not question.

  21. The historical trends here within which the corporate prison has incubated are explained in detail in my Unequal Freedoms: The Global Market as an Ethical System (Toronto and Westport Ct: Garamond and Kumarian Press, 1998, pp. 215-97). The economic paradigm shift within which these trends unfolded is explained in The Cancer Stage of Capitalism, Ibid. pp. 132-190.

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