The Prison Industrial Complex and Black Power

The American Penal System needed reformation since the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1864, which made it legal to be enslaved as a form of punishment, because of this it allowed prisoners to provide work labor for the American South’s economy (13). Thus feeding into the creation of the Prison Industrial Complex, the relationship between government and industry. To better understand the Prison Industrial Complex one should look into the foundation to the naming of the Prison Industrial Complex, the prisons in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Angela Davis reason of naming the system, and the modern movement with regards to the Prison Industrial Complex.


The Foundation of Prison Industrial Complex

     To begin the assessment of the Prison Industrial Complex, one must first investigate the origin of the syntax for this label of the privatization of prisons. The foundation for the Prison Industrial Complex began in 1961; when Dwight D. Eisenhower instilled fear in Americans through his Farewell Address to his eight-year term as president. The ‘Military Industrial Complex’ that Eisenhower coined in his fourth point of his speech is what rooted fear across many Americans (History.com). The new title for the compound was the response of the privatization of companies that make weapons and thus creating an interconnection between the military, bureaucracy, and importantly private companies.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together. (Eisenhower)

This quote exemplifies Eisenhower’s use of fear on the democratic way, security, liberty, and peaceful societies as a clear reason of why the military needs to thrive to protect the ideas that held so tightly to the quintessential american. However 36 years later, Angela Davis used the collective memory of the Military Industrial Complex to speak out about the Prison system in America, because Angela Davis used it as a tool to challenge the memory (Zelizer).  Thus creating the Prison Industrial Complex that replicated the military privatization that Eisenhower discussed throughout his farewell speech, because of its idea that the best way is privatization because of the capital gains (Thepostarchive).

Figure 1: Eisenhower’s Farewell Address in 1961(Eisenhower)

Figure 2: Angela Davis On the Prison Industrial Complex (Thepostarchive)


America’s Prisons in the 1960’s and 1970’s

     The shift of a dramatic increase in incarceration that led to the privatization because of the need for a location to hold the incarcerated was notably the result of new drug laws in the 1930s (which was later called ‘War of Drugs’ by Nixon). These laws targeted minorities. As drugs such as opium, cocaine, and marijuana were not illegal and were only considered a global health issue once one had became addicted to the substance. However in the mid-19th century with the introduction of the Gold Rush, opium became illegal, which was a systematic way of suppressing the Chinese Immigrants because they were the demographic that mostly partook in the consumption of opium. This systematic oppression continued to cocaine that contained the African Americans and lastly marijuana that suppressed Mexicans (Jarecki). Thus showing how the penal system was systematically targeted to imprison minorities even after the Jim Crow Era.

In relation with the Black Power Movement and incarceration at this time was unprecedented because for the first time people were voluntarily being imprisoned to exemplify the mistreatment towards African America through laws and civilian perception. Henry Louis Gates Jr. from Harvard University even notes this phenomenon.

I think one of the most brilliant tactics of the Civil Rights movement was its transformation of the notion of criminality because for the first time being arrested a noble thing… They voluntarily defined a movement around getting arrested (13).

This new ideology stimulated arrest amongst many advocast and even famous Civil Rights figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X. Thus the beginning to higher rates of incarceration because leading up to 1970, prison population was incredibly stagnant but at the change of the decade rates of incarceration increased tremendously. With Black Male inmates composing of 1,313 per 100,000 US resident, which resulted in the statistic that African Americans were five times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterpart (Drake). (Today this statistic is one in three black males to white male (13).)


Angela Davis Response

Angela Davis
Figure 3: Angela Davis being escorted by two FBI agents in 1970 (Pickoff)

Angela Davis, the third woman on the FBI‘s Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List in 1970, began her speech that names the Prison Industrial Complex with the consideration of how she became an activist. She ponders the idea of it rooted in the 1963, 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing because of the relationship her family had with the girls that died in the attack. However, she later specifies that growing up in the American South was the actual reason she became an activist because of it requiring her to always promote transformation. This activism has resulted in her in naming the privatization of prisons as the Prison Industrial Complex. She credits this as the name because of the privatization for the benefit of the US economy and in particular capitalism (Pickoff). The financial advantages of benefits were the backbone of the Military Industrial Complex because of Eisenhower’s idea of interconnecting the government, bureaucracy, and most importantly Private Corporation. Thus making the new prison system to properly being named after the movement.


The Modern ‘Prison Industrial Complex’

     Some narrations of the increase of imprisonment in America does not credit it as a result of race issue but instead a class issue; these descriptions derive from documentaries like The House I Live In (Jarecki). Which Angela Davis agrees with but does not credit class as the main reason for most of the “poor people” imprisoned are people of color (Thepostarchive). Another way that the wealth as the primary goal of being incarcerated may quickly discredit through statistical evidence beginning with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to present time (13). The relationship between capitalism and prisons motivated Angela Davis to create the term Prison Industrial Complex because of the mistreatment of prisoners in Americas Penal System throughout the 1960s and the 1970s. In particular, the center of the passion for this is the privatization of American prisons because of their only purpose being economic gains in a capitalistic society like America. Through the coining of the new term, Angela Davis has left a legacy to reform the prison system. Not only was this seen before her discovery of the new word, but through the book, The New Jim Crow, and even in the 2016 Presidential Primaries (Alexander). In particularly, the presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders, emphasized the funding aspect of the penal system. Resulting in many speeches not only at the candidate podium but also on the Senate Floor with the central idea that “we have to invest in education and jobs for our young people, not more jails or incarceration” (Sanders).

Figure 4: Bernie Sanders: Jobs, Not Jails on the Senate Floor in 2015 (Catholics 4Bernie)

     The ‘Prison Industrial Complex’ gained attention again last October, yet significantly in regards to the entertainment industry with the creation of the documentary 13th featuring Angela Davis (13). Thus illustrating the significance of the need of reformation to the American Penal System since the passage of the 13th Amendment; however, this reform did not create movement until Eisenhower made his famous ‘Military Industrial Complex’ Speech. Eisenhower’s speech gave the syntax to what Angela Davis later named the movement of American Penal Systems to privatization in the 1960’s and the 1970’s, in which she is still trying to invoke reformation in the current politics with the assistance of many activists.

Figure 5: Jay Z: ‘The War on Drugs Is an Epic Fail’ (Jay Z)


Works Cited

13th. Dir. Ava DuVernay. Netflix, 2016. Netflix. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

Alexander, Michelle. “Introduction.” New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New, 2010. N. pag. Print.

Catholics 4Bernie. “Bernie Sanders: Jobs, Not Jails (6/9/2015).” YouTube. YouTube, 24 June 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

Drake, Bruce. “Incarceration Gap Widens between Whites and Blacks.” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, 05 Sept. 2013. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

Eisenhower, Dwight D. “Military-Industrial Complex Speech,.” Eisenhower’s Farewell Address. White House, Washington D.C. 17 Jan. 1961. Speech.

History.com Staff. “Eisenhower Warns of Military-industrial Complex.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

Pickoff, David. “The Way It Was: Today in History – Oct. 13.” CBS News. CBS Interactive, 13 Oct. 2016. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

Pickoff, David. “The Way It Was: Today in History – Oct. 13.” CBS News. CBS Interactive, 13 Oct. 2016. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

Sanders, Bernie. “READ: Bernie Sanders’ Speech At The Democratic Convention.” NPR. NPR, 25 July 2016. Web. 18 Apr. 2017

The House I Live In. Dir. Eugene Jarecki. Perf. Eugene Jarecki. Virgil Films, 2013. DVD.

Thepostarchive. “Angela Davis On the Prison Industrial Complex.” YouTube. YouTube, 02 Sept. 2016. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

Z, Jay, Molly Crabapple, Jim Batt, Kim Boekbinder, and Dream Hampton. “The War on Drugs Is an Epic Fail.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Sept. 2016. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.

Zelizer, Barbie. “Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies.” Critical Studies in Mass Communications. N.p.: n.p., 1995. 214-39. Print.