Theorising the prison–industrial complex

Ioannis Papageorgiou*, Georgios Papanicolaou

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


In the following pages we aim to take a closer look at the idea of the ‘prisonindustrial complex’ (PIC). While we propose to query this idea from a theoretical viewpoint, our interest in it is underpinned by significant political concerns. An entire stream of radical, academic and activist work appears to rely on this idea in order to make sense of and mount a critique against the growth of the penal state and the explosion of racialised prison populations in the United States (e.g. Davis 2003). According to this idea, recent transformations in penality and the corresponding patterns of development of the penal apparatus in that country can be understood on the basis of an increasing convergence of interests between big capital, criminal justice bureaucracies and policy makers. In so far as the administration of criminal justice presents entrepreneurial opportunities and profit increasingly overtakes considerations of justice as its commanding rationale, a swelling penal apparatus not merely consolidates but rather amplifies the social, racial and spacial divides engendered by neoliberalism, and feeds upon them. While its proponents defend this approach vigorously, on the basis of both

theoretical considerations and empirical evidence, it appears that the idea sits rather uneasily with other commentators on penality. Of course, the ideological ascendancy of the right allows conservative commentators to take a derisory approach, labelling all work on the prison-industrial complex as ‘laughable left-wing nonsense peddled by Marxist goofballs and other passengers in the clown car of academic identity politics’ (Goldberg 2011). On the other hand, among the wider critical group that does regard the contemporary transformations of penal apparatuses as deeply disturbing, reactions towards the PIC thesis range from scepticism over the significance of the available empirical evidence (e.g. Parenti 2008) to outright rejection on grounds of projecting a misplaced and ‘conspiratorial vision’ of penal realities (Wacquant 2009b). Now, no one today, at least those in the latter group, refutes the fact that

repressive apparatuses have assumed an alarming centrality in the management of the social consequences of unbridled neoliberalism. While interrogating why and how this should have happened is a formidable task that invites theoretical debate, the fact that a considerable number of active and consciously radical prison activists rely on the idea of the PIC to organise thought and

action points to a theoretical challenge and is politically pertinent, too. At the core of that thesis is the claim that the mechanisms sustaining the reproduction and growth of penal apparatuses appear to stand in an organic relationship with core systemic economic processes. The existence of an economic apparatus that can be understood in terms of an ‘industrial complex’ at the heart of the contemporary political economy of punishment would entail dramatic transformations of penal modalities. What sort of tendencies and contradictions are inscribed into such development? If such are the characteristics of penality today, how does one organise against it? What kind of oppositional, alternative social visions and strategies are possible? In what follows we attempt to situate and unpack theoretically the debate

on the PIC by surveying both the arguments put forward by its proponents and the criticisms directed against it. We find that the concept of a prisonindustrial complex firmly deserves a place within an analytical framework that captures the modality of the integration of the repressive and economic apparatuses under mature neoliberalism, provided that one recognises that what is captured by it is a tendency, rather than a rigid economistic teleology, in the development of contemporary advanced capitalist societies.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNew Directions in Crime and Deviancy
EditorsSimon Winlow, Rowland Atkinson
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9780203102657
Publication statusPublished - 3 Dec 2012
Externally publishedYes


Dive into the research topics of 'Theorising the prison–industrial complex'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this