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Immiseration and The Economics of a Prison Planet

by Elas Ortega-Aponte
Drew University Theological School
The organizers of this symposium presented us with three questions.
Each one demands a response that is faithful to theological visions that
sustain and promote the common good, and therefore, are worth considering
with depth and care. These questions ask us to deliberate on 1) When does
economic inequality become sinful? 2) How can theological and biblical
sources help turn sinful economic practices toward the common good? 3)
What are possible ways of creating individual and community practices that
can confront the sin of inequality and cultivate theological visions of the
common good? Of these provocative questions, I will engage the first at
some length and and turn to the third to make a number of proposals. I will
do this from my location as a cultural sociologist of color with a deep interest
in understanding how faith communities mobilized the resources available to
them to respond to challenges impacting their daily lives.
In giving my remarks the title, "Immiseration and the Economics of a
Prison Planet," I aim call our attention to a topic of central to my thinking
about economic inequalitythe mass-incarceration of communities of color
and the ongoing immiseration it creates. It is my position that our current
incarceration and punishment practices were designed, and continue to be
enforce, with the aim of harnessing economic and political power with the



end goal of mobilizing these resources from communities of color to

dominant sectors of society. Furthermore, such practices move away from
views of punishment as reformation to perspectives of containment. This
being done through increased securitization, harsher sentencing for crimes
dealt with differently in the past, like for example, diversion programs,
ongoing surveillance and criminalization of minors, and all along cashing in
the profitability of the privatization of punishment.i Finally, the fast-paced
prison buildup necessary to house the exponential growth of people in
confinement is dramatically reshaping communities and states ecology-both
the human ecology and natures landscape.ii
As a cultural sociologist, I am interested in understanding the social
processes that put in place, maintain, and reproduce macro and micro
structures of oppression. This is to say, that from my perspective, I am
concerned with the interplay between societys structuresforms of
government, economic practices, political processes, legal structures,
religious institutions, media representations, and how agents interact with
and are affected by these structures in their everyday practices.iii Of these
structures, those relating to prison, policing, and the ways in which they
enter national and global economic process militarizing civilian life,
endangering notions of citizenship, and the altering the ecological landscape
are of primary concern to my research agenda.iv
This is not only a local reality, but it is also gaining international dimensions
that mirroring our national scene. At home and abroad, communities of color



find themselves as primary targets of police surveillance and imprisonment,

immigrant populations are routinely criminalize and rounded up for a profit,
public funds for schools are diverted from educational purposes to increased
security, social safety nets turn into securitization traps, and finally, the
unleashing of terror regimes against women and girls.v In the face of these
realities, are notions of common goods feasible without first addressing the
mass-imprisonment of communities of color? vi Whether in their economic,
political, educational, or life expectancy, the share on common goods for
communities target by mass-incarceration are under threat; in fact, this has
always been the case in the United States.vii
Although it may be tempting to consider the profitability of incarceration,
policing, and the violence they unleash against communities at the margin
as recent developments in this nations punishment practices, a deeper look
into the nations historical past reveals them to be in step with the nations
chattel slavery past and steaming from it. W.E.B. Du Bois clearly exposed the
interconnections between conceptions of crime, incarceration, and their role
in the economic sphere at various points of his work. Let us consider one of
those instances here:
For such dealing with criminals, white or black, the South had no machinery, no
adequate jails or reformatories; its police system was arranged to deal with blacks
alone, and tacitly assumed that every white man was ipso facto a member of that
police. Thus grew up a double system of justice, which erred on the white side by
undue leniency and the practical immunity of red-handed criminals, and erred on the
black side by undue severity, injustice, and lack of discriminationthe police system
of the South was originally designed to keep track of all Negroes, not simply of
criminals; and when the Negroes were freed and the whole South was convinced of



the impossibility of free Negro labor, the first and almost universal device was to use
the courts as a means of re-enslaving the blacks. It was not then a question of crime,
but rather one of color, that settled a man's conviction on almost any charge. viii

I see Du Bois pointing out, among other things, 1) that there is a direct
correlation between a groups racial categorization, their construction as
potential criminals, and therefore, of a certain group conceiving of itself as
responsible for the security of society. 2) Steaming from these
conceptualizations, the activities of one group are closely monitored for
deviances from socially constructed norms, while another enjoys latitude of
action, often avoiding penalties for openly committed crimes. After all, this
latter group is responsible for designing, transmitting, and maintaining the
socially constructed norms that benefits them. 3) That the police, and by
extension prisons, where design as mechanisms to control the bodies of
people of color-not only because of their construction as criminals but also to
harness their labor; put different, their construction as criminals was directly
linked to the desire to control their bodies and labor. ix 4) That legal systems
were designed to ensure and maintain ongoing oppressive structures under
conceptions of legality and justice cemented in white supremacy.x Following
Du Bois, does not commit one to denying that there are acts that count as
crime, and therefore, needing a societal response to address wrongs
committed, but it does highlight the societal construction of categories of
crime, criminals, and the color of justice.xi
I won't shy away from stating this forcefully, economic inequality as it
manifest itself intentionally against people of color and concerted through


various forms of structural dynamics and micro and macro structures, of

which mass-imprisonment is a primary one, intends the immiseration of
communities. They are geared towards the creation, promotion, and
preservation of misery in certain communities while transferring economic,
political, and human capital to others. These are not random nor blind
processes, but concerted efforts through policy, policing, and the shaping of
public opinion to create a public sphere in which certain lives represent a
threat to the established order and therefore need containment; and through
containment and harnessing of their labor they become profit-making tools.
It is here where I locate my answer to the first question. When does
economic inequality becomes sinful? When it intentionally seeks the
immiseration of particular communities for a profit. Slowly and steadily, the
world economy is gearing up to create a planetary prison. It is undeniable
that the economic history of the United States has profited, continues to
profit, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be enriched by the
economization of punishment practices and its exporting of "this knowledge"
to other parts of the world.
Economics may be define in a myriad of ways. However one decides to
finally approach the matter of defining economics one has to deal the nature
of exchange. Economy has to do with exchanges-labor, services, goods,
privileges. At the heart of two classics of sociological theory, Emile
Durkheims Division of Labor in Society and Georg Simmel The Philosophy of
Money lays a similar concern: the potential for economic processes to



drastically transform and disrupt social life.xii They were concerned that the
changes brought about by industrialization and the ongoing push of
capitalism for greater rationalization and calculation in the social sphere
would disrupt bonds of sociality, morality in particular, by introducing
impersonal exchanges. Thus, they feared that abstractions and calculations
based on monetary exchanges would undo bonds of kinship, replacing
qualitative understanding of relations with quantitative ones. From a
sociological perspective, I find Durkheim and Simmels shared concern
helpful to explain sinful dimensions of economic inequalities.xiii
Another way to state my position is that economic inequalities are sinful
when the speculative process of exchange exerts undue influence in the
social world. As it connects to our current practices of mass-incarceration,
and their global extensions, we can see sinful economics at work in dynamics
in which practices of punishment and justice mechanisms are removed from
bonds of sociality and robust democratic political processes into the realm of
economic exchanges in which prison stocks, services, among others are part
of goods and services for trade. In short, when the legal system, highjacked
by white supremacy takes a further turn to establish economic profitability
through the immiseration of communities of color.
Up to this point, I have engaged the first of the two questions I set out to
engage. My engagement with the third question takes the form a number of
policy recommendations and the particular work I think faith communities
can do to engage the immiseration created by mass-incarceration. I also take



the opportunity to note that numerous faith communities across the country
and the world are working towards engaging the problems raised by massincarceration.
What Can We Do? Some Recommendations
1) Faith communities need to make a concerted effort to increased their
complexity pertaining to how they understand the intersection of massincarceration with multiple forms of oppression and the ways all
contribute to economic injustice. This must go beyond the
disproportionate imprisonment of men of color. Such engagement missed
how the war on men of color has also unleashed virulent femicidal
tendencies in the system as domestic violence protections are continually
eroded and the victim blaming backlash is ending with more women and
girls in prison than men, proportionality speaking, all along being subject
to a myriad of abuses... As a son, a spouse, a parent, and a social justice
educator of color
2) Invest in Education: As part of the theological vision of breaking the
chains of captivity, faith communities need to get in the business of
preventing captivity in the first place. Prevention. We know that the
investment for each child is roughly 5 thousand dollars per year; the cost
of confinement for juveniles eclipse that. Each year of confinement for a
juvenile is upwards to two hundred thousand dollars.
3) Opposition to the ongoing privatization of prisons. Folk knowledge of the
privatization of prisons usually does not extend more than the cost of



confinement per each incarcerated person. And as troubling as this may

be, and it is, this is but only a small fraction of the real economics of
confinement. Increasingly, the offshoring of manufacturing to the exterior
is returning to be relocated in prisons. We need to keep in mind that when
a person is incarcerated the typical citizenship protections that apply to
those in the outside do not apply. Industries tap into this by using inmate
labor for manufacturing for as low as 22 cents per hour. In prison you
have an around the clock labor force, no sick days, no unions, no benefits,
no holiday pay, no health insurance. Profitability in a pure form. In
addition, more and more states are turning towards the practice of
charging inmates for their confinement, either daily or monthly rates;
moreover, inmates find in situations in which either they have to provide
their own toiletries or depend on relatives or charitable donations for
them. So, an added punishment to those who are able to serve their
sentences and leave behind prisons wall, is a debt that they have to pay
to correctional facilities for their imprisonment.
4) Abolitionist Logic:



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i (On the Run Fugitive Life in An American City. 2015; Rios 2011; Clear n.d.)

ii (Weston 2008)

iii (Scott, John 2011; Charles 2008; Fine and Fields 2008)

iv (Goldberg and Evans 2009; Webb 2007; Enloe 2000; Eisenstein 2007)

v (Meloy and Miller 2011; Richie 2012; VanNatta 2010; Sprott and Doob 2009; Immarigeon and
Civic 2006)

vi See (Beyond Walls and Cages : Prisons, Borders, and Global Crisis 2012), (Global Lockdown:
Race, Gender, and the Prison-industrial Complex 2005) and Solomon Monroe, Study Shows Sharp
Rise in Latino Federal Convicts,
(Accessed Dec.21, 2014).

vii (Clear 2007; Western and Pettit 2010)

viii (Du Bois 2014)Chapter 9.

ix (Muhammad 2010)

x (Hallett 2009; Thompson 2010, 2011; Lichtenstein 1996; Dayan 2011)

xi (Walker, Spohn and DeLone 2012, Chapter 5)

xii (Durkheim 1997; Simmel 2005)

xiii My understanding of economic inequality as sinful also owes much to the work of Cynthia D.
Moe-Lobeda in (Moe-Lobeda 2013)