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Immiseration and The Economics of a Prison Planet

by Elías 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 inequality—the 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



legal structures.i Finally. maintain. communities of color ECONOMICS OF IMMISERATION ORTEGA-APONTE. 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 nature’s landscape. policing. that from my perspective. diversion programs. like for example. political processes. I am concerned with the interplay between society’s structures—forms of government. those relating to prison. At home and abroad. Furthermore. economic practices. I am interested in understanding the social processes that put in place. and the altering the ecological landscape are of primary concern to my research agenda. but it is also gaining international dimensions that mirroring our national scene. harsher sentencing for crimes dealt with differently in the past. and how agents interact with and are affected by these structures in their everyday practices. This being done through increased securitization. and all along cashing in the profitability of the privatization of punishment. media representations.end goal of mobilizing these resources from communities of color to dominant sectors of society. religious institutions. 2 .ii As a cultural sociologist. ongoing surveillance and criminalization of minors.iv This is not only a local reality. such practices move away from views of punishment as reformation to perspectives of containment. endangering notions of citizenship. and reproduce macro and micro structures of oppression. This is to say.iii Of these structures. and the ways in which they enter national and global economic process militarizing civilian life.

the unleashing of terror regimes against women and girls. 3 . Du Bois clearly exposed the interconnections between conceptions of crime.vii Although it may be tempting to consider the profitability of incarceration. political. and the violence they unleash against communities at the margin as recent developments in this nation’s punishment practices. and their role in the economic sphere at various points of his work. which erred on the white side by undue leniency and the practical immunity of red-handed criminals. white or black. in fact. and lack of discrimination…the police system of the South was originally designed to keep track of all Negroes. public funds for schools are diverted from educational purposes to increased security. Thus grew up a double system of justice. the South had no machinery.B. the share on common goods for communities target by mass-incarceration are under threat. incarceration. or life expectancy. Let us consider one of those instances here: For such dealing with criminals.E. and tacitly assumed that every white man was ipso facto a member of that police. this has always been the case in the United States. a deeper look into the nation’s historical past reveals them to be in step with the nation’s chattel slavery past and steaming from it. its police system was arranged to deal with blacks alone. policing.v In the face of these realities. no adequate jails or reformatories. immigrant populations are routinely criminalize and rounded up for a profit. injustice. are notions of common goods feasible without first addressing the mass-imprisonment of communities of color? vi Whether in their economic. not simply of criminals. educational. and finally. social safety nets turn into securitization traps. and when the Negroes were freed and the whole South was convinced of ECONOMICS OF IMMISERATION ORTEGA-APONTE. and erred on the black side by undue severity. W.find themselves as primary targets of police surveillance and imprisonment.

this latter group is responsible for designing. viii I see Du Bois pointing out.x Following Du Bois. transmitting. It was not then a question of crime. economic inequality as it manifest itself intentionally against people of color and concerted through ECONOMICS OF IMMISERATION ORTEGA-APONTE. 2) Steaming from these conceptualizations. 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. but rather one of color.xi I won't shy away from stating this forcefully. 1) that there is a direct correlation between a group’s racial categorization. while another enjoys latitude of action. the activities of one group are closely monitored for deviances from socially constructed norms. and by extension prisons.the impossibility of free Negro labor. After all. ix 4) That legal systems were designed to ensure and maintain ongoing oppressive structures under conceptions of legality and justice cemented in white supremacy. that settled a man's conviction on almost any charge. of a certain group conceiving of itself as responsible for the security of society. among other things. needing a societal response to address wrongs committed. and therefore. their construction as potential criminals. put different. 4 . does not commit one to denying that there are acts that count as crime. the first and almost universal device was to use the courts as a means of re-enslaving the blacks. their construction as criminals was directly linked to the desire to control their bodies and labor. criminals. 3) That the police. and the color of justice. but it does highlight the societal construction of categories of crime. often avoiding penalties for openly committed crimes. and maintaining the socially constructed norms that benefits them. and therefore.

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. policing. promotion. Economics may be define in a myriad of ways. At the heart of two classics of sociological theory. services. of which mass-imprisonment is a primary one. and human capital to others. Economy has to do with exchanges-labor. the world economy is gearing up to create a planetary prison. When does economic inequality becomes sinful? When it intentionally seeks the immiseration of particular communities for a profit. goods. but concerted efforts through policy. continues to profit. and through containment and harnessing of their labor they become profit-making tools. These are not random nor blind processes. intends the immiseration of communities. political. and preservation of misery in certain communities while transferring economic.various forms of structural dynamics and micro and macro structures. 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. It is undeniable that the economic history of the United States has profited. It is here where I locate my answer to the first question. 5 . privileges. However one decides to finally approach the matter of defining economics one has to deal the nature of exchange. They are geared towards the creation. Emile Durkheim’s Division of Labor in Society and Georg Simmel The Philosophy of Money lays a similar concern: the potential for economic processes to ECONOMICS OF IMMISERATION ORTEGA-APONTE. Slowly and steadily.

Thus.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. services.drastically transform and disrupt social life. by introducing impersonal exchanges. 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. From a sociological perspective. I find Durkheim and Simmel’s shared concern helpful to explain sinful dimensions of economic inequalities. 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. Up to this point. among others are part of goods and services for trade. morality in particular. replacing qualitative understanding of relations with quantitative ones.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. they feared that abstractions and calculations based on monetary exchanges would undo bonds of kinship. I also take ECONOMICS OF IMMISERATION ORTEGA-APONTE. when the legal system. I have engaged the first of the two questions I set out to engage. In short. highjacked by white supremacy takes a further turn to establish economic profitability through the immiseration of communities of color. As it connects to our current practices of mass-incarceration. and their global extensions. 6 .

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.. a spouse. As a son. 3) Opposition to the ongoing privatization of prisons. the cost of confinement for juveniles eclipse that. We know that the investment for each child is roughly 5 thousand dollars per year. a parent. proportionality speaking. 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. faith communities need to get in the business of preventing captivity in the first place..the opportunity to note that numerous faith communities across the country and the world are working towards engaging the problems raised by massincarceration. Each year of confinement for a juvenile is upwards to two hundred thousand dollars. This must go beyond the disproportionate imprisonment of men of color. all along being subject to a myriad of abuses. 7 . Folk knowledge of the privatization of prisons usually does not extend more than the cost of ECONOMICS OF IMMISERATION ORTEGA-APONTE. Prevention. and a social justice educator of color 2) Invest in Education: As part of the theological vision of breaking the chains of captivity.

the offshoring of manufacturing to the exterior is returning to be relocated in prisons. In prison you have an around the clock labor force. 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. So. no holiday pay. no unions. 8 . is a debt that they have to pay to correctional facilities for their imprisonment. no health insurance. In addition. And as troubling as this may be. Industries tap into this by using inmate labor for manufacturing for as low as 22 cents per hour. no sick days. an added punishment to those who are able to serve their sentences and leave behind prisons wall. Increasingly. either daily or monthly rates. and it is. no benefits. more and more states are turning towards the practice of charging inmates for their confinement. Profitability in a pure form. inmates find in situations in which either they have to provide their own toiletries or depend on relatives or charitable donations for them. 4) Abolitionist Logic: ECONOMICS OF IMMISERATION ORTEGA-APONTE. this is but only a small fraction of the real economics of confinement. moreover.confinement per each incarcerated person.

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Thompson 2010. ix (Muhammad 2010) x (Hallett 2009. 2015. Clear n. vii (Clear John 2011. and Global Crisis 2012). 2014). Dayan 2011) xi (Walker.html?_r=0 (Accessed Dec. and the Prison-industrial Complex 2005) and Solomon Monroe. Spohn and DeLone 2012. VanNatta 2010.21. Gender. Enloe 2000.) ii (Weston 2008) iii (Scott.nytimes. Immarigeon and Civic 2006) vi See (Beyond Walls and Cages : Prisons. Eisenstein 2007) v (Meloy and Miller 2011. Richie 2012.” http://www. Charles 2008. Sprott and Doob 2009. (Global Lockdown: Race. 2011. Borders. Rios 2011. Lichtenstein 1996. Chapter 5) . Fine and Fields 2008) iv (Goldberg and Evans 2009. “Study Shows Sharp Rise in Latino Federal Convicts. Webb 2007.i (On the Run Fugitive Life in An American City. Western and Pettit 2010) viii (Du Bois 2014)Chapter 9.

Simmel 2005) xiii My understanding of economic inequality as sinful also owes much to the work of Cynthia D.xii (Durkheim 1997. Moe-Lobeda in (Moe-Lobeda 2013) .