Fenton Issue Area Toolkit

Case Study: Prison Industrial Complex in AMERICA

The purpose of this toolkit is to inform the communication strategies, vetting, and etc. at Fenton Communications in order to fulfill the responsibilities of a social change agency striving to make the world a better place.

Part 1: What is the Prison Industrial Complex?

From Critical Resistance

"The term Prison Industrial Complex(PIC) is a term used to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political “problems.”


From Gina Clayton, Essie Justice Group

"The PIC is a tool of social control that has stemmed from a history of racism, patriarchy, and capitalism."

History of Mass Incarceration

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution declared that "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” In other words, slavery is totally legal as long as it is considered punishment for a crime in America, “land of the free.” You may be wondering, but what about the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Lincoln in 1863?


Keep in mind, President Lincoln, made his position clear in regards to equality of the whites and blacks in 1858, “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,” he began, going on to say that he opposed blacks having the right to vote, to serve on juries, to hold office and to intermarry with whites.” - History.com

“For more than one hundred years, scholars have written about the illusory nature of the Emancipation Proclamation. President Abraham Lincoln issued a declaration purporting to free slaves held in Southern Confederate states, but not a single black slave was actually free to walk away from a master in those states as a result. A civil war had to be won first, hundreds of thousands of lives lost, and then- only then- were slaves across the South set free. Even that freedom proved illusory, though. W.E.B. Du Bois eloquently reminds us, former slaves had a “brief moment in the sun” before they were returned to a status akin to slavery. Constitutional amendments guaranteeing African Americans “equal protection of the laws” and the right to vote proved as impotent as the Emancipation Proclamation once a white backlash against Reconstruction gained steam. Black people found themselves yet again powerless and relegated to convict leasing camps that were, in many ways, worse than slavery. Sunshine gave way to darkness, and the Jim Crow system of segregation emerged- a system that put black people nearly back where they began, in a subordinate racial caste.” – Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (20)


1619-1863 Trans-Atlantic system of slavery


1863 Emancipation Proclamation* signed by President Abraham Lincoln*


1865-1928 Black Codes and the Convict Leasing System


1877-1960s Jim Crow


1982 “President Ronald Reagan officially announced the current drug war before crack became an issue in the media or a crisis in poor black neighborhoods. A few years after the drug war was declared, crack began to speak rapidly in the poor black neighborhoods of Los Angeles and later emerged in cities across the country. The Reagan administration hired staff to publicize the emergence of crack cocaine in 1985 as part of a strategic effort to build public and legislative support for the war.” (5)


So - what does the history of trans-atlantic slave trade, 13th Amendment, Emancipation Proclamation, convict leasing systems and Jim Crow have to do with mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex today ?


The onset of the War on Drugs initiated the rapid increase in prison populations that have evolved into the current system of mass incarceration. Today, more African Americans are under correctional control than were enslaved in 1850.


The current criminal justice system in America enables a system of legal discrimination that eerily resembles notorious periods of U.S. history during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Jim Crow. Once labeled a felon, you are legally denied the right to vote, employment, education, public benefits, and jury service. Although research shows that Blacks and Whites commit crimes at similar rates, whites actually slightly more, this system overwhelmingly targets and affects people of color.

Who does the PIC affect?

Both Gina Clayton and Zachary Norris stressed the fact that mass incarceration does not just affect individuals, but entire families and communities.


“Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises – the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by poll taxes and illiteracy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.” – Opening passage from Michelle Alexander’s, The New Jim Crow.


Fenton recently worked with the Ella Baker Center to publish the “Who Pay’s?” report, which highlighted the impact that mass incarceration has on the family members of incarcerated persons.


“The findings show that the long-term costs extend beyond the significant sums already paid by individuals and their families for immediate and myriad legal expenses, including cost of attorney, court fees and fines, and phone and visitation charges. In fact, these costs often amount to one year’s total household income for a family and can force a family into debt. Latent costs include, but are not limited to, mental health support, care for untreated physical ailments, the loss of children sent to foster care or extended family, permanent declines in income, and loss of opportunities like education and employment for both the individuals incarcerated and their family members, opportunities that could lead to a brighter future.”



“These impacts hit women of color and their families more substantially than others, deepening inequities and societal divides that have pushed many into the criminal justice system in the first place. Almost one in every four women and two of five Black women are related to someone who is incarcerated.” (EBC Who Pays, 7-9)

What is the connection to police brutality?

We cannot discuss the landscape of police brutality and it’s connection within the prison industrial complex without discussing the human construct of “race” and racism.


“Any candid observer of American racial history must acknowledge that racism is highly adaptable. The rules and reasons the political system employs to enforce status relations of any kind, including racial hierarchy, evolve and change as they are challenged.”


Discrimination in housing, education, employment, and voting rights, which many Americans thought was wiped out by the civil rights laws of the 1960s, is now perfectly legal against anyone labeled a “felon.” And since many more people of color than whites are made felons by the entire system of mass incarceration, racial discrimination remains as powerful as it was under slavery or under the post-slavery era of Jim Crow segregation.


Racial discrimination against people of color that persists in system of mass incarceration is no exception within law enforcement. Police have developed a notorious history of targeting and unjustly killing an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of black and brown bodies. According to Daily Kros, “What is often overlooked is that police, during the height of lynching, were complicit in most lynchings. In the book Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930, it was determined that 64 percent of lynching victims in the early 20th century were actually seized from jails. While historical lynchings and modern-day murders at the hands of police have some differences, many of the legal, physical, and emotional parallels are frightening.”


“While violence among citizens has dropped, violence against citizens carried out by police has been rising sharply. When we look at citizens killed by police over the last two years, deaths have increased 44 percent in this short time; 763 people were killed by police in 2013. As a comparison, the total number of US troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, in 2014 was 58. Fewer soldiers were killed in war than citizens back home in “the land of the free” in 2014, by a large margin.” (freethoughtproject)

Why is mass incarceration a human rights issue?

“The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of the Apartheid” – Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (6)


As President Barak Obama said in a speech to the N.A.A.C.P., ‘‘‘Criminal justice, is not as fair as it should be. Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it.’’


Although the onset of the modern era of mass incarceration began with America’s War On Drugs, “the stark racial disparities cannot be explained by rates of drug crime. Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color.” – Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (7)

Part 2: Ending The Prison Industrial Complex

Each year, the United States spends $80 billion to lock away more than 2.4 million people in its jails and prisons—budgetary allocations that far outpace spending on housing, transportation, and higher education. (Ella Baker Who Pays? Report, 7)

Who is profiting from mass incarceration?

" The prison industry complex is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States and its investors are on Wall Street. “This multimillion-dollar industry has its own trade exhibitions, conventions, websites, and mail-order/Internet catalogs. It also has direct advertising campaigns, architecture companies, construction companies, investment houses on Wall Street, plumbing supply companies, food supply companies, armed security, and padded cells in a large variety of colors.”- Vicky Pelaez, Global Research

What is divestment?

Divestment is a financial term, at it’s most simple meaning, the antithesis of investment. Divestment or Disinvestment for some with concern to social conscious things or this project is the use of a concerted economic boycott to pressure a government, industry, or company towards a change in policy- Wikipedia

why is divestment important?

Of course, the hope with divestment in the context of mass incarceration is to pressure those that can change the system to change it. In fact, for-profit business have been doing it across social sectors with numerous organizations (churches, city governments, foundations) distancing themselves from fossil fuels and with prisons, organizations like Whole Foods and a PRIVATE Ivy League institution, Columbia University


"Divestment in a core strategy and one of the most important strategies because if funding streams are created to build prisons than people will build those prisons and those prisons will be filled." - Zachary Norris, Ella Baker Center


We need to divest from police and prisons as our primary public safety strategy and

Invest in economic opportunity restorative justice and things that actually make communities safe.


"But were careful not to overemphasize private prisons alone because we know that there are lots of private companies that make money off of public prisons in ways that should be called attention to."


Divestment is just one aspect of strategies being used to change the criminal justice system and end mass incarceration


"Invest in economic opportunity restorative justice and things that actually make communities safe."

What are other strategies for ending the prison industrial complex?

For instance, Zachary Norris, Executive Director at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights put it like this..

"Divestment is a core part of strategy but there is also sentencing reform, litigation, organizing."


Gina Clayton echoed Mr. Norris's comments..

"If you're thinking in terms of solutions and what's gonna get us out of this mess(PIC, mass incarceration) yes that's one strategy we should be pursuing but it's not the only one."

Part 3: Connecting Fenton and mass incarceration

So...What can Fenton do?

Zachary Norris, Executive Director, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights


“With the organization being oriented towards social justice means that you have to chose clients you work with in a particular way rather than just saying we're choosing anyone who’s paying but really looking at what some of their practices are so that the work that you’re doing on one hand to support a social justice organization isn’t being undermined by the work that you’re doing in another space to support a corporation that is maybe not in line with that social justice mission. Just doing some scan of where folks investments are at or where their practices are at is important then it means looking at and developing a criteria for which clients folks will take on or not. There are lots of corporations that contract directly w prisons, private prison companies themselves, there are corporations that benefit from prison labor in ways that are fundamentally exploitive and don't pay people a living wage not even a minimum wage. Those kinds of questions and doing some research to identify those corporations and doing some advocacy because it may be possible to move them on some of these issues instead of just saying hey we're not going to working with you. Maybe bringing up some of those concerns like - We wonder have you thought about this policy? Have you thought about changing it?”


One of our concerns has to do with a client that Fenton already works with, Johnson and Johnson, who has been identified as a company who profits from the PIC.


At Fenton we define ourselves as a social change organization. Thus, in order to uphold Fenton's identity as change makers who make the world a better place, Fenton should seriously consider one of the most dire human rights issues in this country, mass incarceration and the PIC in their vetting process. That should mean evaluating relationships with new business with a lens that regards the human rights and workers rights of those incarcerated to be valued. This could mean the refusal to work with companies that profit from the oppression and institutionalized exploitation of the millions of people under correctional control in the US.

Useful Resources

The New Jim Crow - Michelle Alexander

Slavery by Another Name - Douglas A. Blackmon

Ella Baker's Who Pay's Report

Political Research Associates- Think Tank that researches criminal justice and other issues.