by Autumn Magro, For Beginners
“Dr. James Braxton Peterson’s Prison Industrial Complex For Beginners seamlessly patches together the complex development of the PIC, which is an overwhelming social and political force with many complicated causes and contributors.”
–Caitlin J. Taylor, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, La Salle University, Department of Sociology & Criminal Justice
America is the world’s leading nation when it comes to imprisonment, lodging a myriad of 2,000,000 inmates. This mass incarceration is a hot topic among activist critics reaching as far back as the early 1990s, and continues to crop up in contemporary discussions surrounding race discrimination, social ethics, and privatized institutions.
As an American citizen, it is important to be informed about the egregious contemporary civil rights violations entrenched in the past, current, and future history of the Prison Industrial Complex. In Prison Industrial Complex For Beginners, author and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University James Braxton Peterson does just that. Peterson boils down the PIC to its insidious core – a collection of social structures, systems, and policies – especially institutional racism, the war on drugs and mass incarceration. Together with illustrator John Jennings, Peterson distills these multi-layered components that make up what activists deem the Mass Incarceration Movement that has, and continues to imprison and dehumanize convicted individuals in the United States.
Historically, the “Law and Order” ideology that buttresses Peterson’s book does have some roots in the unrest that took place during the Civil Rights Movement. And as disconnected a concept this event may seem, America’s present carceral state has entrapped more black lives than any other point in history. As University of Michigan Historian Heather Ann Thompson aptly claims, the mass incarceration’s origins are “deeply rooted in our nations racialized past, and as importantly, it is today but one part of a massive PIC that serves very specific interests, devastates communities, and therefore must be dismantled.”
Peterson also includes the “war on drugs” as yet another part of the PIC that has exacerbated the normalization of the mass incarceration of nonviolent substance abusers. The culture of rehabilitation for said individuals does more harm than good, as inmates suffer despotic conditions which often result in recidivism, or the rate at which released prisoners return to prison. Furthermore, since the privatization of the penal system in the 1970s, the management and ethics of law are now fueled by market forces. Essentially, corporations of the PIC now have incentive to capture human bodies for capital. Thus, explaining why America has the largest group of inmates in the entire world.
Peterson wants readers to not only understand the current state of the penal system in America, but also wants us to check our own perception of it. Even with the possibility of policy change, the nation must also be prepared to reform our views of criminal justice and incarceration. The idea that punishment lies at the heart of incarceration must be altered in order for widespread change to take place. And in response to the capitalistic motives behind the current PIC, we must also begin to view criminals as humans with basic intrinsic rights. Once we do this, liberation is not only plausible, but will help us work towards altering our status as the biggest incarcerator in the world.
With ingrained notions of institutional racism, privatization of prisons, and the subsequent monetization that make up the PIC, change is daunting. But James Braxton Peterson thoughtfully breaks down the complexity of the topic in the book, lending you a hand in understanding the direction we, as American citizens, must take to understand and potentially change the capital-hungry monster that has become the Prison Industrial Complex.