The Prison Industrial Complex and the WTO

Why should people organizing against the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) worry about the World Trade Organization (WTO)? Why should people struggling against the WTO think about prisons? There is a vital relationship between the WTO and the PIC, between the corporate plundering of the global commons and the vise of civilian social control. Without the Prison Industrial Complex's violent repression of poor and working classes, the WTO's capitalist elite would not be able to rob the world with such impunity.

The social devastation produced around the world by the policies of the WTO have been amply documented. Labor standards are lowered, real wages decline, and job security disappears as nations vie to make themselves attractive to footloose capital investors. Disenfranchised, unemployed, and displaced communities are met by sharply reduced social services. The polarization of wealth reaches obscene proportions, both within and between nations. The ensuing social unrest and upheaval are are met by the repressive state violence of an increasingly international Prison Industrial Complex.

The Prison Industrial Complex is more than prisons and the businesses and transnational corporations which profit by building, running, and supplying prisons, and by employing prisoners. The PIC may be thought of as the entire apparatus of internal state repression, which includes increasingly militarized police forces, the National Guard, private security forces, and the traditional military branches when they are used to put down civil unrest. It includes repressive laws, obscenely long sentences, state executions, judges who hand down discriminatory sentences along racial and political lines, and mandatory minimum sentencing laws which remove even the option of compassionate sentencing. It includes the anti-democratic activities of the FBI and the CIA: civil surveillance, infiltration of grassroots movements, assassination. It includes an expanding prison culture: cop shows, court TV, films which glamorize or trivialize prison life.

The WTO is a financial instrument that represents the interests of the financial elite: Wall Street, the US Treasury, the IMF, etc. The PIC is necessary social insurance for those elites.

The WTO's free trade policies, if unchecked, will accelerate social hardship and the expansion of the PIC in the United States. As the US already has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with almost two million people imprisoned in late 1999, further expansion is a chilling prospect.
Prison Expansion

The policies of the WTO create pressure on the US labor market, increasing the polarization of wealth in American society and further swelling the ranks of the poor. Since a significant proportion of US prisoners are incarcerated for economic crimes, and since prisoners (whatever their crime-if any) are overwhelmingly drawn from the poorest classes of society, an increase in the percentage of people in poverty is likely to increase the US prison population.

This has several results. As the prison population increases, so does the percentage of US citizens who are permanently disenfranchised, since convicted felons lose the right to vote. The brunt of this disenfranchisement falls disproportionately on African-American men. As African-American men and women are incarcerated in overwhelming numbers, there is a widespread disruption of African-American communities and families. Grassroots movements of all kinds are affected as activists become entangled in the legal system, often receiving long sentences for minor offences.
Prison Privatization

Economic restructuring in the US has resulted in attempts to privatize an array of social services: health care, education, and even prisons. Private prisons are run on a for-profit basis by transnational corporations. The rate of profit at these prisons depends, as it does in any capitalist venture, on wage controls and economies of scale. In other words, these companies' profits depend on an ever-increasing amount of prisoners serving longer and longer sentences under ever-worsening conditions, guarded by poorly paid employees with inadequate qualifications and training. Furthermore, privatization distances prisons from public oversight. Human-rights abuses are rampant in this atmosphere of unaccountability.
Prison Labor

Article XX of the GATT1 agreement (1947) provides exceptional treatment for prison-made goods: countries are not supposed to be able to gain a competitive advantage in the world market through trading ultra-cheap goods made with prison labor. Evidently, in the years after WW II, elites thought that the use of prison labor could destabilize the global trade markets, so they wrote this exception into the GATT agreement, allowing countries to set restrictions on trade of prison-made goods.2 But what do elites think today? It is ominous that no such restrictions or exceptions regarding prison-made goods were included in the text of the failed MAI3, portions of which are expected to resurface in future rounds of WTO negotiations.

While the proportion of prisoners involved in prison labor remains tiny, between 1980 and 1994 that proportion increased at a rate 38% faster than the rate of increase of the general prison population-which itself was experiencing staggering growth. Prison administrations, particularly in the private sector, and businesses that use prison labor or whose contractors use prison labor, all stand to profit from increased use of such labor. Further loosening of the regulations regarding prison-made goods would be welcomed by these interests. If this happens, either in domestic legislation or in the international agreements of the GATT/WTO, we will see a startling increase in the use of prison labor in the US.

The phenomenon of prison expansion as a result of globalization and its attendant social miseries applies beyond the borders of the US. Homelessness, unemployment, poverty, and hunger increase in countries where IMF structural adjustment has been imposed, and it is no surprise that these increases are accompanied by surges in serious crime and incarceration rates.
Transnationals in the prison business

The two largest private prison corporations in the US, Wackenhut and Corrections Corporation of America, are transnationals, managing prisons and detention centers in Australia, Canada, South Africa, and the United Kingdom, as well as in the US. Methods of prisons and punishment have traditionally been thought of as an expression of national culture, similar to methods of education and health care. It is not surprising then that private prison corporations have expanded only to countries with strong Anglo cultural ties. But this could change. The WTO is trying to extend the liberalization of trade in services, including public services. Prisons are in this category, and may become one of the services opened to international competitive markets.
WTO erodes international solidarity

WTO rules disallow governments, on national, state, and local levels, from passing laws which constitute "illegal barriers to free trade." For example, if a nation passes a law discouraging companies from doing business with firms in a country with a record of human rights violations in its prisons (such as the US), that rule can be challenged before the WTO's Dispute Settlement Body. If the Dispute Settlement Body rules against the nation, severe economic penalties are applied to the nation if it does not back down. Legislation which creates economic pressure on human rights violators, both in the US on behalf of foreign prisoners, and outside the US on behalf of domestic prisoners, would be defeated by the WTO.

Since the end of the Cold War, as methods of US imperialism evolve to accommodate the burgeoning community of immense transnational corporations, a proportion of the United States' military economy has shifted from a foreign to a domestic focus. As globalization knits the fortunes of an international financial elite ever more tightly together, additional repression becomes necessary to control the dissent of struggling populations.

This is the intimate partnership of the Prison Industrial Complex and the WTO. Just as the WTO is an apparatus of corporate theft of the world's commons, the PIC is an apparatus of state repression. Systems of courts, police, and prisons function to enforce the laws of a society. But when the laws are enforced to protect a narrow set of elite interests, the "justice" system becomes a muzzle on the masses of poor and working people, keeping them from the wealth their labor has created. Therefore, we organize against the PIC to demilitarize our society, to repudiate a culture of fear, punishment, and control, to strike at the elite privilege which the PIC sustains, and the WTO represents.

Without social control provided by the PIC, the economic colonialism of the WTO would not be possible. To organize against the PIC is to organize against the WTO.

[1] The WTO incorporates the earlier GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade).

[2] The US has a 100-year old ban on imports of prison-made goods. However, at least three states, including California, currently export prison-made goods, avoiding restrictions on interstate sales of products made with prison labor.

[3] Multilateral Agreement on Investments.


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