Gardens of the Law: The Role of Prisons in Capitalist Society

By Joel Olson. This article originally appeared in The Blast!, August/September 1994. Reprinted in Criminal Injustice: Confronting the Prison Crisis.

H/t to People of Color Organize!

Prison isn’t a place to keep the “bad apples” from spoiling the rest of society. It is for the social control of the entire population–good and bad apples alike. Capitalism requires a politically obedient population that can be put to work making profits for the wealthy. Prisons ensure this politically docile and economically useful population. Prisons are useful for the powers that be; they are only a problem for those locked inside them, their loved ones, and those who want a free society.

Prison Myths

Prisons are not about decreasing crime. In 1976 the Panel on Research on Deterrent and Incapacitative Effects examined the role of prisons in deterring crime. Their report concluded that states like California and Massachusetts, for example, would have to increase their prison populations 150 percent and 310 percent (from mid-’70s levels) to achieve a 10 percent reduction in crime. Minnesota’s Assistant Commissioner of Corrections admits, “There is no evidence of a relationship between the incarceration rate and violent crime. We’re in the business of tricking people into thinking that spending hundreds of millions [of dollars] for new prisons will make them safe.” [1]

Prisons are not about rehabilitation. In 1981 New York State Correction Commissioner Thomas Coughlin confessed, “The department is no longer engaged in rehabilitative and programming efforts, but is rather forced to warehouse people and concentrate on finding the next cell.” Packing in more and more bodies inside their walls is what prisons do; rehabilitating lost souls in order to return them to society is not.

Perhaps most shocking of all to our common sensibilities, prisons are not about punishing people for crimes they commit. Of course, this is one of the things they do (as well as punish people for crimes they did not commit), but it is not the primary function of prisons. Prisons are first and foremost about social control, about suppressing dissent, about creating a more politically obedient and economically useful population. Sure, they isolate and warehouse “criminals” to keep them from the rest of us, but prisons are about controlling “the rest of us” as much as they are about controlling criminals.

How Prisons Achieve Social Control

In a capitalist society, when most people think of crime, they do not think of the acts themselves so much as they do an imaginary “criminal class” that commits them. It’s always these few “delinquents” that commit violent crimes and that have to be brought under control, so the story goes. The criminal in capitalism is defined not so much by their specific unlawful acts, but by the lifestyle s/he leads: gangsta, hoodlum, dope fiend, dealer, thug, whore. The criminal exists before the crime is even committed; a criminal’s prison record is merely a badge that recognizes him or her for doing what is expected. This is one reason why rich white people rarely go to jail: the rich and the white are not defined as “criminals” in this society, therefore when they break the law it’s easier to have sympathy for them for “making a mistake” and to give them a lesser punishment, or no punishment at all.

Prisons are not just the storehouses of this criminal class–they produce criminality by concentrating otherwise decent people into a cramped, crowded, and oppressive environment. In prison, an individual is subject to isolation, confinement in a control unit, violence, torture, gang activity, guard brutality, organized white supremacy, and a life of boredom and useless toil. When and if a prisoner is released, s/he is often condemned to a life of poverty and run-ins with the law. Prisoners have a difficult time getting a job because they are required to notify all potential employers of their felon status on job applications. College scholarship funds for former prisoners have been slashed or eliminated. By sticking people in prison, the prison system condemns them to poverty and stigmatizes them as lifetime members of the criminal class.

The criminal class is the scapegoat for America’s social ills and the justification for spending millions of dollars on building more prisons, hiring more cops, and for drafting tough new “anti-crime” laws. But by trying to make life tough for criminals, we make life tough for ourselves, because the laws that get passed to control the criminal class apply to everyone. If you, the “good citizen,” somehow run up against the law, well, you must be a delinquent, a member of the notorious criminal class. Better shape up, obey the laws and avoid any trouble so you won’t be one of those, those criminals!

By distinguishing “criminals” from the rest of society–not for people’s actions but for who they are–prisons and the “fight against crime” are used to attack target populations and garner obedience from the general population. This is what led writer Michel Foucault to write, “Let us conceive of places of punishment as a Garden of the Laws that families would visit on Sundays.”[2] Prisons are places where criminals are punished, but they are also “gardens” that remind citizens of what could happen to them if they were to become a “criminal.” In this way, prisons help craft a more obedient population outside the walls, outside the garden. Prisons put the cop inside your head. Prisons control your life even if you’ve never been inside one.

Black People are America’s “Criminal Class”

In the United States the criminal class created by capitalism and the prison system are poor people of color, especially African Americans. Over 33 percent of African Americans lived below the poverty line in 1994,[3] and they make up 48 percent of the U.S. prison population. One out of three Black men aged 20 to 29 is under some form of criminal justice control, which is more Black men than are in college. [3] and they make up 48 percent of the U.S. prison population. One out of three Black men aged 20 to 29 is under some form of criminal justice control, which is more Black men than are in college.[4]

This is not because Black people commit more crimes. The total number of crimes committed in America is huge (estimates range between 13 and 49 million annually, for example).[5] Only a tiny fraction of the people who commit them are ever imprisoned.[6] It has been well established that while most of the nation’s drug users are white, the vast majority busted for drug crimes are Black.[7]

Why are most of those who are caught and convicted Black?

The only possible answer is that African Americans are the specified “criminal class” of America, or are at least its biggest subgroup (Latinos and Chicanos are an increasingly large subgroup as well). Of course, most poor Black people are not criminals, but that’s the role they are forced into in the United States. As the author of The Coming of Black Genocide argues, “Black men are considered a criminal class, who must be pushed out to keep white people safe. Anything that is done to them, anything at all, is ok. Everyone is told to fear them, they are the threat.” [8]

Because Black people are the United States’ criminal class, and because in a capitalist society the criminal class must be subdued by terror, obedience from Black people is acquired through terror: police violence, locking up loved ones, etc. Just as the rest of the population doesn’t have to actually go to prison to be made more obedient by the prison system, Black folks don’t have to actually spend time in prison to be terrorized by it. As Malcolm X said, “Don’t be surprised when I say I was in prison. We [African Americans] have all been in prison. That’s what America means, prison.”

The Role of Control Units

Just as prisons create a docile and useful population outside prisons, control units create obedience and usefulness within prison walls. Prisons put the cop in the citizen’s head; control units put the cop in the criminal’s head. It’s not the “worst of the worst” who get thrown in control units, it’s a specific section of the prisoner population, chosen for the perceived threat they pose to order and obedience.

As in the larger society, the vast majority of those locked up in control units are Black. For example, all but a few in the management control unit at New Jersey State Prison are Black. Most are in there because they make trouble for the prisoncrats: they are jailhouse lawyers, political prisoners, activists, and revolutionaries. Especially Black revolutionaries. As Ralph Arons, former warden at Marion admits, “The purpose of the Marion Control Unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and in the society at large.” The crime itself doesn’t matter–George Jackson did 11 years for a $78 robbery–it’s the class you belong to that determines whether or not you will go to prison, and once in prison, whether or not you will end up in lockdown in a control unit. And your class is determined by your “revolutionary attitudes,” i.e., a refusal to obey those in power.

Prisons and Liberal Democracy: Brothers in Blood

The notion that crime, the “criminal personality,” and imprisonment naturally go together is a capitalist myth. We need to separate the issue of imprisonment from the issue of crime; they are not about the same things, and one does not cure the other.

One complaint by liberals of the new incarceration society the United States is building (those few liberals who haven’t jumped onto the “get-tough-on-crime” bandwagon, that is) is that it is incredibly expensive. Of course, on the surface they are right; some control unit facilities cost $800,000 per prisoner just to build, and that doesn’t include living costs for the prisoner ($30,000-40,000 a year for general population prisoners). However, those who hold power in this society see things a little bit differently, and regard the rising costs of imprisonment as worth the investment. Since prisons control not just the “criminal class” but the entire population, compared with the possibility of a Northern Ireland-style military occupation of American cities, prisons actually obtain social control of the entire society at a relatively low social and economic cost for the rich. For most folks, though, the cost is devastating, which is why prisons must go.

Capitalism and its sidekick liberal democracy give us the vote, constitutional rights, consumer buying power, and a trunkful of goodies. Why aren’t we free? Because though some of us have toys, we still don’t have power in this society; that privilege is reserved for capitalists and the state. Why does this tiny class of society have all that power, while the majority has so little? Why don’t we just take power from the rich and “vote the bastards out”? Because the ruling class have developed other ways to control the population, so that our political power is much weaker than we are led to believe. Prisons are the linchpin to this social control; they guarantee our submission to the powers that be by opposing “citizens” to “criminals.”

The way to fight this is for those of us on the outside to align ourselves with those on the inside. Together, we can dispel the popular notion that crime and prison automatically go together. Together, we can expose prisons for their true nature. This can’t be done outside the context of fighting capitalism, patriarchy, and a white supremacist society. As capitalism and imprisonment go together, so must they fall together. The gardens must burn.


  1. Criminal Justice Research Associates telephone interview with Assistant Commissioner
    Dan O’Brien, May 28, 1996.
  2. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, (New York: Vintage Books), 1979, p. 111.
  3. Black Americans: A Statistical Sourcebook, 1994, p. 190.
  4. Marc Mauer, Young Black Men and the Criminal Justice System: Five Years Later, (Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project), 1995.
  5. National Institute of Justice (NIJ), Victim Costs and Consequences: A New Look, (Washington, DC: NIJ), January 1996.
  6. Annually in the United States, there are more than 11,876,000 arrests, 945,500 convictions,
    and only about 339,000 people sentenced to state and federal prisons. Black Americans: A Statistical Sourcebook, 1994; Bureau of Justice Statistics, State Court Sentencing of Convicted Felons, (Washington,
    DC: GPO), 1994; Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, (Washington, DC: GPO), 1994; Henry and Camille Camp, Felony Sentencing in the United States: 1992, (South Salem, NY: Criminal Justice Institute), 1992.
  7. Mauer.
  8. Mary Barfoot, The Coming of Black Genocide and Other Essays, (New York: Vagabond Press), 1993, p. 28.

Posted on April 5, 2010, in Prisons & Prisoner Struggles and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Gardens of the Law: The Role of Prisons in Capitalist Society.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: