Book Review

Good Books on Hard Times: Introductory Reading on the History of The American Prison Industrial Complex

This week’s reading list focuses on American prison in the 21st Century.

In America, “almost 2.3 million people” are imprisoned in “1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, 80 Indian Country Jails, [and] in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories,” and around three out of four are nonviolent.[i] This an approximately 700 % increase from 1970 to now.[ii]

Since prisoners do not have rights, they are made to work, often for large corporations, but do not have the right to a minimum wage, and none of the 50 states pay them one. All states pay just over or just under a dollar an hour, and according to Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), as of 2017, several states pay prisoners nothing for their work.[iii] In other centuries, there was a name for that.

American mass imprisonment targets the poor, socially oppressed groups, and children. “One out of every three Black boys born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino boys, compared to one of every 17 white boys,”[iv] and “women are the fastest growing incarcerated population in the United States.”[v]

Human Rights Watch’s World Report: 2017 notes, “On any given day, 50,000 children in the United States are held in correctional facilities,” which is still “one of the highest rates of juvenile detention in the world. Every US state allows children to be tried as adults under some circumstances, and approximately 5,000 child offenders are held in adult jails or prisons at any point in time” (page 635).[vi]

America primarily imprisons poor people. PPI notes that “in 2014 dollars, incarcerated people had a median annual income of $19,185 prior to their incarceration, which is 41% less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages.”[vii] After being imprisoned, it’s also harder to do things that might help one get out of poverty or mitigate the impacts of poverty (applying for jobs or voting for politicians you believe would work toward improving your life, to name a couple of examples).

Conditions in American prisons are dangerous and overcrowded. Alabama’s prisons, for example (one state that pays nothing to prison workers), are around 80% overcapacity,[viii] and in past emails to the Hard Times Review, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) confirmed that social distancing guidelines for the Covid-19 pandemic are impossible for prisoners to follow, which is not unique to Alabama, the ADOC noted.

These five books are important introductions to the history of the American prison system up to the 21st Century — what American prison is, how it works, its political, social, economic, and human costs, who profits from it, and other related topics such as the death penalty, police brutality, and social movements in which American mass imprisonment can be addressed and challenged.

Here are five important books on American prisons in the 21st Century:

1. Prison Profiteers: Who Profits From Mass Incarceration? edited by Paul Wright and Tara Herivel (The New Press, 2007, paperback, 324)

Like war, imprisoning human beings is a business.

Prison Profiteers is an excellent introduction to what the American prison industrial complex is, how it works, who benefits, who suffers, and the problems it causes. In recent years, private prisons have become more widely controversial and more people have become aware of them. However, private prisons are actually just one small way in which corporations profit by selling high priced, low quality products and services to prisoners who do not have the freedom to choose to get these products and services from other companies, and by exploiting the cheap or free labor of the imprisoned.

In the American prison industrial complex, prisoners make products for private corporations, buy high priced food in prison stores, cook and eat low priced food produced by private corporations for prisoners, in prison cafeterias in which food is cooked and served by unpaid or underpaid prison workers. Private corporations often handle the transportation of prisoners from one state for another, with disastrous results when compared to state and federal transportation of prisoners. Private corporations like Securus Technologies sell low quality phones and call time to prisons and prisoners. Private corporations handle pest and rodent control, healthcare, selling hygiene products to prisoners, building maintenance to perpetually crumbling facilities, and more, all in state prisons.

In Prison profiteers, each chapter documents how each of these aspects and more of the American prison industrial complex are privatized, which companies profit, how, and the consequences of that privatization for everyday prisoners.

In places like Alabama and many other states, so many aspects of the prison are privatized that it’s barely worth calling the facilities “state prisons.”

In Alabama, for example, almost every aspect of prison life and infrastructure is privatized, even though there are no “private prisons” there.

The American prison system is not in crisis. It works exactly the way it is designed to, and it is not designed to work for everyday people. Prison Profiteers is an important portrait of the design of the American prison system at the beginning of the 21st Century.

2. The Death Penalty: An American History, Stuart Banner (Harvard University Press,  2002, paperback, 385 pages)

Banner’s The Death Penalty: An American History is widely regarded as the first comprehensive history of the American death penalty. You’ll learn the origins of the death penalty, the many forms of public and private execution, the many methods of execution and debates over those methods throughout American history, and the history of the development of the American prison system in general.

This is an especially relevant book now, as several developments have arisen surrounding the American death penalty in recent years, partly as a result of the extreme right wing takeover of the courts.

In addition to the legal and political history, Banner provides an important history of American media coverage of the death penalty. He also looks at the history of public opinion about the death penalty in America. Banner covers the American history of the subject from 17th Century to the late 20th Century.

3. Killing with Prejudice: Institutionalized Racism in American Capital Punishment, by R.J. Maratea, (New York University Press, 2019, hardcover, 233 pages )

Maratea’s book on inequality and racial discrimination in the American prison system looks at the 1978 Supreme Court decision in McKleskey vs. Kemp, in which the death sentence for Warren McKleskey was upheld after his lawyers proved racial discrimination against Blacks in Georgia death sentencing.

Maratea’s book documents the evolution of the death penalty in the context of inequality, institutional racism, and as tool of social and political control. Maratea describes this evolution of social control: Unlike mob justice, which is messy and became a bad public relations strategy over time, Maratea writes, “institutionalized forms of penal authority and social control, couched within statutory law and cloaked under the disguise of due process and equal protection, have offered a more humane appearance for disciplining people of color and the poor” (p.173).

Further, he writes:

“The legacy of McKleskey v. Kemp … is not so much about capital punishment as condoning the invisible patterns of institutional discrimination and structural racism that reinforce and reproduce racial caste under the guise of colorblind neutrality and have legitimized the discriminatory application of justice manifested through crime-control efforts such as the death penalty and the ongoing penal excess of hyperincarceration in the United States” (p.174)

4. Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? by Mumia Abu-Jamal (City Lights Books, Open Media Series, 2017, paperback, 206 pages)

The American prison industrial complex begins in the streets by policing the poor.

In Have Black Lives Ever Mattered, Abu-Jamal reflects on the history of police brutality and resistance in America, in writings from 1998, two years after the 1996 Omnibus Crime Bill was passed under the Clinton administration, to 2017, soon after Donald Trump became president and in the midst of the growing Black Lives Matter movement.

5. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, by Keeyanga-Yamahtta Taylor (Haymarket, 2016, paperback, 270 pages)

Yamahtta Taylor’s 2016 book contextualizes police brutality, mass incarceration, inequality, and other subjects related to American institutional racism today in the movement for Black lives.


[i] Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020,” Prison Policy Initiative, 3/24/2020

[ii] https://www.aclu.org/issues/smart-justice/mass-incarceration

[iii] Wendy Sawyer, “How Much Do Incarcerated People Earn in Each State?” Prison Policy Initiative, 4/10/2017

[iv] See endnote 2

[v] Aleks Kajstura, “Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie,” American Civil Liberties Union, 2/19/2017

[vi] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2017: Events of 2016, (2017, Human Rights Watch http://www.hrw.org)

[vii] Bernadette Rabuy and Daniel Kopf, “Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the Pre-Incarceration Incomes of the Imprisoned,” Prison Policy Initiative, 6/9/2015

[viii] Christopher Harress, “The Architecture of Violence in Alabama’s Prisons,” AL.com, 2/12/2017 (updated: 1/13/2019)