In the play A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens, the greedy capitalist Ebenezer Scrooge explains the purpose of prison: a dumping ground for the poor and unemployed. When he is asked about what should be done to the poor, he answers: “Are there no prisons? …Those who are badly off must go there.” Then the questioner replies, “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.” To this, Scrooge, who might as well be speaking for any multi-billionaire capitalist today, says: “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
In capitalist society, if people are not creating wealth, they are considered useless. This surplus population is made up of all the people who have no place in society — the permanently impoverished and long-term unemployed. This is who makes up the majority of the prison population — not because they made bad choices, but because society has pushed them into desperate situations. Many of these people are mentally ill — about 25 percent of prisoners have severe mental illness. And because of the racism of this society, the surplus population, and thereby the prison population, is disproportionately made up of Black people and other minorities. Even though Black people make up 13% of the population, 40% of prisoners are Black.
A 2018 study by the Brookings Institute, found that most incarcerated people had been either unemployed or low-income workers. In the three years before going to prison, 49 percent earned $6,250 per year or less. In the first year after leaving prison, only 55 percent reported any income, and most were $10,000 or less because most jobs disqualify anyone with a felony conviction. About 65% of prisoners return to prison after getting out. As far as capitalism is concerned they were part of the surplus population when they were imprisoned and they remain a part of the surplus population after leaving prison.
One purpose of mass incarceration is to put some of the surplus population to work to keep the prisons functioning, but also as a means of profit for different corporations.
Private corporations use prisoner labor in at least 40 states. In most cases these workers earn next to nothing, with of course no health benefits, no Social Security deposits, and with few laws regulating working conditions. If these workers complain or are insubordinate in anyway, they are placed in solitary confinement, often for months. Prison labor is used in nearly every industry, by most of the biggest companies in the country, including AT&T, Bank of America, Chevron, Microsoft and hundreds of others.
The State of California saves over $100 million per year by relying on prison firefighters. This summer about 3,900 state prison inmates fought the California wildfires, getting paid $1.00 per hour, and $2.00 per day, ten times less than the starting wage of a certified Cal Fire firefighter. These men and women are trained fire fighters battling the most dangerous fires, and if they ever get out of prison, they will never be able to get hired as firefighters because California bans felons from receiving the necessary certification.
Since 1970 the U.S. prison population has grown by 700% to 2.2 million people. The prison industry makes tens of billions of dollars per year between maintenance and operation, and the contracting of prison labor.
Only in a sick society would we even consider people as disposable, unnecessary, or useless. This is capitalism. It squeezes the people who work to the limit, makes people scramble for a place, and for those who don’t make it, they are thrown away. These are features of capitalism, not the faults of the people living in it, and a change in the entire system is long overdue.