Prison Industrial Complex Through Film Syllabus

Peter Wagner, Smith College, Seelye 101, Jan 17-20 2012, 3:15-5:15pm


The class will utilize independent films, TV news magazine spots, documentaries and short readings to explore the growth of the prison industrial complex in the United States.

Quadrupling the U.S. rate of incarceration since 1970 has created new economic and political interests dedicated to expanding the use of confinement regardless of its poor efficacy at reducing crime. Although the cost of prisons has grown to overwhelm state budgets, decisions on crime policy are being made by less than truly democratic means.

In the 1950s, President Eisenhower coined the phrase "military-industrial complex" warning that huge spending on unnecessary military hardware could create an economic machine that would attempt to redirect U.S. social and foreign policy. When the Cold War ended, the same military contractors moved into the war against drugs. Crime control consumes over $200 billion a year in the U.S., with prisons representing a quarter of that figure. Four percent of the U.S. workforce is consumed by the industry as keeper or kept.

In four two-hour sessions, the class will explore through films, documentaries and short readings the growth of the prison industrial complex to answer the following questions

How and why do rural politicians push for new prisons as job-creation mechanisms? When did private prisons come on the scene and do we want the profit motive to dictate crime policy? What is the political impact on the political process of prison labor and the powerful guard unions? How did prisons get to be big business when just 150 years ago the very idea of incarceration-as-punishment didn't yet exist?


I wrote the Overview: Trends in the Crime Control Industry chapter in the Prison Index in response to some of the questions and discussions we had in class in 2003.


Tuesday Jan 17
Topic: History of Prisons
Film: Hard Time: Prison
Film: 60 Minutes: Pelican Bay

Weds Jan 18
Topic: Prisons as Rural Growth Industry
Film: Yes In My Backyard
Topic: Prison-based gerrymandering
Film clip: Anamosa segment from Gerrymandering

Thurs Jan 19
Topic: Private Prisons
Film: Corrections
  -OR -
Topic: Angola Prison (Death penalty, parole, etc.)
Film: The Farm

Friday Jan 20
Topic: Rural prisons, economic development and resistance
Film: This Black Soil: A Story of Struggle and Change


When it reopens in the Spring, I'll be organizing a trip to one of the first prisons in the United States, Old Newgate Prison in East Granby, CT.


If for some reason the schedule needs to change, we are likely to draw on Juvies, I am a Fugitive from a Chaingang or Turned Out.


  • Scott Christianson, With Liberty for Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America, 1998.
  • Tracy Huling, Building a Prison Economy in Rural America, p. 197-213 Mauer and Chesney-Lind ed, Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment, 2002.
  • Joel Dyer, Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profits from Crime, 2000. See especially Chapter 11, Pulling the Plug, p 265-285.
  • Nils Christie: Crime Control as Industry: Towards Gulags, Western Style, 2000. See especially Chapter 8, Crime Control As Product, p. 111-141
  • Jens Soering, An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse: An Essay on Prison Reform from an Insider's Perspective, 2004
  • Peter Wagner, The Prison Index: Taking the Pulse of the Crime Control Industry 2003.
  • Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Prison Abolitionists, 1977
  • Prison Industrial Complex by Eric Schlosser, Atlantic Monthly December 1998

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