Crime Pays: Why Capitalism Needs Gaols and Why the Two Must Fall Together

Why capitalism needs jails and why the two must fall together

“Crime pays. I hate saying that, but it really does.”
Arthur McDonald, former owner of California’s largest private prison firm

With violence and terror as its tools, the prison system works to serve capitalism and maintain the current social order. Prisons in collaboration with the police, laws and court system, divert us from the real problems engendered by capitalism. They are the ultimate symbol of state and corporate control over individuals. They reinforce class structures and racial hierarchies by stigmatising a sector of the population as the ‘criminal class’, in addition to providing profits to corporations directly involved in prison operation.


A company head who pays starvation wages gets awarded with a massive pay packet and teenagers all over the world dying to have his name on their shoes. Meanwhile the woman caught committing a minor property offence to support her family or drug habit is locked away and branded for the rest of her life.

Prisons provide a receptacle for all the social problems we don’t want to think about, and corporate and political leaders don’t dare confront. For example 80% of women in jail in NSW were unemployed at the time of arrest, but once imprisoned they are not counted in unemployment statistics. A rehabilitative prison system assumes the moral and mental defectiveness of its victims, ignoring the morally bankrupt, racist, defective and generally deteriorating social order surrounding them. The failure of our system is redefined in terms of individual ‘criminal’ behaviour. By scapegoating the most marginalised of our society, prisons hide the real criminals -governments and corporations that commit genocide, create poverty, and exploit workers and resources.


As well as controlling incarcerated people, prisons are equally about controlling “the rest of us” through the ever-present threat of state power and violence. This control is not limited to enclosure behind walls and barbed wire, it is about regulating and enforcing relations of domination and subordination, authority and compliance.

Capitalist society is unequal by definition, because at its heart is a separation between the owners and the workers. Such an unjust society can only be maintained by force. Many institutions around us – the family, the church, the education system, our workplaces, social security – work together as instruments of this social control. But it is the criminal justice system where the full extent of capitalist and racist violence is meted out in the crudest form. The profit incentive and the criminal justice system are the carrot and the stick of capitalism.

The modern prison system is a relatively recent invention which developed hand in hand with the beginning of industrial capitalism. It was a means of ‘managing’ the mass vagrancy, unemployment and resistance to the new economic system. As Melossi, the Marxist theorist, explains, “Thus were the agricultural people, first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded, tortured by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline necessary for the wage system”(Zdenkowski p5). Prisons also coincided with the decline of slavery, when whole communities were herded into the jails instead.

The criminal justice system continues to provide corporations with a cheap and non-organised pool of labour both inside the prison and when prisoners return to their communities. It continues to target the communities most affected by the ravages of capitalism, and reinforce their position at the mercy of the whims of multinational corporations.
Finally, prisons are means of social control in that they represent government funding priorities focussing on disempowerment rather than empowerment of marginalised and impoverished people and communities. This fact is especially stark when we consider that most prisons are built in areas starved of public infrastructure such as housing, schools, transport and welfare services. Under economic rationalist logic, new prisons are paid for by cutting these same services, leading to the conditions where people get jailed in the first place. So continues the self-perpetuating and self-justifying prison cycle.


Whether it is through specific laws that actively discriminate against youth, racial minorities and the working class, such as social security fraud or ‘public order’ offences, or through the particular processes and institutional attitudes of the system, certain groups are targeted as belonging to the ‘criminal class’.

Only a small number of law violations is detected and reported. Further, even of reported violations only a small percentage actually result in police investigations and arrest. Nearly all people violate some laws, but only a certain sector of the population is considered, or considers themselves, criminals. Every stage in the criminal justice system discriminates against people on the basis of class, the results of which show in the huge over-representation of working class people. Legal aid is in crisis due to funding cuts, and those on lower incomes are more often than not pressured into pleading guilty to offences they may not have committed, or have committed only partially or with good defense. Even before the court process, financial conditions on bail prove too onerous for many. A third of women in jail are there on remand, in many cases because they can’t afford bail. By incarcerating these people, the prison system condemns them to poverty and stigmatizes them as lifetime members of the criminal class.

Aboriginal people are overwhelmingly defined as members of the criminal class. Numerous brutal dawn raids on the Block at Redfern, especially in the pre-Olympics period, are just one instance of the everyday targeting and harassment by police of Indigenous communities. Indigenous youth are twenty-two times more likely to be homeless and make up 40% of juveniles in custody. Indigenous women are the fastest growing group in NSW jails, at 30% and rising.

Institutional discrimination against people of migrant backgrounds is equally embedded in the criminal justice system. As well as NSW Premier Bob Carr’s regular swipes at ‘ethnic gangs’, Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer in March this year announced that drug trafficking and guns are “related to some of the ethnicity of some of the people involved in the trade and the fact that the use of knives and guns is a more familiar part of the criminal side of those cultures.” So certain is he that some people are predisposed criminals by virtue of their colour that he went as far as calling on a review of the right to silence and reversal of the onus of proof in some drug cases.

As we saw with the mainstream response to recent anticapitalist demonstrations, the language of criminality is also mobilised against people fighting for social change. Many laws, for example the Olympic Arrangements Bill, are explicitly or effectively about squashing shows of public dissent. All weapons of the law, including regular police brutality, are summonsed up to smash workers’ picket lines and protect corporations and politicians against ‘violent’, ‘unAustralian’, ‘criminal’ protesters. It is a continuation of Australia’s history and the bloody repression of Aboriginal resistance.

By defining and punishing these groups (the working class, Aboriginal people, ethnic minorities and protesters) as members of the ‘criminal class’, the prison system attempts to marginalise and demobilise potential sources of resistance to the capitalist order.


The ‘human containment’ industry is booming worldwide. The product for sale is the idea that fixing social problems is as easy as locking up the victims, and it’s a product selling like hotcakes with our governments.

Private companies have always been involved in the criminal justice system. From the beginning of white invasion in Australia convicts were sent to work for private interests, and many of our modern industries were built on the back of convict (and of course Aboriginal) forced labour. As the demand for labour grew in the colony the system of assigned service developed, where convicts were assigned to masters and were entirely under their control. In 1826 this system was replaced by chain gangs.

Today women in Mulawa prison work for companies such as QANTAS producing headsets. They can expect $20-$40 per week for full-time work, with no holiday or accident pay, no right to strike or form a union or other conditions taken for granted by most workers. Despite Corrective services rhetoric about prisoners ‘learning valuable work skills’, the work is generally low-skilled and monotonous.

NSW Corrective Service Industries is the explicitly corporate arm of NSW Corrective Services, established to woo companies into setting up operations inside prisons. In its own words it is “one of the biggest and most widely spread industrial organisations in the State. Its growth has boomed since its corporatisation in the late 1980s”. There is “no need for your company to go offshore” it boasts, prison labour serving the same role as cheap third world workforces under a globalised marketplace.

At around 20%, Australia has by far the highest proportion of prisoners in private prisons in the world (the United States figure is 5%). Like with refugee detention and deportation services, enormous multinational companies like Wackenhut and Group 4 profit from the institutionalisation of people. They make money by cutting services, cutting staff training, cutting safety, cutting public access, cutting corners and hiding their corruption behind “commercial in-confidence” laws. Much of their profits are poured back into election campaigns and aggressive marketing of tough-on-crime policies to ensure that their raw material (people) keeps flowing.

Wall St firms last year invested $41 billion into the expansion of prisons globally. The privatisation of prisons is pushed by such bodies as the World Trade Organisation which aims to turn every area of our lives into a profit-making scheme at the expense of all else.

The struggle against jails

The total prison population in Australia skyrocketed from 12 321 in 1988 to 21 538 in 1999, only outpaced by the rate of prison building.

No one benefits from the prison system, except politicians on election drives and the rich and powerful who can continue on safely knowing that social problems will be kept hidden away behind high walls, that white privilege will be carefully maintained, that their private property will be protected above all else, and that the working class will be disciplined into the wage slaves that capitalism relies on. These are the interests the government has in mind in pushing through the rapid expansion of the prison empire.

That means that to be anti-capitalists we must confront the prison system also, and to be prison activists we have to resist the capitalist and white supremacist relations that necessitate and sustain jails. The system that works to beat down our resistance cannot continue if it is a new social order we want to build.

In the short term as prison activists we can work for incremental reforms and an end to new jails in favour of community-based alternatives to incarceration. We can support prisoner empowerment in initiatives such as the Australian Prisoners Union launched in 1999. In the long term we must demand the decriminalisation of drugs, poverty, colour and dissent, and a fundamental redistribution of power to workers and communities.

Jails and refugee detention centres don’t just have high walls to keep the people in. They have high walls because letting the public see inside means stripping away one of the main justifications for their existence – that they are confining depraved, brutal monsters.

The way to fight this is for those of us on the outside to align ourselves with those on the inside, and together 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.

Written by Renee Lees for Stop the Womens Jail Anti-Prisons Resource Kit Published June 2001 by Justice Action Ph: (02) 9660-9111

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