November 22, 2021

Commodities, Neoliberalism, and the Economy of Imprisonment

Jenny Enos author photoBy Jenny Enos  

Under capitalism, we are surrounded by products that promise to improve or fulfill our lives in some way. Whether it’s beauty products, nutritional supplements, clothing, or even technology, the advertisements we are exposed to tell us that we need to keep consuming products in order to be the best versions of ourselves. Consumerism, or society’s incessant preoccupation with purchasing consumer goods, has seeped into just about every corner of our lives. Even holidays – our cultural traditions that are about celebration and togetherness – have become multi-billion-dollar industries, with consumption (like buying gifts or decorations) now being a condition for participation. After all, it is impossible to celebrate Halloween without at least buying a pumpkin!

In this sense, we can see how holidays like Halloween have become commodified, or turned into objects of consumption. Karl Marx, who is often referred to as a “founder” of sociology and who wrote extensively about capitalism, argued that commodification is part of the core “logic” of capitalism. Under this capitalist logic, or way of understanding the world, we come to see things like friendship, holidays, and love as objects available for purchase – in the form of a friendship bracelet, a Christmas gift, or an engagement ring. For example, rather than love simply being valued in and of itself, society and advertisements tell us that love is something you must express by buying something nice for your partner.

Sociologists and other scholars have examined this trend of commodification through various parts of society; including government and the policies are enacted by legislators. Starting in the 1970s, many governments across the world decided to privatize formerly government-run services (e.g. health care, public housing, or assisted living for the elderly), effectively turning those services into objects of consumption rather than services that all citizens are entitled to. The idea behind these changes was that private companies and unrestricted markets are best suited to provide social welfare, and that it would generate economic growth to turn those necessary services into something available for purchase. Scholars have defined this free market-based approach to government as “neoliberalism,” and its impacts are seen on both international, national, and local levels.

 In the U.S., the criminal justice system has been the target of several neoliberal policies. As the prison population began to dramatically increase in the 1980s (with the mass incarceration resulting from the “War on Drugs” and general “law and order” politics), states and the federal government had to deal with the increased cost associated with booming incarceration. To address the issue of increased public spending on incarceration, the prison system was transformed to allow private companies to build and manage prisons for profit.

More recently, there has also been an increase in the number of privatized immigration detention centers, where undocumented immigrants are held while they await being processed through the immigration system. Given that the private companies who build and maintain prisons or detention centers rely on their profitability, these companies’ cost-savings have been related to a number of safety and quality concerns inside of their facilities. In addition, they are often allowed to operate with little government oversight or regulation.  

To further decrease public spending on prisons, many states decided to entirely shift the financial burden of paying for imprisonment from taxpayer funds and onto the incarcerated individuals themselves. These states enacted so-called “pay-to-stay” policies, whereby prisoners are charged for room, board, medical attention, and other service-specific fees for the entire or partial duration of their imprisonment.

As opposed to fines or restitution, which are intended to punish criminals or to compensate victims of a crime, the purpose of these “user fees” is to increase revenue from the prison system. These costs can range anywhere from a $12 fee to be booked into county jail, to being court-ordered to reimburse the state for the full per-capita cost of transportation, room and board, clothing, security, medical expenses, and even the educational programs available inside of the prison.

In a recently published article in Sociological Forum, authors Brittany Friedman, April D. Fernandes, and Gabriela Kirk examine more closely how these pay-to-stay policies relate to the overall neoliberal turn of the criminal justice system. Using data from a wide collection of legal documents from the state of Illinois, they explore how pay-to-stay policies are justified and framed by lawmakers. They show that pay-to-stay policies demonstrate a neoliberal adaptation of consumerism, turning incarceration into a commodity that the consumer (i.e. the incarcerated) must pay for.

They write that this “consumer logic is thought to eliminate the free rider problem because it prescribes that incarcerated people must pay back the state for having to incapacitate them in the first place” (752), as lawmakers have framed it as unfair that taxpayers must bear the cost of incarceration. As such, “paying for a crime” is not just metaphorical, in terms of the time someone has to serve in prison and the relinquishment of rights that comes with that. More literally, prisoners also have to pay for their crime.

Much like beauty products and Halloween pumpkins, then, imprisonment in our neoliberal capitalist society has become a commodity – an object to be purchased. The difference is that the latter is driven not by free will, but by force. 

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