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Paul Wright

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The Cultural Commodification of Prisons

Incarceration is a tool of social control to discipline workers and poor people who are not yet imprisoned. The conditions of prisoners must always be worse than those of the poor who are not yet in prison. Those are not in prison, and not likely to be there any time soon, view conditions as not draconian enough. Those already incarcerated, or facing the prospect of imminent imprisonment, perceive it as entirely too harsh. The prison is an idea ingrained in the popular consciousness of what prison might be. The prison as commodity is where prison culture is marketed and sold for mass consumption. By commodifying prison as pop culture, mass imprisonment is made socially acceptable and connected to blue jeans, theme parks, music, entertainment, and resorts. Pop culture makes imprisonment an accepted part of the political and social landscape by marketing social policies in which one out of 20 Americans (one out of four if they are black) can expect to spend at least a portion of their lives in prison. No one is led to question whether imprisoning millions of people is a wise use of public resources, to ask who benefits from mass imprisonment, or to see if alternatives to prisons exist. With prisons as an integral part of pop culture, young people, especially the poor and youth of color, view going to prison as an ordinary part of everyday life. The message conveyed is that those in prison deserve to be there and those who are not in prison do not. The United States has more than 1,150 prisons and 3,400 jails and all will remain full so long as this is assumed to be a natural state of affairs. But it is a policy choice that has been made instead of providing living-wage jobs, affordable housing, health care, and a social welfare system.

popular culture; prisons; civilization [modern] — commodification; World War II — concentration camps

Citation: Social Justice Vol. 27, No. 3 (2000): 15-21