The West Virginia Division of Corrections has nearly 7,000 inmates. It has about 2,000 employees. If West Virginia were to reduce its prison population by one-half, then you would expect a corresponding reduction in the prison employee population. This would result in 4,000 to 5,000 individuals (inmates and prison workers) joining the ranks of the unemployed. This would result in a negative economic impact on the communities where the prisons are located. In short, West Virginia and the American Prison Industrial Complex, much like the Military Industrial Complex, have become major components of the workforce and economic underpinning of the American economy.
The American Prison Industrial Complex, like its predecessor slavery, has become inextricably woven into the social, cultural, political and economic fabric of the American experience.
However, prisons, unlike slavery, are necessary to protect the public safety because there are violent and chronic offenders whose behavior leaves us no choice but to incarcerate them. The necessity of prisons as a form of punishment for some offenders provides the opportunity for lawmakers and judges to exploit our fears to be kept safe. They lead us to believe that prisons and incarcerations are the only appropriate options for both violent and non-violent offenders, most of whom are poor.
When this philosophy prevails and there is a surplus of undereducated, under-skilled, poor people coming into the criminal justice system, then legislators will over legislate incarceration for offenders, prosecutors will over prosecute and judges will over incarcerate. When the labor of the poor non-violent offenders is devalued and no longer needed to drive the economy, and when their incarceration creates employment opportunity and economic benefit for others, then it becomes easy to justify the mass incarceration of poor non-violent offenders.
Watts is senior pastor at Grace Bible Church in Charleston.