The prison industrial complex (often called “the PIC” in shorthand) is a dynamic set of institutional and historical relationships that link private business and U.S. government/state (or “public”) apparatuses together in multi-scalar projects of criminalization, human immobilization, and imprisonment. These mass-based punitive-carceral projects are, in turn, contextualized by variable forms of domestic warfare, declared and undeclared international wars, and the structures of global empire. The term “prison-industrial complex” is often traced to 1995 by Los Angeles-based scholar Mike Davis, in an article published for Nation magazine titled “Hell Factories in the Field: a prison-industrial complex.” It is also noted to have been mentioned in various iterations as early as the 1970s.
Yet it was not until the late-nineties that “the PIC” was popularized by the national abolitionist organization Critical Resistance as a framing concept for transformative counter-carceral movement-building projects. Mobilized through a loosely affiliated and complexly decentralized constellation of grassroots movement-building organizations and multi-sited activist solidarity networks scattered around the country, including Critical Resistance (CR), the North American Anarchist Black Cross (ABC), and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, the movement to abolish the prison industrial complex emerges in the closing years of 1990s as a radical rejoinder to the left-liberal penal reformist’s compliance with the hegemony of “law and order” (Parenti 1999; see also Hall et al. 1973), the acceleration of (proto-)genocidal anti-Black/racial domestic warfare (Costa Vargas 2008; see also Rodriguez 2009), and the normalization of a phenomenon that Ruth Wilson Gilmore (1998) refers to as “industrialized punishment.” To my knowledge, the most succinct definition of “PIC abolition” can be found in statements culled from the CR Abolitionist Toolkit self-published by Critical Resistance (2002), of which is exhibited at length in image-quote below:
In this context, “abolition” is understood as a praxis and critical discourse that is constantly in formation and deeply historical. Throughout this dissertation, “PIC abolition” is not conceptualized as a “program,” “formula,” “ideology,” or “agenda” per se, but as a horizon, a desire, a dynamic process of envisioning revolutionary social change. As Rachel Herzing (2016) explains, this processual notion of abolition put forth by CR (among others) is rooted in a “proactive” orientation to transforming social relations: “It is not only ‘I want to eliminate imprisonment’ or ‘I want to eliminate the cops’ but an affirmative…practice. Affirmatively, this is the world I want to live in, therefore I need to take these steps to create the conditions that make that world possible” (73, emphasis added).
Early iterations of a qualitatively “community-based” approach to prison abolitionist organizing, specifically in the United States and Canada, are traceable to a period as far-back as the Attica revolt and the thunderous rolling prison strikes of the early 1970s, the Black Panthers’ transport programs for families visiting imprisoned loved ones, and parallel fights throughout the era to form a National Prisoner’s Union. These struggles are well recounted in essays like Liz Samuels’ classic “Improvising on Reality: The Historical Origins of Prison Abolition” (2010) and Daniel Burton Rose’s inventive undergraduate thesis “‘War Behind Walls’: Work Strikes and Prisoner Self-Organization in US Prisons, 1967-76” (1998). As Samuels’ article explains:
In the mid-1970s, there were numerous calls and efforts to develop national organizations and a coordinated strategy to fight for prisoners’ rights, prison reform, and prison abolition. By the decade’s end, these calls faced limited support . . . owed, in part, to a combination of limitations within the prison movement and expanded policing and retributive legislation.” Important here is Samuel’s acknowledgement that by the mid-1970s abolitionists not only had already identified the limitations of penal reformism but began laying the ideological and organizing foundations of the movement to abolish the PIC in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.