How the Police and Prisons Systems are Institutions of Opression


Original artwork by Julia Jarzyna.

In the weeks since George Floyd’s tragic death, there has been a sharp increase in awareness and discussion of police brutality. This is an important step towards recognising how the police and prison systems are inherently oppressive. It is common place to assume that these institutions are instruments to promote justice and keep society safe. Subsequently, these institutions should enable the freedom and autonomy of citizens. This common assumption ignores the historical tendency of the police and prison systems to ‘[suppress] social movements and tightly manage the behaviours of poor and non-white people’ (Vitale, 2017). Thus, ‘the basic institutional functions of the police’ and prisons ‘have never really been about public safety or crime control’ (Vitale, 2017).

Instead, as per Marxist theory, the police and prison systems are inherently ‘repressive’ institutions (Althusser, 1994). The is because their institutional purpose is to repress political resistance and uphold the interests of the ruling class. In turn, the ‘capitalist exploitation’ of labour can continue (Althusser, 1994). These are controversial claims but I believe they accurately describe the tendencies of these institutions in the United States. Although these institutions have an oppressive purpose in all settings, the police and prison systems in the US have a particularly oppressive history.

Rather than prevent further crime, ‘the expansions of prisons’ in the US are merely a ‘geographical solution’ to existing ‘socio-economic issues’ (Davis, 2003). Due to ‘surpluses of capital, land, labour, and state capacity’, rural land becomes increasingly devalued (Davis, 2003). This means that rural workers, who already are typically economically disadvantaged, fall even lower in the US’s economic hierarchy. This leaves rural workers vulnerable to the demands and preferences of wealthier political elites. In the case of California, the state ‘assured small depressed towns’ that prison expansion would provide a ‘new, recession-proof, non-polluting industry’ and ‘would jump-start local redevelopment’ (Gilmore, 1999). Yet, ‘neither the jobs nor the more general economic revitalization promised by prisons [have] occurred’ (Davis, 2003). Hence, the expansion of prisons serves a narrative for the public to believe that politicians are addressing socio-economic problems.

Instead, prison expansion preys on the economically vulnerable and increases inequality. Since the advent of globalisation, corporations often relocate to poorer countries to escape ‘organised labour’ and the ‘higher wages’ they would be required to provide (Davis, 2003). This destroys the ‘economic base’ of smaller US communities through both job loss and the loss of future job opportunities (Davis, 2003). This turns individuals within these economically vulnerable communities into prime candidates for prisons. Left without either sufficient job opportunities or social support, these economically vulnerable individuals turn to crime out of desperation. Thereby, the functioning of prisons is intrinsically linked to exploiting the economically vulnerable.

Yet, prison expansion causes more harm than just increasing economic inequality. It simultaneously reproduces an ideology of racism and further marginalises ethnic minorities. Societies typically demark prisoners as ‘evildoers’ and ‘criminals’ (Davis, 2003). In the US, prisoners are disproportionality non-white as they are also the most economically disadvantaged. Consequently, ‘the collective imagination’ fantasises that these ‘evildoers’ and ‘criminals’ are inherently people of colour (Davis, 2003). This obstructs us from ‘seriously engaging with the problems produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism’ (Davis, 2003). Therefore, prisons function as instruments to both uphold the dominant ideology of racism and continue exploitation of minorities. Similarly, the police system equally serves the interests of the ruling class by continuing oppression. Policing first emerged ‘to manage the consequences’ of late 18th and early 19th century exploitative regimes of ‘colonialism, slavery and industrialisation’ (Vitale, 2020). This meant that the original purpose of the police was to ‘suppress slave revolts, to put down colonial uprisings, to force the working class to behave as a stable workforce’ (Vitale, 2020). The police serve the same oppressive purpose today.

After the federal government crashed the US economy in the 1970s to ‘stem the rise of worker’s power’, millions of citizens were left unemployed. The crash was so severe that it created ‘a new, mostly African American permanent underclass largely excluded from the formal economy’ (Vitale, 2017). To manage this ‘surplus population’, the federal government used mass policing and incarceration (Vitale, 2017). Instead of addressing the rapidly increasing homelessness, unemployment and poverty rates, the state used its institutions to mass criminalise these populations. This response has been repeated throughout every successive Democrat or Republican government. As such, the difference between ruling party matters little. Policing remains a means of oppressing the disadvantaged.

Even in cases where individual police officers may be legitimately concerned with preventing crimes, they are still aiding to reproduce an ideology of racism. Studies have frequently found ‘that what counts as crime and what gets targeted for control is shaped by concerns about race and class inequality and the potential for social and political upheaval’ (Vitale, 2017). In other words, what the police consider to be crimes worth preventing are decided by existing views towards race and class. This means that the police cannot act without further producing ideologies of racism and other forms of oppression. Since this directly benefits the economic interests of the ruling class, the police are inherently institutions of economic exploitation.

The inefficacy of the police is only more apparent when considering that policing is detrimental to the police officers themselves. As with all instruments of the capitalist economy, the police system is both self-contradictory and inefficient. Studies have found that police officers are at a higher risk of suicide than any other profession (Addiction Center, 2019). Police officers are constantly exposed to and expected to solve highly traumatic situations. Contrary to their public image of preventing murders, police officers most typically respond to cases of mental health crises, addiction or domestic violence. Being unequipped to properly aid these situations, police officers are regularly traumatised. In turn, their own mental health deteriorates and impairs their ability to effectively function in their job. In conclusion, there should be little doubt that prisons and the police are not effective solutions to societal issues. Rather, they inherently function as institutions of oppression and economic exploitation. This must be recognised for any substantial societal change to occur. Otherwise, the preservation of these institutions will only continue to reproduce these societal divisions.

Bibliography

Addiction Center. 2019. New Study Shows Police At Highest Risk For Suicide Of Any Profession. [online] Available at: https://www.addictioncenter.com/news/2019/09/police-at-highest-risk-for-suicide-than-any-profession/ [Accessed 28 July 2020].

Althusser, L., 1994. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. In: S. Žižek, ed., Mapping Ideology. London: Verso.

Davis, A., 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.

Gilmore, R., 1999. Globalisation and US Prison Growth: From Military Keynesianism to Post-Keynesian Militarism. Race & Class, 40(2-3), pp.171-188.

Vitale, A., 2017. The End of Policing. London: Verso Books.

Vitale, A., 2020. The Best Way To “Reform” The Police Is to Defund The Police. [online] Jacobinmag. Available at: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/06/defund-police-reform-alex-vitale [Accessed 28 July 2020].

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