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Palomar College. Courtesy photo
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College panel takes aim at ‘prison-industrial complex’

SAN MARCOS — In San Diego County, putting people behind bars is a business, a panel of experts on the subject argued at a Nov. 6 Palomar College forum.

With San Diego County possessing a slew of incarceration facilities ranging from jails, a state and federal prison and a federal immigration detention center, the guests invited by the student group M.E.Ch.A. (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) posited that broader societal forces have fomented such infrastructure. And they argued that people of color, as well as those with lesser economic privileges, have borne the brunt of the punishment under that system.

The name of that business?

The “prison-industrial complex,” is a term first defined and conceptualized by Angela Davis, according to one of the panelists. Davis was a leading civil rights activist for the Black Panther Party in the 1960s who now works as a professor emerita at the University of California-Santa Cruz and panelist Brian Harris offered her definition to describe the sociological phenomenon.

“Plain and simple, the prison-industrial complex is basically a term to describe the overlapping interests of government, industry and the use of surveillance, policing and imprisonment as a solution for economic, social and political problems,” said Harris, a professor of sociology at California State San Marcos.

There is an economic class element at-work for who serves time in prison and who does not, too, Harris posited.

“The interests of the system with the state and law are really there to promote the interests of the economically dominant class,” said Harris. “So, the prison system is really there to privilege people that are privileged and disenfranchise people that are not privileged and that’s kind of how we see it work.”

Yusef Miller, one of the panelists and a leader within the Islamic Center of North County, referred to carceral facilities as akin to “gated hotels” without any of the leisurely elements included. And he described what he said are some of the economic incentives in place to put bodies in prison cells.

“For example, if a for-profit prison is not full to capacity, the city or state has to pay that prison because they don’t have enough capacity,” said Miller. “This incentivizes prison and law enforcement to incarcerate people over minor issues, so that they can fill these prisons and keep them occupied and keep them full … They’re making money off of incarcerating people.”

Another of the panelists, Genevieve Jones-Wright — a local criminal justice system reform advocate who ran as a challenger against incumbent District Attorney Summer Stephan during the 2018 election cycle — said that the economic incentives of the “complex” extend beyond the for-profit prison realm. She also pointed to contracts that companies land with jails and prisons, including for phone calls and commissary goods, as examples of “monetizing everything” within the prison system.

“It doesn’t just end with who owns the building, it’s who they contract with, it’s who they get services from,” said Jones-Wright, who now works as legal director for the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, an immigration advocacy organization. “And everything about it is monetizing off of freedom … They’re monetizing everything.”

Jones-Wright also slammed the concept of immigration detention centers, such as the one privately owned by the company CoreCivic along the U.S.-Mexico border region in San Diego.

“I wasn’t going to touch this topic, but we have to understand that right now in our country, immigration is being criminalized,” she said. “And so, when we’re talking about the prison-industrial complex and when we’re talking about for-profit prisons, we also have to talk about for-profit detention facilities which are nothing but jails for immigrants. People who are coming to this country pursuing safety, a better life and we have incarcerated them.”

Jones-Wright also argued that incarceration in the county has a racial element beyond immigration detention centers, too. She said that, although African American people only make up 6% of the county by population, 25% of those incarcerated in the county are African American.

In total, San Diego County is home to about a dozen different incarceration facilities. Only one of them, though, is in North County: the Vista Detention Facility. That facility, a jail located next to the county courthouse for North County, is administered and funded by San Diego County.

A recent Grand Jury report concluded that subpar conditions exist at the Vista site, including lack of adequate sunlight for inmates and insufficient outdoor recreation space. Many have concluded that these conditions, as well as overcrowded facilities, worsen mental health conditions for inmates who often enter in need of treatment to begin with.

In 2019 alone, 14 people have committed suicide in county jails. In the past decade, 142 people have committed suicide in county jails, a rate far above the state average.

These numbers have sparked an investigation, with County Supervisors Nathan Fletcher and Dianne Jacob calling for the county to review “best practices” for its jail operations. That probe will be completed by next year.