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Erik Nielson Headshot

Targets of the New Security Economy

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According to a new Quinnipiac University poll, New York City voters remain evenly split over the NYPD's controversial stop-and-frisk procedures, which essentially allow police to harass, stigmatize, and humiliate non-white citizens in disproportionate numbers, all in the name of safety. Not surprisingly, sentiment over stop-and-frisk is divided along racial and ethnic lines, with 60 percent of whites supporting it and roughly equal numbers of blacks and Hispanics opposing it. Those numbers make perfect sense since the practice, as well as a wide range of policing and surveillance techniques like it across the country, is in place specifically to placate white fears about the specter of pathology and danger among people of color. Stop-and-frisk has become a lightning rod for criticism because its Jim Crow-style policing tactics are so brazen, so visible, and so unapologetically primitive, but the reality is that it resides within a much more sophisticated security economy that relies on dark bodies to drive its astounding growth.

In his latest release, "New Slaves," Kanye West shines a spotlight on one of the most obvious examples of the new security economy -- the rise of privately-run prisons, whose profits depend on the justice system's providing a steady stream of inmates. He raps, "The DEA/Teamed up with the CCA./They tryin' to lock niggas up," putting his finger on partnerships between public institutions and private companies like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). While such private prisons were all but nonexistent in the early 1980s, their growth has exploded alongside the American prison population. Thanks in large part to the failed War on Drugs, the number of people in state and federal prisons doubled since 1980. Then it doubled again, and now the U.S. has 2.2 million people behind bars, more than any other country in the world. 60 percent of this massive population is black or Hispanic, with black men alone representing 38 percent of those locked up. According to the Children's Defense Fund, a black boy born in 2001 has a one in three chance of spending some of his life in a jail cell.

And if he does, it's increasingly likely that he'll end up at a for-profit prison. Between 1990 and 2009, the number of private prisons increased by 1600 percent, creating a multi-billion dollar industry that has a real, plainly stated investment in the continued criminalization of people of color in particular. When CCA bought out a public prison in Ohio in 2011, among the guarantees Ohio made to CCA was a 90 percent "occupancy rate" in order to ensure a steady revenue stream. That's right -- the state guaranteed, in advance, a steady supply of bodies. In its 2010 Annual Report, CCA also made its disturbing investment in misery plain enough: "We believe we have been successful in increasing the number of residents in our care and continue to pursue a number of initiatives intended to further increase our occupancy and revenue." It is unclear what these "initiatives" were, but it's worth noting that private prison companies have spent millions of dollars on federal lobbying, actively working to manipulate policy in order to increase "occupancy rates."

Naturally, when incarceration becomes a business, the quest for profits is going to result in "efficiencies." One of these, apparently, is sanitation. In one case, auditors visited a youth detention facility operated by GEO Group, another major player in the industry, and found shocking conditions. Apparently the auditors "got so much fecal matter on their shoes they had to wipe their feet on the grass outside." While extreme, this case is indicative of the often horrible conditions in private facilities, which have racked up major profits, but also citations for anything from poor medical care to questionable safety. Even food rations become a potential revenue stream. Earlier this year, Louisiana warden Burl Cain said in an interview, "the profit motive bothers me when the profit motive is the motive to not provide the necessary essentials for the inmate. You feed them with a thimble, is a term I use. You try to cut them to 1800 calories a day, and so those things bother me, and they do that in the private sector more than the public."

The widespread warehousing of prisoners -- especially young men of color -- finally appears to have reached a tipping point as the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses has declined, at least at the state level. The prison-industrial complex, however, is just one facet of a broader security economy that has been growing immensely -- once again, largely on the backs of people of color. Excluding our bloated military expenditures abroad, which have cost trillions, we have spent almost $800 billion on "homeland security" since 9/11, creating new agencies and departments and funneling resources to state and local jurisdictions, often in the name of fighting terrorism. With little consensus as to whether these expenditures have made us safer, the only thing that's clear is that the shadowy world of homeland security is a huge business, one predicated on national perceptions of a constant threat posed by some amorphous, but always lurking, "other."

Domestically, this "other" role has long been played by African Americans and Latinos. Hence, when NYPD officers are pushing someone up against a wall for an impromptu frisk, 84 percent of the time that person will be black or Hispanic, even though recent data tell us that white residents are far more likely to be caught with weapons or drugs. Internationally, the role of lurking predator is more frequently played by an exoticized Arab Muslim, yet another person of color who captures white imagination and fear. As scholars have noted, our current fixation with terrorism and the people behind it has resulted in "the browning of terror," which uses the vaguely defined brown body as a signifier of deviance and cultural difference. It also allows us to be imprecise about the people who are threats to us, adding to the sense that we could be surrounded by would-be killers. Our solution has been to fund an industry that promises to develop increasingly sophisticated and intrusive techniques to monitor their every movement, all in the name of keeping us safe.

Michel Foucault famously described the effects of surveillance on the people being watched, arguing that an efficient way for the modern State to stop deviant behavior was to create the sense that someone was always watching. The result would be that the people being watched (or believing that they were being watched) would internalize the surveillance and police themselves. But it's not so simple. In fact, we know that surveillance can cause mistrust, both in the people doing the watching and the people being watched. Some researchers have theorized that watching people can actually "boomerang," causing them to commit the very acts surveillance was intended to stop.

This may seem like a challenge to Foucault, but a "boomerang" would be perfectly suited to the new security industry, which relies on a constant stream of deviants for its profits. With aggressive policing and surveillance techniques, it performs its ostensible function of watching and controlling, and by targeting people of color in public shows of force (stop and frisk, "random" airport screenings, etc.), reinforces the collective insecurities that people will spend shocking sums of money to soothe. At the same time, in constructing and then watching and harassing a veritable criminal class marked by skin color, it also prods and antagonizes people into anger, frustration, and perhaps even resistance, which of course sets the entire cycle back into motion.

Nowhere is this kind of circularity clearer than in America's corrections system, which has a recidivism rate of approximately 40 percent, meaning that almost half of the inmates who are released from prison will reoffend and go back. As we might expect, black and Hispanic men are the most likely to return. It turns out that in many cases, going to prison creates such a stigma that ex-convicts (especially minorities) are all but unemployable, limiting their options for reentry into mainstream society. What's more, people with felony convictions are, in some states, permanently disenfranchised, unable to participate in their democracy in the most basic way. With no job, no vote, and no hope for a better life, they cycle back to jail, becoming grist for the mill once again in an industry that traffics in dark bodies.

Thus, whether it's the "war on drugs," "the war on crime," or the "war on terrorism," the common denominator has been people of color, who have continued to be the essential yet disposable elements in a public-private enterprise that could come to define America in the decades to come. So tempted as you might be to criticize the NYPD for profiling and demonizing young people of color, keep in mind that they are just doing their job in our new security economy.