A Critical Analysis of the Functionality of Prisons

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Prisons have long been recognised for having socially coercive effects; however, Western nations remain committed in their use and support of imprisonment as punishment. Imprisonment is known for the manner in which it confines, constrains, and manages potentially unruly or disruptive populations, as well as the cycle it creates between homelessness and incarceration. The individuals that face both the socially coercive effects of imprisonment and the cycle of homelessness and incarceration are excluded from participating in major activities, remaining isolated and segregated from mainstream social institutions.

With this being said, it is also important to consider the cultural values of prisons. Recent innovations have expanded the entertainment and commodity values of punishment. Mass imprisonment demonstrates how incarceration has become socially concentrated in particular communities and specific to certain groups (Garland, 2001). Prisons have also recently been used as an economic recovery scheme, which oftentimes fails due to the hidden costs of “prisonomics.” As such, prison has become persistent due to extrapenological functions, which can be defined as methods that allow penal confinement outside the penological explanation.  In order to elucidate this relationship, this critical essay will explore Gowan’s (2002) nexus of homelessness and incarceration, as well as Waquant’s (2003) discussion of forced confinement and peculiar institutions.

Both ethnoracial closure and labour extraction are tools that comprise the carceral continuum, as well as maintain an economic attribute, which resembles Lynch’s (2004) concept of prison as a commodity and the prison industrial complex.  In recent years, the school-to-prison pipeline becomes a reality for many, largely the impact of coerced mobility and the increased correlation between two large social institutions—school and prisons. As a result, prisons have become a social institution, which remains in communities where it acts as a socializing force.

Labour Extraction as an Extrapenological Function

The combination of ghetto and imprisonment, known as the carceral, is a present day peculiar institution, which possesses extrapenological functions. According to Waquant (2003), a peculiar institution is a method for subjugating certain populations of people at the lower level of the social hierarchy, so they may continue producing/working for the white middle class man. Not only does this help maintain the use of imprisonment, but it is also a tool used to confine and constrain particular individuals.

This idea of labour extraction can be explained through Gowan’s (2002) discussion on the homeless-incarcerated cycle. Incarceration leads to homelessness in many ways. In addition to the obvious stigma that comes from being previously incarcerated, there also are skills that were lost through either lack of upkeep or lack of educational facilities, not to mention the gap periods in an ex-inmate’s resume. Furthermore, on a more personal level, ex-inmates may have lost touch with family members who could help provide support upon release.

All these factors help reinforce the notion of carceral impoverishment, which attempts to explain the prison’s role in creating poverty and homelessness. Imprisonment is considered the initial point of entry into the homeless lifestyle. Some turn to shelters for help with their day-to-day necessities, however many prefer homelessness to shelters due to the strict rules, which largely resemble the penal institutions they recently exited.  Ex-inmates will sometimes justify the homelessness “as a necessary period of recovery during which they could relax after the tension of prison and prepare themselves for the uphill struggle ahead” (Gowan, 2002, p.512). The stigma of being an ex-con, the loss of a support system, and the gaps in resumes are all factors that increase the potential for homelessness.

Not only does incarceration lead to homelessness, but also homelessness can lead to incarceration causing a vicious cycle from which neither the homeless population nor the incarcerated can escape. As Gowan (2002) noted, the homeless come to be arrested based on three mechanisms: “crimes of desperation, rabble management, and bad company” (p.517). First, the extreme poverty and mental strain felt by the homeless compels them to commit illegal activities ranging from simple offences of shoplifting to more serious incidents precipitated by the difficulties of street life.  Rabble management is “the routine jailing of the disreputable and disaffiliated for minimal offences in the interest of the public order. Legislation and police actions specifically target homeless people because their very homelessness makes them offensive” (Gowan, 2002, p.520). This leads to a cycle of jail to streets, making it extremely difficult to sustain employment and they feel segregated from larger society. 

Finally, bad company refers to the idea that by living in these rabble zones, in which there is a geographic concentration of street entrenched homeless individuals, some are forced or peer pressured into engaging in criminal activities. The individuals find themselves in situations in which they either must offend in order to survive, or they must associate with individuals, who will pressure them into offending—both of which leads to incarceration.

Forced Confinement and Peculiar Institutions

Within extrapenological functions that help maintain prisons, there is the notion of labour extraction as well as the concept of ethnoracial closure built on four elements: stigma, constraint, territorial confinement, and institutional encasement. Waquant (2003) compares ghettos and prisons in order to make proper sense of this concept of ethnoracial closure, and by doing so explains how both locations may be thought of as places that enclose a stigmatised population with the goal of neutralising the threat that they pose to the rest of society. Ghettos, similarly to prisons, fulfill all four elements of ethnoracial closure. Not only are both locations highly stigmatised, but also there is a large amount of constraint; especially when it comes to education and employment. Both locations are also territorially confined in the sense that when in prison, inmates as well as employees cannot simply get up and leave when they desire.

In relation to ghettos, territorial confinement can be seen as “a distinct space, containing an ethnically homogenous population” (Waquant, 2003, p.477). It must be noted that although prison populations are not strictly ethnically homogenous, they do maintain a homogenous population of criminals, mostly made up of African-Americans. Institutional encasement is the notion that these locations have their own institutions existing within these spaces that will succumb to all necessities. Prisons and ghettos both have laundry facilities, access to food (via grocery stores or cafeterias), libraries, infirmaries and doctors, and educational facilities. Based on these four elements, Waquant (2003) argues that a ghetto is an ethnoracial prison in the sense that these ethnically and racially homogenous individuals live there because they cannot live anywhere else, and that prison is a judicial ghetto in the sense that it legally confines and constraints ethnoracial homogenous individuals.

Both ethnoracial closure and labour extraction are tools that comprise the carceral continuum that “entraps a redundant population of younger black men (and increasingly women) who circulate in closed circuit between these two poles in a self-perpetuating cycle of social and legal marginality with devastating personal and social consequences” (Waquant, 2003, p.478).

Mediated Spaces

In order to manage, confine, and constrain these disruptive individuals there is an increased use of technology, demonstrating the commodity of prison as well as creating a spectacle. One way in which technology has been used to create entertainment and spectacle is through Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s recent measure known as Jail Cams (Lynch, 2004). These Jail Cams are essentially internal surveillance cameras in booking and pre-detention areas that are uploaded as live feeds to the internet (Lynch, 2004). By doing this, not only does prison become a means of entertainment, but it also becomes a commodity in which prison obtains a marketable value and becomes profitable. It not only creates a rise in crime and punishment as a commodity, but it also creates a rise in “reality” entertainment and within new media markets such as the internet.

The commodification of crime and punishment can be observed when objects that previously had no value come to have market value; items such as safety and security products. Criminal justice and penal institutions also create an entertainment commodity through the increase of reality shows such as Cops. There is also an increase in the use of new media markets such as the internet because it is a non-controllable commodity market and the value is defined when it is shaped and reshaped by the viewer (Lynch, 2004). Not only do measures like Jail Cams increase these three forms of commodification but it also reinforces Foucault’s statement that the social is the carceral, by reminding and convincing us that we are free. The economical purpose of extrapenological functions fused with Lynch’s concept of the prison industrial complex strengthens the notion that prison is a method of confinement and constraint as well as a perceived economic advancement opportunity.

All in all, the extrapenological functions of labour extraction and ethnoracial closure, combined with mediated spaces and the commodification of prison, create the persistence of such institutions which attempt to manage a potentially disruptive population by confining and constraining them to specific segregated geographical locations such as prisons, ghettos, and rabble zones.

Mass Imprisonment and Exclusion

Imprisonment is the notion that by removing disruptive individuals from a community this said community will become better; however, this results in a substantial increase in incarceration rates as well as an increased focus on certain communities. Garland (2001) identifies the effects of mass imprisonment as penal exclusion, which is the social, political, and economic exclusion of certain individuals. Communities with large numbers of incarcerated individuals are socially excluded by having bad schools, disorganised societies, and limited higher educational options. The members of these communities are then prevented from accessing key social activities that could allow them to escape the penal stigma.

Political exclusion is the political disenfranchisement of inmates, voting rights lost, for incarcerated periods and sometimes life. The members of these communities are disempowered through voting as those in power seek to redraw political boundaries. The redrawing of these boundaries impacts political representation, allowing for some form of control when it comes to party members per county.

Finally, economic exclusion is the concept that the stigmatization of mass imprisonment leads to a lack of economically advantageous jobs, which continues the cycle of mass incarceration. In communities in which large amounts of member are in and out of prison it becomes an omnipresent notion. Mass imprisonment is destabilizing to the community, and coerced mobility results due to the number of people moving in and out of the prisons and community. In addition to the social, political, and economic constraints, coerced mobility creates a revolving door effect in which arrest and incarceration become cyclical as these communities increasingly lack the proper resources to counter this effect. As Clear (2007) suggests “mobility is thought to contribute to increased chances of crime through the way it produces anonymity and lack of social integration among community residents” (p.146). Furthermore, as Braman (as cited in Clear, 2007) stated:

The very laws intended to punish selfish behavior and to further common social interest have, in practice, strained and eroded the personal relationships vital to family and community life […] by stigmatizing poor and minority families, our current regime of criminal sanctions has created a set of second-order problems that further social detachment (p.147).

The effects of mass imprisonment lead to constraints that impact the educational facilities, political boundaries, and job opportunities of communities, and results in prison becoming not only a social issue but also a socializing factor.

School-to-Prison Pipeline

The notion of a school-to-prison pipeline first comes into play when there is a large increase in the criminalizing of disciplinary actions in schools, which strongly resembles criminal justice policies. With the increase of criminalization of disciplinary actions comes the increase in physical surveillance, such as security guards and physical confinement spaces. In addition, there are technologies used and policies put into practice, which help reinforce the increased coordination between school and prison. It must be noted that most of this occurs in urban environments with socially and economically disadvantaged populations and minorities.

Simmons (2009) argues that as a result of these policies “minority students are more harshly treated in school spaces than they have ever been, and this acts to reify patterns of educational disparity along the lines of race and class” (p.217). In addition to poverty, these urban minorities become cast as the problem students creating a link between school and prison. The zero tolerance policies that the schools enforce on one segment of the population increase the educational disparity, which can lead to permanent exclusion from future employment and relationships that would allow them to escape the cycle. The label of “problem student” creates this self-fulfilling prophecy, funneling them toward prisons. The prison-industrial complex reinforces the idea that prison is necessary and natural by locating schools in prisons, and rationalizing them as a deterrent. In addition to creating a prison-industrial complex, the school-to-prison pipeline reinforces prison’s socializing attributes further by allowing it to become a social institution.

Prison as Economic Recovery

The costs of prisonization are higher in larger carceral communities. One option that then becomes a viable alternative to reduce costs is prison privatization. This strategy encompasses four schemes including government outsourcing, private employment of prisoners, private construction and financing of prisons, as well as private corporations owning and operating prisons (Huling, 2002, p.198). Government outsourcing is a way prisons become increasingly privatized. Companies will pay private companies to obtain services even if the institution is public. Consequently, the services offered within it are private creating a slow push towards prison privatization.

Another way in which privatization occurs is through the corporations hiring prisoners to work for them, taking away employment for other community members. The most devastating, however, is when private corporations own and operate prisons for profit although the people they house are being sent by the public court systems (Huling, 2002, p.199). Not only does privatization lead to different institutional standards, but also the public court system becomes heavily reliant upon private prisons. Prison privatization diminishes job opportunities for community members and services, leading to the soul death of these communities.

With the shift towards globalization, jobs are moved to urbanized areas creating a smaller job market within rural communities. These communities end up inviting prisons to help stimulate their economy. Prisons are viewed as able to weather economic downturns because they are seemingly recession proof (Huling, 2002, p.200). However, with this shift towards “prisonomics” come hidden costs. “Prisonomics” affect jobs opportunities, housing markets, and criminal justice actors. “Prisonomics” affects job opportunities because “higher-paying management and correctional officer jobs in public prisons come with educational and experience requirements that many rural residents do not have” (Huling, 2002, 201). Furthermore, members outside the community, limiting the ability of community members to obtain these higher paying jobs, fill the more prestigious positions.

Another negative aspect of “prisonomics” is the impact on the housing market. With prison comes low income housing, which not only poorly reflects the community but also lowers the value of the housing market. Bad housing markets, as well as having a prison in one’s community, creates a stigma that discourages people from moving into these communities. Moreover, it discourages other industries from opening; therefore these communities become “one-company towns” in which prisons dominate the social and economic lives of these communities (as seen in the film “Prison Town, USA”). The prison’s control over the social and economic attributes of the community reinforces the prison’s socializing effect.


Overall, the extrapenological functions of labour extraction and ethnoracial closure, combined with mediated spaces and the commodification of prison, allows for the persistence of such institutions which attempt to manage a potentially disruptive population by confining and constraining them to specific segregated geographical locations such as prisons, ghettos, and rabble zones. Prisons become a social institution based on how they dominate the social and economic lives of these communities through mass imprisonment combined with coerced mobility, as well as the increased school-to-prison pipelines and prisonomics. The effects of incarceration have become socially concentrated in particular communities and target specific ethnoracial groups. These factors not only allow prisons to persist within our communities, but also allows for a certain approval of such systems.

Stephanie-Karine Hebert-Potter
Honors Double Majors Criminology/Women Studies,
University of Ottawa, Canada


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Garland, D. (2001). The meaning of mass imprisonment. In Garland, D. (Ed). Mass Imprisonment: Social Causes and Consequences, (pp.1-3). London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Gowan, T. (2002). The nexus: Homelessness and incarceration in two American cities. Ethnography, 3(4): 500-534.

Huling, T. (2002). Building a prison economy in rural America. In M. Mauer & M.

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Lynch, M. (2004). Punishing Images: Jail Cam and the Changing Penal Enterprise. Punishment and Society, 6(3): 255-270.

Simmons, L. (2009). End of the Line: Tracing Racial Inequality from School to Prison. Race/Ethnicity, 2(2): 215-241.

Wacquant, L. (2003). America’s new “peculiar institution”: On the prison as surrogate ghetto. In T. G. Blomberg & S. Cohen (Eds.), Punishment and Social Control, 2nd ed., (pp. 471-482). New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

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