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Mass Incarceration and the Prison Industrial Complex Essay

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Updated: Feb 6th, 2022


The ethical implications of America’s practice of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex have been a topic for debate in the philosophic circles for a considerable amount of time. Used to describe a system of approaches to combat crime and solve various socioeconomic problems, these terms have overly negative connotations among the general public. An astonishingly large number of prisoners in the United States is a point of concern for both activists and regular citizens (Prison Policy Initiative, n.d.). The prison population continues to grow at an unprecedented rate, wasting government funds, and far outpacing the population increase.

There are many points of contention to discuss the current prison system, and their examination is needed to fully access the scope of the issue. The justice system that disproportionately affects racial minorities and people with disabilities creates an unjust, hostile environment (Prison Policy Initiative, n.d.). Privately owned prisons derive profit from cheap inmate labor and their poor living conditions. The ethics of in-prison treatment and the use of violence and solitary confinement are also an issue of high priority in this topic. The current system does not offer sufficient support for people to start their life again after serving the sentence, and actively destroys their ability to integrate into society. The prison-industrial complex brings harm to individuals and communities, and the benefits of this approach are highly dubious. All of these problems are well-researched and substantiated by many articles and investigations. Despite being a well-known topic, the prison system is rarely analyzed from an ethical standpoint, creating an opportunity for further discussion. This paper, in particular, will utilize a variety of viewpoints, employing a utilitarian, deontological, and relativistic approach.


Deontology is one of the classical ethical theories that can be used to understand the problem of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex. The term itself is used to describe a belief that actions can be determined to be good or evil following a clear set of rules (Alexander and Moore, 2016). This theory allows one to distinguish right from wrong following several universal, predetermined laws. Deontology allows one to make clear decisions without considering consequences (Alexander and Moore, 2016). This theory may not be able to analyze the peculiarities of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex fully, but it is nevertheless interesting to utilize it. Regarding the American prison system, this theory would claim that the action of mass imprisonment is just. According to the deontological punishment theory, the use of punishment, and, by extension imprisonment is a logical practice and the requirement of justice (Bedau and Kelly, 2015). The laws of the government and the country are considered the ultimate determining factor in judging a person.

According to the rules applicable to this philosophical approach, if a person is perceived to have committed a crime, their punishment is an inevitable and necessary outcome, regardless of consequences. On the other hand, the practice of massive incarceration and increased targeting of minorities does not find a sufficient explanation in this theory. The deontological approach constitutes that people would be placed in prison proportionally for too many crimes committed, which is contradicted by the real-life imprisonment statistics (Durose, 2019). The theory is also ill-equipped at accessing how the current system harms the communities and individuals, as it cannot perceive the prison system to be flawed (Chiao, 2015). Deontology offers an incomplete look at the problem of mass incarceration and does not offer an effective way to reassess the possible solutions.


Utilitarianism is another ethical theory that can be used to evaluate the existence of the prison complex and mass incarceration. As a view, utilitarianism proposes that morally just actions present the most good to the world (Tardi, 2020). Action is understood through the lens of the result it produces, which is judged to be beneficial or detrimental (Tardi, 2020). The goal of this approach is to maximize the amount of overall good. Through the lens of utilitarianism, US prison practices can be considered morally and ethically wrong. While the existence of private-owned prisons produces good in the form of wealth and labor to their owners, it brings much more harm to society overall.

The practice of mass incarceration separates people from their communities, breaks apart families, and stops people from being an effective part of the general society. The health and well-being of prisoners are also often not taken into account, leading to lasting physical and mental problems. The government spends an ever-increasing amount of its budget on maintaining the prison industry, limiting spending on welfare and care programs. The racial profiling and targeting of disenfranchised groups bring danger to the most vulnerable parts of society. All points considered, the prison system in its current state brings benefits only to a small minority of wealthy and influential people and does not work as a rehabilitation and support structure for the country.


Relativism is the last approach that will be used to evaluate the topic in question. The relativist approach is used to ascertain that the moral and ethical norms are largely based on the culture and beliefs of a particular society (Baghramian and Carter, 2015). Similar or same actions may be permissible or reprehensible depending on the established principles of a particular place (Baghramian and Carter, 2015). This outlook allows one to be flexible in regards to ethics and pay attention to the peculiarities of each situation. In regards to the US prison industrial complex and the practices of mass incarceration, one will need to consider the practices of American society. With the prevalence of Christianity and its influences in the history of the United States, traditional Christian values became a major part of society’s consciousness. This promotes the notions of forgiveness and cooperation as integral parts of life.

The universal virtues of the American people are often identified as freedom, equality, individuality, and justice. The prison system goes against many of these intrinsic American values; therefore it can be identified as flawed or ethically incorrect. The imprisonment and mistreatment of people contradict the notions of equality and freedom, restricting people both mentally and physically. The prison industrial complex that promotes discrimination against the poor prisoners is also ethically wrong in this assessment since their exploitation works to increase the wealth gap between the classes of American society. The currently established procedure for identifying and punishing criminals does not work in tandem with the common virtues of the nation and subjects people to unnecessary suffering. Massive numbers of people incarcerated under the law do not portray a just system that mirrors the values of its people.


Taking everything into account, the various ethical approaches presented an interesting outlook on the topic of Mass Incarceration and the Prison Industrial Complex in the US. The prison system affects a massive number of people, both directly and indirectly. The system of determining who deserves to be punished is flawed, resulting in disproportional outcomes and a lack of justice. The inmates suffer from dehumanization and abuse, having trouble integrating back into the community. Not every ethical approach is well equipped to consider all of the nuances of this system, but many of them, nevertheless, allow one to evaluate separate aspects of it. Deontology considers the practice of imprisonment to be ethically right if it is proportional to the number of crimes committed, and accurately reflects the racial composition of the society. Since American prisons are unable to deliver such outcomes, this theory is unable to meaningfully analyze their existence.

Utilitarianism allows evaluating the benefit of the practice based on the amount of overall good it delivers, which puts both the mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex in a bad light. The existence and prevalence of private prisons are valuable only to their owners and investors, not the general community. Lastly, the relativist approach also presents the prison system as ethically wrong. If the moral standards of a society are based on historic and cultural norms when the operation of the prison system contradicts the major values of the American people. The notions of liberty, equality, and justice are all not being followed through in the prison industry.


Chiao, V. (2015). Criminal Law and Philosophy, 11(3), 431–452. Web.

Durose, O. (2019). Undergraduate Journal of Politics and International Relations, 2(1), 1. Web.

United States profile. (n.d.). Prison Policy Initiative. Web.

Bedau, H. A., & Kelly, E. (2015). Punishment. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.

Baghramian, M., & Carter, J. A. (2015). In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.

Alexander, L., & Moore, M. (2016). In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.

Tardi, C. (2020). In Investopedia. Web.

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IvyPanda. "Mass Incarceration and the Prison Industrial Complex." February 6, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/mass-incarceration-and-the-prison-industrial-complex/.


IvyPanda. 2022. "Mass Incarceration and the Prison Industrial Complex." February 6, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/mass-incarceration-and-the-prison-industrial-complex/.


IvyPanda. (2022) 'Mass Incarceration and the Prison Industrial Complex'. 6 February.

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