Pacotille and the Prison Industrial Complex

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W. E. B. DuBois, in his posthumously published (1968) Autobiography, said

“There is a desperate need … to oppose this national racket of railroading to jails and chain gangs the poor, friendless and black.”

The United States has the highest level of incarceration in the world, with a disproportional number of people of color behind bars. More African Americans are under the control of the correctional system of the United States today than were enslaved before emancipation. Native Americans, in spite of being the smallest ‘minority’ group in the country, have the second highest per capita rate of incarceration, after African Americans. Latinos are also grossly disproportionally represented in prisons.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this system is that it profits off of the denial of fundamental human rights to millions of the nation’s citizens, via prison privatization, cheap labor and the for-profit industries that have sprung up around the construction and maintenance of such facilities[1].

My attendance of a conference hosted by and for the Correctional Industries in this nation, led to my production of the following images.

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The items viewed in the images are samples of products created by or for the prison industry; as well as souvenirs of the state organizations that manage the various industries within that state (recognizable by the prefix or suffix, “COR”).

The term “pacotille” was a derogatory term used during the transatlantic slave trade, to refer to material goods that would be traded for human beings. In his 1941 paper, Imperialism in Africa, C.L.R. James  stated that,

“The mercantilist system had exploited Africa as a field of commerce, first, slaves, and secondly, pacotille, the beads, colored cotton and other rubbish for which Negro slaves were exchanged.”

The image titled “. . . beads, colored cotton and other rubbish. . .” was selected as my exhibitor’s postcard for “Free School” – the Cornell MFA 2013 Group Show in New York City, in May.


[1] Davis, Angela Y, Rodriguez, Dylan. History is a Weapon – The Challenge of Prison Abolition: A conversation. http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/davisinterview.html

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