Ideas and Impact

Understanding and Confronting the Prison-Industrial Complex: An Overview for Philanthropists

Funders can help address over-incarceration in America by supporting efforts to better understand and confront the network of companies that currently profit from the US prison and detention system.

Philanthropists can help address mass incarceration by confronting the “prison-industrial complex,” the network of 3,100+ corporations that currently profit from the US prison and detention system which currently confines 2.3 million people. In this report, Arabella provides a high-level overview of the complex, identifies opportunities for intervention, and outlines possible strategies to curtail the prison industry’s growth. 

To facilitate our research and analysis, we identified 14 sectors in which various prison-industrial complex companies operate. We also identified four categories of actors that cut across these sectors: egregious actors, undue influencers, financial sources and underwriters, and socially responsible public companies. To examine these actors, we gained insights from dozens of experts and field leaders, including Bianca Tylek who shared in-depth research from the Urban Justice Center on the corporations profiting from the prison-industrial complex.

Specifically, we discuss four strategies for philanthropists: 1) support research on the prison-industrial complex, 2) support organizations working to counter the advocacy efforts of companies in the complex, 3) divest from egregious actors and invest in positive solutions, and 4) use the power of endowment capital to engage in investor activism and capital market strategies targeting companies in the complex. Taming the prison-industrial complex can help reverse the mass incarceration that harms millions.

Download Full PDF