Holding the slogan “Land of the Free,” “The United States incarcerates more of its own citizens than any other country in the world” (Guenther & Zeman, 2015, para. 1). The country’s vast reliance on a system intended to reconstruct behavior leads one to query the ethical repercussions of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex. Unarguably illegal behavior warrants punishment, and the isolation of offenders is pertinent to the safety of law abiding citizens. Applying the utilitarianism perspective argues that using mass incarceration to sustain the prison industrial complex fails to benefit the greater good and is therefore immoral. Ethical egoism is evident as corporate monetary gains excel through the exploitation of inmates.

An understanding of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex is helpful in determining the ethical implications of each. Mass incarceration is a term referring to the tremendous number of citizens incarcerated in the United States via jails or prisons. “While the United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population, it has nearly 25 percent of its prisoners — about 2.2 million people” (“Incarceration Nation,” n.d.). An increased inmate populace sustains the prison industrial complex. The prison industrial complex (PIC) is resultant from the 1950’s “military–industrial complex” inclusive of a web comprised of suppliers and companies, including food and medical, that serve the government for profit (Prison–industrial complex, 2017). It’s compounding impact on families, communities, and prisoners satisfy the need to examine mass incarceration and the PIC ethically.


The ethical theory utilitarianism applies the idea that the determination of an action being right or wrong is contingent on which provides the greatest amount of happiness to those affected (Mosser, 2013). Hence, the ethicalities of mass incarceration and the PIC hinge on the outcome of those affected. Assuming that the system is successfully able to cost effectively suppress crime while favoring the greater number of those involved (communities, families, and criminals), it would be ethical, or vice versa. For example, it would be utilitarianly unethical to use excessive incarceration to profit the corporate prison industrial complex at society’s cost. Unarguably the use of incarceration via correctional facilities is a necessary means of discouraging and containing criminal behavior, however, is the United States’ heavy reliance on this system working? Mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex are a joined industry in which their mutual harms exceed intended benefits, therefore the allowance of their continuance without reformation is utilitarianly unethical.

The social consequences of America’s imprisonment system are utilitarianly immoral as they fail to benefit the greater good. Offenders, themselves, experience a deprivation of rights and extensive confinement that results in long term psychological conditions. The difficulty of prisoners to achieve proper health care guarantees a difficult ability to transition back into society. “Our incarceration policy is very costly with relatively few benefits and a lot of deleterious effects on our economy and our families and on the fabric of our communities” (“Incarceration Nation,” n.d., para. 9). The adverse effects of the policy disseminate onto so many that the benefits of the system seem too minimal to constitute the ethics of utilitarianism.

jail pay fine

Ethical Egoism

Ethical Egoism is the ideology that one’s moral course is contingent on self-prosperity. By ethical egoism, the prison industrial complex, including intertwined corporations, are promoting their self-interests through their pursuit of financial success. Through the intervention of politics, corporations contracting inmate labor (Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, etc.) have invested millions in support of strict laws targeted towards supporting mass incarceration. A force of conjoined industries reaps the benefits of inmate labor as prisoner hourly wages on a state level average between $0.13 to $0.32 (Heather, 2012). Through the sponsorship of mass incarceration, companies are guaranteed cheap labor, while the exploitation of inmate labor fuels their profits. One would assume that incarceration would increase employment for non-offenders; adversely society is oppressed as inmates complete labor and manufacturing jobs for significantly less than a skilled outside worker would demand. Ethical egoism is vital to a company’s success, though it’s control on societal impacts is concerning.

Indisputably corporate success driven by ethical egoism is usually moral and economically necessary, though societal benefits become offset through the utilitarian eye. Ethical egoism can be beneficial as businesses are established and maintained through financial success; their growth and development contributes to employment, increased consumers, and a prospering economy. The industry’s sole reliance on ethical egoism negates the utilitarianism theory as it fails to permit the inclusion of any industry that may institute rehabilitation for offenders and their affiliations.

Mass incarceration and the PIC are creating a moral imbalance as the combined have resulted in record job losses and unemployment increases, extending to poverty (Heather, 2012). The establishment of legal technicalities such as revoking voting rights, citizenship, and the failure to include those imprisoned, in job statistics, seem to work in favor of ethical egoism.  Unfortunately, those residing in impoverished, minority communities are living proof of utilitarian unethicality. A former deputy warden stated the following,

More than three-quarters of a million black men are now behind bars, and nearly 2 million are under some form of correction supervision, including probation, and parole. For black males ages twenty-five to thirty-four, at a time in life when they would otherwise be starting families and careers, one of every eight is in prison or jail on any given day (ToersBjins, 2016).

Lacking participants of the working-class challenges society with disadvantages that extends to families, children, and communities. The severe imbalance in these theories implies a necessary change to the system as society suffers at the cost of an industry.


Mass incarceration fuels America’s prison industrial complex with repercussions extending to include society and the economy. The industry can produce both positive and negative societal impacts, though, the ethical egoist’s overindulgence in self-interest is diminishing the utilitarian want for overall contentment. The utilitarian view would benefit from the implementation of restrictions placed to limit the exploitation and abuse of America’s incarceration industry. In contrast, the ethical egoist thrives on the ability to utilize each aspect of imprisonment to excel their financial gains and would object to restrictions that would threaten their success. The severity of the imbalance resulting in the comparison of these theories constitutes the need for a procedural evaluation concerning mass incarceration and the industry’s operations, further leading to reform.



Guenther, Lisa, and Zeman, Scott. Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration. New York, US: Fordham University Press, 2015. ProQuest ebrary.

Heather Ann, T. (2012). THE PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX: A Growth Industry in a Shrinking Economy. New Labor Forum, (3), 38.

Incarceration Nation – American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Jail-Pay-Fine-Symbol-Sign [Image]. (n.d.). Retrieved from,3,1732.

Mosser, K. (2013). Ethics and social responsibility (2nd ed.) [Electronic version]. Retrieved from

Prison-Jail-Detention-Fence-Wire [Image]. (n.d.). Retrieved from,0,377.ff990e6fe94325cfd7037812b0b038338c324a68

ToersBijns, C. (2016, July 25). Race Reconciliation in Prisons. Retrieved from

Race Reconciliation In Prisons – (n.d.). Retrieved from