Thoughts on Extraction

When Ruthie Wilson Gilmore and I sat down for a conversation, we spoke about how the PIC not only exploits the labor of imprisoned folx (mainly via reproductive labor of the prison), but also extracts value from us. I came to this conclusion because I knew that our labor wasn’t the only or even major source of value the PIC was after. The PIC extracts our lives, our life time. Ruthie helped me to see each person as a territory that the PIC extracts value from via a time-space hole that imprisonment creates. Incarceration creates a mechanism through which money/capital can flow through a person and into the pockets of the PIC. This all sounds abstract. I know. But since coming to SCI Dallas, I clearly and concretely see how extraction, not exploitation, is the big game the PIC is using. And we need to get hip.

I am housed on a Veterans Service Unit (VSU). This is one of four blocks within the PA DOC prisons system that partners with the Veterans Services Administration (state and federal). Currently imprisoned people who have served in the military, no matter how they were discharged, are eligible for the services on these blocks. Most of these people don’t work. But they still provide value to the PA DOC/PIC. How? Programming.

The PA DOC receives state, federal and private funds for creating these types of programs and keeping them filled. Almost every prison in PA has a therapeutic community (TC) for drug/alcohol treatment. Money has been flowing to the PIC via imprisoned people in these programs for decades. But now, DOCs are getting hip and creating more programs (usually centering on mental health) in order to extract more value from imprisoned people. We don’t need to work to be of value to the PIC. Just being here and being “diagnosed” by their staff makes extraction possible and valuable.

PA has created an alphabet of solitary under the mental health programming name. Thousands of people are in these programs and capital/money is flowing through them and into the PIC. These funds could be and should be used to provide non-coercive, community based services. But the PIC is gobbling up more and more of them. Mental health, substance and alcohol treatment, reentry services, elder care programming is ramping up behind the walls. We don’t have to work. All we have to do is be imprisoned and we become of value.

Some of us are experiencing exploitation. We don’t program, but we work. Most imprisoned folx don’t work but those of us who do are being exploited. These places couldn’t run without us. But many more people are experiencing extraction. Remember, many programs are mandated for parole purposes. Working isn’t. Some of us experience both. And what is even more disturbing is that many of these new programs use the labor of imprisoned folx to succeed. On my block, there is a program almost everyday. Only once a week does a DOC employee run the groups! Every other group is run by a DOC trained imprisoned person. All sign ups and paperwork too! The staff don’t even have to show up!

Extraction is going to become the dominate game. With fewer jobs available (most of us didn’t work anyway) and less out of cell time since COVID, programming is the way to create value and keep imprisoned folx running. And what makes it more sickening is that many imprisoned people are fooled into thinking these programs are the way to success, happiness, peace and safety.


These observations help me to see extraction as the major mechanism of the PIC. While this is more easily seen and accepted outside the walls, exploitation has been the major topic behind the walls. Even though most people don’t work in here. And work is becoming less important. They are using fewer people to work. And they are giving us less hours. A shift in the kitchen used to be 6-8 hours. Now it’s 4-6 hours. It is a rare person who gets paid for an 8-hour shift.

People out there see how extractive the PIC is. Offender-funded punishments are common. Remember Ferguson? What do we think e-incarceration is all about? But people don’t realize extraction is happening in here too. And it is taking money, programs and services from our communities and sending them through imprisoned people and into the pockets of those vested in the PIC.

Besides capital, legitimacy is being bestowed upon the PIC. It continues to offer itself as the “solution” to social problems. State, federal and private funds are flowing into prisons. These death making spaces are passing themselves off as life enhancing. Besides state and federal money, I have witnessed nonprofits like LOOP get into the game, partnering with the DOCs in a number of states to provide programming, often dependent on imprisoned people’s labor.

We have to talk more about the role of extraction in all of this.



Author: Dreaming Freedom Practicing Abolition

network of autonomous and self-organized abolitionist prisoner study groups, in the belly of PA DOC