Category Archives: NGI Surveillance Project

The Medical Psychiatric Industrial Complex and Not-Reform Reform

So I’ve had big plans for this post.  I wanted to write a definition of the Medical Psychiatric Industrial Complex (MPIC).  I keep sitting down to write and not getting anywhere, so I’m trying to figure out what that’s all about.

I think of definitions as living, breathing, growing, changing things, so it’s not like I was expecting to write the ULTIMATE definition of the MPIC.  I do think that naming what we are up against gives us power in resisting it (thank you, Ursula Le Guin, for writing a whole world that is based on that idea), and in the writing’s coming out of healing justice organizing, I have yet to see a beginning definition of this monster.  People write about the Medical Industrial Complex, the prioritizing of profit over people but I think that there is so much more to it than that.  Every time I sit down to write this, my internet research turns up about 80 gazillion more examples that show what the MPIC is all about.  And every time I interact with healthcare as a client/patient/careseeker or as a practitioner/health worker, I experience about 80 gazillion more examples.  It’s huge and insidious–how to narrow all that down to something readable?

But I want to add SOMETHING to the conversation, analysis, and clarity we need to create a movement that resists the Medical Psychiatric Industrial Complex, so here’s a work-in-progress.  Tell me what you think, what’s missing, what’s missing the point, what needs to be added, what your experiences have been, how you talk about/understand all this:

Recently, some documents were released via the Freedom of Information Act showing the FBI’s covert role in advocating for Secure Communities (S-Comm) as part of a larger initiative to collect biometric data on, well, everyone.  The documents released show a bunch of disturbing info, including that the FBI views S-Comm as the first step in their “Next Generation Identification Surveillance Project.”   Jessica Karp of the National Day Laborer’s Organizing Network explained: “NGI is the next generation Big Brother. It’s a backdoor route to a national ID, to be carried not in a wallet, but within the body itself.”

It sounds wicked sci-fi: a world where facial and iris recognition technologies are used for everything from accessing your bank account to your CORI to your kid’s daycare bill.  It’s also the logical progression of the Medical Psychiatric Industrial Complex—our bodies have been and are used against us in so many ways.  The use of our own bodies as sites of surveillance increases the links between the MPIC and the Prison Industrial Complex.  It’s not the only place where these overlap:

The Young Women’s Empowerment Project in Chicago, a social justice organizing project run by and for girls (including trans girls) and young women (including trans women) who are or have been involved in the sex trade and street economy, conducted their own participatory action research project and published a report called “Girls Do What They Have To Do To Survive.”    They found that girls consistently name medical and psychiatric professionals as not just NOT providing them with the help they need but also actively hurting them.  They wrote:

 “The individual violence that girls experience is enhanced by the institutional violence that they experience from systems and         services. The violence included emotional and verbal abuse as well as exclusion from, or mistreatment by, services. Traditional places of safety and protection are not available to them.

  1. Girls are denied help from systems such as DCFS, police and the legal system, hospitals, shelters, and drug treatment programs because of their involvement in the sex trade, because they are trans girls or because they are queer, because they are young, because they are homeless, and because they use drugs. “Girls in the sex trade face exclusion and neglect when accessing shelter and other services.”


Health care providers were also identified by girls as being unethical. We heard many stories from girls going to the emergency room or to a doctor and being placed in psychiatric units just because they were in the sex trade, transgender or were thought to be self injuring.”

The medical and psychiatric systems are intimately related: we know that we can’t separate our health out by body, mind, spirit.  The Catholic Church knows that, too: they’ve got people’s spirits which means they’ve also got people’s bodies under their control.   We would be served to talk more about those linked systems because they are linked as our physical and emotional/mental healths are linked.  They are as linked as going to the ER can get you enmeshed in one or both systems at the same time, as the same pharmaceutical companies are controlling both, the same med schools are training practitioners to believe in their own authority over our knowledge of our own bodies.  Ultimately, they are two of the regulating institutions that dictate what is “normal,” what is “acceptable,” how we are supposed to be.  Two of the institutions that are supposedly about helping us, but really rarely are.

And then there’s also the genital mutilation of intersex babies at the hands of medical people, the attempt to turn ERs into ICE checkpoints in Arizona, incarcerated women giving birth while shackled, medical violence against people with disabilities , public health’s roots in eugenics, anti-immigrant policies, white supremacy, ableism, and state-enforced definitions of “normalcy,” “sanitation,” and “hygiene,” the healthcare crisis in Gaza resulting from the blockade of needed supplies and the bombing of hospitals by Israel, a recent move to place kids in the foster care system because they are fat, the denial of healthcare to incarcerated folks, making organ donation a condition of parole, the use of reproductive control against communities of color, the denial of needed care to transgender people, poor people, incarcerated people, young people, old people, women, people of color, undocumented people, disabled people, fat people, just to name a few examples…

The Medical Psychiatric Industrial Complex is every move that the state, corporations, and the people in power make that target our bodies, our ability to define health and wellness for ourselves and to attempt to live it.  It is rape culture embedded in hospitals, in clinics, in the brains of healthcare providers.  The MPIC controls and silences us, it eradicates traditional and community-based systems of healing and healers, makes us feel like we know nothing about our own bodies, like we have no choices, like we are machines that can be fixed by protocols.  It is about health as the opposite of self-determination and empowerment, which, if you ask me, is no health at all.    It’s overt and more subtle.  We are disempowered and we are killed.

Our visions of our bodies, of what healing/health/wellness look like have all been shaped by the same people who consider fatness a reason to deny someone healthcare, who consider women of color in the Global South to be expendable research subjects, who see hospitals as a way to increase surveillance of marginalized folks, who feel no qualms about literally getting under our skins and into our bones, governing how we live our lives, how we relate to our very own selves, bodies, hearts, minds, spirits, and people.

And yet, despite  all this, despite the stories I hear and my own experiences and numb parts, I still think about going to school to get some kind of license that would let me practice within this whole mess.  So I’ve got big questions about how to do that in a way that feels ethical and just, that doesn’t collude with the MPIC and the harm it perpetrates.  Like what do we do about the fact that the same MPIC also saves lives?  Also provides pharmaceuticals that help people survive and can even help make life more worth living?   Can we actually support the growth of community care while working on the inside?

I’m struck with the prison abolition concept of not-reform reform.  In the context of prison abolition, it means how do we support reform that makes things better for people who are currently incarcerated but that does not support the growth/expansion of the PIC.  So, for example, the demands of the incarcerated folks hunger-striking in California, like better food and an end to long-term solitary confinement, would make people’s lives better but do not support the growth of the Prison Industrial Complex.  That is the kind of reform we need.  On the other hand, the construction of so-called gender responsive prisons led to prison expansion while supposedly making the system more able to meet the needs of women.  That is not the kind of reform we need.

I wonder what it looks like to transfer that concept to the MPIC. True, the MPIC is different from the Prison Industrial Complex and the Military Industrial Complex—we don’t just want a world in which prisons and the military are separate from corporations, we want a world without prisons and the military, period.  However, we don’t want a world without medicine, period.  Yes, we want to uplift wellness-oriented, community-based healing justice.  I want us all to be empowered individually and collectively to attend more to the health of our bodies, minds, and spirits, to have access to the resources and information and choices we need.   I also want there to be surgeons.   Is that even possible?  I sure hope so.



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