A new report from prison abolition group Worth Rises has exposed the extent to which corporate America profits from the desperation of the incarcerated. The 132-page study, entitled “The Prison Industry: how it started, how it works, how it harms,” blows the lid off the scandalous business practices organizations involved in what has become known as the “prison industrial complex” employ to reap billions in annual profits.

“The prison industry is ubiquitous in our society. And yet we pay so little attention to it and we know so little about it. This report is really hoping to unveil the prison industry, the government and corporate actors who are exploiting the fact that they have been in the shadows,” Bianca Tylek, Worth Rises’ founder and executive director told MintPress.

In economics, a “captive market” is a situation where consumers face a severely limited number of suppliers, meaning their only choice is to purchase what is available (usually at a much higher price) or make no purchase at all. Most people resent and feel exploited by the higher prices in captive market situations like stadiums, movie theaters, and airports. But prisons take captive markets to a whole new level.

Being incarcerated is expensive, with inmates forced to pay for extra food and many things most would consider basic necessities, such as toothpaste and phone calls. Often just being sent to a correctional facility incurs a $ 100 “processing fee” prisoners must pay, while visitors are often charged “background check fees” as well. Prisoners’ friends and families transfer $ 1.8 billion into correctional facilities every year. Faced with no other choices, they are forced to accept money transfer fees up to an outrageous 45%. Financial corporations like JPay and JP Morgan Chase partner with correctional facilities in order to ensure the best deal for them — and the worst deal for the prisoners. As the report notes:

The industry was built on a profit-sharing model between financial services corporations and correctional agencies — the cost of which is layered onto money transfer fees and billed to families. After years of corporate grooming, some agencies now explicitly award contracts to the bidder offering the highest kick back percentage. As a result, not only are contracts often awarded to the most expensive service provider, but correctional administrators are also incentivized to limit cheaper or free alternatives from which they do not profit.

Prisoners are often forced to use special debit cards for purchases, many of which charge fees as high as $ 2.95 per transaction, $ 0.95 for declined transactions, and a weekly “service fee” of $ 2.50. And on the outside, JP Morgan Chase charges a $ 10 fee to withdraw money from the card at an ATM.

Phone calls are often far from free; the correctional telecom “market” is worth $ 1.4 billion annually, with charges of upwards of $ 1 per minute. Little wonder then that one in three prisoners go into debt trying to stay in contact with their loved ones.

While prisoners are given enough food to keep them alive, it is of notoriously low quality, with food poisoning more than six times more likely to occur in jails and prisons than average, the report notes. Nationally, correctional facilities spent just $ 2.30 per person per day on food — a number lower than the average daily commissary spend per inmate ($ 2.59). “There is no doubt that in many cases people spend a lot more on commissary than the system spends to feed them. That you can see time and time again. The state tries to spend as little as it possibly can get away with while up-charging for all of the products that people can purchase in commissary,” Tylek told MintPress.

Any wages earned while incarcerated are unlikely to greatly outweigh expenditures; average hourly wages for workers in facility support jobs range between zero and $ 0.63, with five states not paying workers anything. Prisons are one of the last great centers of American manufacturing, making everything from military equipment to mattresses to 3M face masks. 40% of California’s firefighters are prisoners earning only a few dollars per day to risk their lives. The state’s response to this summer’s wildfires was hampered by the COVID-19 outbreak among its prisons, meaning large parts of its fire response teams were in isolation. Until recently, former prisoners were effectively barred from applying to become firefighters.

With almost 2.3 million people locked up across a sprawling network of over 7,000 facilities, the United States has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world, locking its citizens up at over ten times the rate of European countries like Denmark or Sweden, and over seventeen times that of Japan. Worth Rises’ report notes that $ 4.6 billion is spent in the U.S. every year on the construction of new facilities. Nearly 600 prisons have been built on or in close proximity to, contaminated toxic land, leading to injury, illness, birth defects, and death.

For-profit private prisons are another growing phenomenon in America’s incarceration system. Since 2000, the number of people incarcerated in private prisons has increased by 39.3%, compared to an overall rise of 7.8%. Their ubiquity has become so unremarkable that, earlier this year, a private prison simulator game went viral, becoming the number one game in Apple’s App Store.

During the tutorial at the start of the game, a baton-wielding guard instructs players, telling them that “the state pays us good money” to manage the “lowlifes” they send your way. “It’s a perfect business,” he says, as he shows you how to send inmates to solitary confinement, something that is near-universally described as torture. The game was received extremely positively, with the few negative comments focusing on annoying ads and in-app purchases, not the game’s concept. The Worth Rises report notes that American solitary cells are so small that 19 of them could fit into an average one-bedroom apartment.

For many, a change in government from Republican to Democrat represents an opportunity for a new start. On incarceration, however, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been plagued by their close ties to the prison industrial complex. For years, Biden touted his involvement in the now-infamous 1994 Crime Bill, which critics say helped supercharge mass incarceration nationwide. Harris, meanwhile, a former prosecutor and district attorney, used to describe herself as California’s “top cop” and pursued harsh sentences for relatively minor drug offenses, including ones that she herself admits she committed in her youth.

Nevertheless, public sentiment towards the issue of mass incarceration is beginning to change. What can be done? Among Tylek’s immediate recommendations are the abolition of private prisons, making phone calls free throughout prisons and jails, addressing the financial exploitation of prisoners, an end to federal subsidies for the construction of new facilities, and ending cash bail in a way that would decrease the number of people locked up. Could this be done with such an obstinate pair in the White House? “We are hopeful that the tide is turning, that the culture is turning to a degree that the Biden-Harris administration cannot ignore and they must act and do something,” she said.

Feature photo | Inmates return from farm work detail at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La. Gerald Herbert | AP

Alan MacLeod is a Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent. He has also contributed to Fairness and Accuracy in ReportingThe GuardianSalonThe GrayzoneJacobin MagazineCommon Dreams the American Herald Tribune and The Canary.

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