Breaking the Chains of Profit

Over a century and a half after the abolition of slavery, the United States still bears the scars of its past, with the legacy of slavery echoing through the criminal justice system and contributing to the issue of mass incarceration. 

Slavery was a pervasive institution throughout the history of the United States for over two centuries. The first enslaved Africans were brought to the British colony of Virginia in 1619, and by the time of the Civil War in 1861, approximately four million people were enslaved in the United States. The legacy of slavery has had lasting impacts on American society, including contributing to systemic racism and economic disparities that persist to this day. One such impact is the issue of mass incarceration, which has disproportionately affected Black Americans and other people of color.

In addition to the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, it is important to recognize that mass incarceration is also a lucrative industry. The private prison industry in the United States is estimated to generate over $5 billion in revenue annually. The number of people incarcerated in the United States has increased dramatically in recent decades, with the incarcerated population growing from approximately 500,000 in 1980 to over 2.2 million in 2021. This growth has been fueled in part by the privatization of prisons and the implementation of policies such as mandatory minimum sentences and the war on drugs. Publicly-run prisons also generate significant revenue, with the US government spending over $80 billion annually on corrections. Additionally, the prison labor system, which relies on the labor of incarcerated people who are paid as little as a few cents per hour, generates an estimated $1 billion in revenue for corporations each year. This exploitation of incarcerated labor contributes to the systemic devaluation of Black and Brown lives, and perpetuates the legacy of slavery in the United States. The fact that the criminal justice system has become a profitable industry is deeply troubling, and underscores the urgent need for reform and the dismantling of the prison-industrial complex.

The for-profit private prison industry has been a major contributor to the growth of mass incarceration in the United States. The two largest private prison corporations, CoreCivic and GEO Group, collectively generate over $3 billion in revenue annually. These companies operate facilities across the country, including immigrant detention centers, and have been criticized for their substandard living conditions and treatment of incarcerated people. In addition to private prison companies, other corporations profit from the prison-industrial complex as well. For example, telecommunications companies such as Securus Technologies charge exorbitant rates for phone calls made by incarcerated people and their families, generating an estimated $1.2 billion in revenue each year. Similarly, companies such as JPay and GTL provide tablets and other technology to incarcerated people, charging high fees for services such as email and video visitation. The healthcare industry also profits from mass incarceration, with companies such as Corizon and Wexford Health Sources providing healthcare services to prisons and jails and generating billions of dollars in revenue. The fact that these corporations profit from the suffering and exploitation of incarcerated people is deeply concerning and highlights the urgent need for reform in the criminal justice system.

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The exploitative practices of corporations profiting from the prison-industrial complex not only affect incarcerated individuals, but also their families who are often burdened with exorbitant costs to stay in touch with their loved ones. Families of incarcerated people are often forced to pay high fees for basic necessities such as phone calls, video visitation, and money transfers to support their loved ones while they are behind bars. These costs can add up quickly and create financial strain for families, many of whom are already struggling to make ends meet. Furthermore, the lack of transparency in the pricing of these services makes it difficult for families to plan and budget for these expenses. The predatory practices of these companies not only exploit incarcerated people, but also their families who are caught in the crossfire. It is imperative that we address these injustices and work towards creating a more just and equitable system that supports both incarcerated individuals and their families.

The financial burden on families with incarcerated loved ones can be staggering. According to a study by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, families of incarcerated people in the United States spend an average of $13,607 annually on costs related to incarceration, including phone calls, visitation, and money transfers. This burden falls disproportionately on women, who make up 84% of single-parent households with an incarcerated loved one. Women who have a partner or spouse who is incarcerated face significant financial challenges, as they often have to bear the brunt of the household expenses and childcare costs alone. In addition, they may face employment discrimination or reduced job opportunities due to their partner’s criminal record. These challenges can lead to a cycle of poverty and debt for families with incarcerated loved ones, further perpetuating the inequalities of the prison-industrial complex.

The costs of incarceration go beyond the financial burden on families and the profits made by corporations. Incarcerated individuals and their families also pay a heavy toll in terms of sacrifice and loss of human dignity. Incarcerated individuals are stripped of their basic human rights, including the right to vote, access to education and job training, and often face physical and emotional abuse at the hands of correctional officers. The psychological effects of incarceration can also be devastating, leading to increased rates of mental illness, depression, and suicide. Families of incarcerated individuals must also make significant sacrifices, such as missing important family events and holidays, and feeling stigmatized and ostracized by their communities. They may also have to relocate to be closer to their loved ones in prison, causing further disruption to their lives. According to a report by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, families of incarcerated individuals often have to choose between paying for basic necessities, such as food and housing, or paying for expenses related to incarceration, such as phone calls and visits. This can lead to a cycle of poverty and debt that further marginalizes already vulnerable populations. These costs and sacrifices are immeasurable and highlight the urgent need for reform in the criminal justice system.

The problem with the current criminal justice system is that it is managed by people who do not have to worry about the impact it has on individuals and families. Politicians and policymakers, who are often privileged and have never experienced the injustices of the system, make decisions about how to allocate resources and what policies to implement. This lack of understanding and empathy creates a system that is indifferent to the suffering of incarcerated individuals and their families. Moreover, working in the corrections system for an extended period of time can have a dehumanizing effect on individuals, leading to a lack of compassion and empathy towards those in their care. Over time, corrections officers and other staff may become desensitized to the human suffering they witness daily, losing touch with their own humanity in the process. This dehumanization contributes to the perpetuation of the cycle of abuse and neglect within the system, and highlights the need for change from the ground up. It is essential that those who work within the criminal justice system be held accountable for their actions and be provided with the necessary resources to address the root causes of crime and incarceration.

In conclusion, the system of mass incarceration not only harms those directly impacted by it but also has broader negative impacts on society as a whole. As Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, once said, “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” We must recognize that the current criminal justice system perpetuates a cycle of trauma and oppression, which undermines our collective values and beliefs about justice and fairness. It is essential that we confront this issue head-on and demand meaningful change that prioritizes the dignity and humanity of all people. We must invest in alternatives to incarceration, address the root causes of crime, and provide opportunities for rehabilitation and reentry for those who have been impacted by the system. Only then can we truly build a just and equitable society for all.

About the Author
Claudine Clark is president/founder of the French Coalition Against the Death Penalty. An abolitionist, paralegal and human rights consultant, her passion stems from her origins as the granddaughter of Warsaw ghetto survivors. She defends human values of forgiveness and tolerance through numerous actions.
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