5.10 The Profits of Imprisonment
Modern day prison labor is equatable with slave labor because it is mandatory in many prisons, it pays virtually nothing, and in some prisons there is no compensation for labor. African Americans and Hispanic people also make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population in America because of racist laws and enforcement. According to US Census Bureau reports from 2010, 12.6% of the population was black or about 38,929,319 people. The same year in June, the US Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 4,347 out of every 100,000 black non-Hispanic Americans were imprisoned, (or about 1.687 million people). 1,775 of every 100,000 Hispanic Americans of any race were also imprisoned while only 678 out of every 100,000 white Americans were in prison. (Males also make up a far larger percentage of the prison population because of their greater capacity for hard labor.)
These disproportionate numbers are not surprising considering prison labor was initially used to continue slavery in America after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. At this time, prison labor served as a sort of legal loophole that allowed wealthy people to continue legally owning slaves. They did this by accusing newly freed slaves of crimes they did not commit, (the same sometimes happens to poor minorities today as well) so they could be “hired-out” for mining, construction of railroads, cotton picking and other forms of hard labor. Despite the illegality of slavery at this time, 93% of all “hired-out” workers in Alabama were black. 
Prison labor today still fuels sectors of economies as slavery once did. Prisoners are exploited in almost all countries for their labor, because it is so profitable to do so, which is why the laws are so unreasonable in many countries. Prisoners in America are responsible for making much of the supplies used by the U.S. military, including military helmets, tents, ammunition belts, pants, bullet-proof vests, ID tags and much more. Prisoners also make stoves, paints, body armor, medical supplies, home appliances, office furniture, headphones, microphones, speakers and airplane parts. Prisoners even raise seeing-eye dogs for blind people.  Prisoners are also sometimes paid or forced to mine for precious metals, dig, and construct large buildings.
Prisons are not subject to minimum wage laws, and there are also very few human rights organizations that are allowed to monitor them for rights violations and working conditions. Most inmate-reported abuses also go ignored and most federal and state correctional facilities in America turn a profit because of this. (Some state correctional facilities are less profitable because they are under-funded. This usually happens when some good intentioned employees of prisons begin to care less about profits and more about socially useful programs.) Most private prisons are even more profitable because they pay their inmates less. Private prisons are owned by private operators not affiliated with the government. The GEO Group is one of many examples. This corporation makes billions annually because it is not subject to the same legal requirements as federal or state prisons. The private prison industry has exploded in the past ten years due to its profitability. In 1998 there were only five private prisons in America. In 2010, there were 100 with 62,000 inmates, and this number continues to grow exponentially. Prisoners in some private facilities in America are only paid 17 cents an hour for their labor while free individuals who do the same jobs are paid well above minimum wage. If they refuse to work, they can be denied canteen privileges, locked in solitary confinement or given longer prison sentences. (The same occurs in federal and state facilities.) Violence and life-threatening diseases are also generally more common in private prisons because private prisons cut costs wherever possible.
Instead of outsourcing cheap labor to poorer countries like China, many American companies are now employing American prisoners because they can pay them even less to do the same jobs. The products they produce do not have to be shipped overseas or across long distances either, which saves companies millions. In some cases these products are made so cheaply that they are allocated for export to countries like China. If a product proudly states that it is “made in America,” there is a good chance it was made by an inmate.
37 states in America have made it legal for private corporations to contract prison labor and some of the largest corporations are doing just that and making huge profits in the process. IBM, Motorola, AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Shearson-Lehman, Lucent Technologies, Allstate, Dell, Compaq, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Merrill-Lynch, American Express, Nordstrom, Revlon, Macys, Pierre Cardin, Target and many more have all invested.
Another way prisons turn a profit is by restricting inmates’ use of money. A good amount of their money often goes to the black markets in prison, which are usually controlled by the guards and wardens themselves. Inmates are also forced to spend their money on items most essential for survival and wellbeing from prison canteens, since they are not always freely provided by prisons. Items from prison canteens can be more than twice as expensive as they would be in any store, and most federal prisons make a tremendous amount of money from them. Governments also profit from costly court fees, and even parking around a court house to go to trial is unreasonably expensive. The meters generally require much more change than normal meters, and there are severe fines for parking in the wrong spot.
Inmates are only allowed to make collect calls in prison and they are about twice expensive as collect calls outside of prison. According to investigative journalist, Alix M. Freedman, “A single prison phone can gross $15,000 per year, five times more than a street phone box.”
Even after prisoners have served their time and they are released on probation, governments can still take a percentage of their income as further punishment. One can only speculate where all of this money goes because it is not accounted for. Most in charge of these assets could not care less about the quality, maintenance or safety of prisons, so most of it is likely padding the pockets of those in charge.
Politicians, judges, federal prosecutors, wardens, and businessmen who own stock (or are otherwise invested) in prisons would rather lobby for longer prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders and keep them in jail for technical infractions on their probation than give them treatment to create a better, more functional society. Most law officers want the drug war to persist as well, because they either dislike the groups of people that use drugs or they benefit from drug crime the number of law officers and other government officials on the payroll of criminal organizations that rely on the drug trade is disturbingly high. Many also believe crime will always be a part of society, and so it is perpetuated.
I believe no private company or person unaffiliated with the government should be able to imprison anyone, and governments should not be allowed to use prisoners as mere tools for labor either. Prisons should function primarily as rehabilitation centers that give prisoners the opportunity and education they need to change their lives. Isolation from the rest of the world is enough of a punishment. If all people were allowed access to the same resources in the first place, prisons would not need to exist since there would be almost no will for crime. But until we get there, prisons need to be significantly reformed.
5.11 The Social Consequences of Prisons and How We Can Change Them
Prisons are clearly not serving their intended functions. Prisoners can make connections with other criminals in prisons. They are often forced to join a gang to survive, and these gangs are generally separated by race or other superficial differences, which results in race wars and the extermination of large numbers of minorities.
Rape in prison is widespread, but not often discussed. Some prisoners are raped by other inmates and guards and their hatred of the system often only increases after such trauma. Some also become more likely to commit a violent or sexual crime themselves. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) received 550 rape allegations from Texas prisons alone in 2004. Only 8 resulted in prosecution. From 1999 to 2005 the Special Prosecution Unit only investigated 232 guard-on-inmate rape allegations in the entire US and only 43 lead to prosecution. 
Life in any prison can be a worse punishment than the death penalty. There is little to be enjoyed when your life is controlled and you are confined to a cell with people who live the same cramped, tortured existence. Some individuals facing life in prison ask for death instead of prison time. Some other inmates kill themselves just days into their sentence because prison is such a vile place that always changes people. This is unacceptable, as is the death penalty. Prisons must improve. Governments cannot have the right to decide who lives and dies, unless there is an undeniable, imminent threat. Many countries still use the death penalty.
In the middle Ages the government dealt with crime using what we now call cruel and unusual punishments. But life in prison is a cruel and unusual punishment when rape and assault are accepted practices in prisons, and in many ways interminable emotional, psychological and physical trauma is much more painful and cruel than intense, but brief physical pain caused by an execution, even a brutal one. Some people in prison can become numb to physical pain and they can become very violent.
Rape in prison is often joked about in American media, but it is hardly funny for the victims. There are more comedies than documentaries made about prisons in America. But few people in prison truly deserve to be punished. The mainstream media often paints a picture of humanity that is divided by “good” and “evil” people. A criminal cannot be human and their motives are not explored. They don’t show shades of gray, and mainstream reporters always display their biases, despite their pledge and responsibility to be as objective as possible. Locking up every kind of criminal in prison is easier than making an attempt to understand these people, which is why so many can just cast them aside.
If we were conditioned to think more seriously about the social impacts of prisons, then they would likely change. But if we see prisoners as lost causes and no attempt is made to change them for the better or to redefine what it means to be a criminal, then we will be losing millions of people who could be having a much more positive impact on the world.
Some prisons have classes and libraries, but few have formal education on a variety of academic subjects, and reading is not exactly encouraged. The best prison programs are not usually funded by the government, but by independent human rights organizations that care about inmates.
Most mainstream news outlets also sell danger and what the government does to keep us “safe” in order to keep us sheltered and consuming and to keep us from ever knowing and always fearing the inside of prison walls. They make us fear most of all, getting out of line and being forced into the other side.
Many of us believe we would have made different choices if put in the circumstances of criminals. But most only believe this because we are different people. We all have different thresholds for pain and disappointment. Those who have had more good than bad in their lives can often more easily deal with struggles in their lives. But if a person only knows death, disappointment, rejection, fear, loss, pain, disease, trauma, alienation and destitution, then their threshold for more of the same is lower before they do revert to crime or antisocial behavior.
Even though we are not completely responsible for who we become, we do need to be held accountable for our actions. But we can certainly do a better job of that than our current prisons have been doing. If we make no attempt to understand why individuals commit crimes given their circumstances and address the socioeconomic inequalities that create crime and state violence, then these problems will always exist. Inmates have much time to seethe and contemplate revenge in prison, and many want revenge when they are released from prison because of the squalor of most prisons. (Even those serving life in prison sometimes have people on the outside willing to kill whoever was responsible for their conviction.) Some get their revenge, but usually the outcome is messy and destructive for many. The system is designed to perpetuate criminality. We are all imprisoned by the law in some way or another. Outside or inside jail, no one is truly free, except for those who live without rulers, prisons, or forms of coercion.
Exile is an alternative to imprisonment that has been used for thousands of years, but I believe it is very flawed as well. It is irresponsible to exile dangerous people to other countries and believe they are no longer threats. Exile only “worked” temporarily thousands of years ago because populations were smaller and the means of travel were slower. The deportation of Mexican gang members today has backfired because of their ability to cross back into the US. Some also recruit more members or kidnap people and illegally cross the border back into the United States with them. To prevent this problem, Mexico and all of Central and South America need to be given more opportunity, so that the crime rates will decline and less Mexicans and others further south will feel the need to come to America illegally. It also ought to be much easier to come to America legally and apply for citizenship. Borders only create barriers between us and they prevent tolerance, ideas, and equality from spreading.
Governments should not consider force or the threat of force their only means of deterring crime. Force should only be used as a last resort when a legitimate threat cannot be deterred in any other way. As long as there are people who feel they have nothing to lose, there will always be crime. We ought to give opportunities (hand-ups, not hand-outs) to the people who have nothing to lose.
Most currently impoverished people inherited poverty. They grew up in low-income neighborhoods with a hostile police or military presence and crime in many areas. Many kids in ghettos feel as if they have only two options, which are to either to manage to graduate at an under-funded public school, work a minimum wage jobs at a chain, get beat up and robbed, get to college and eventually make enough money to live decently but still struggle throughout OR Join a gang and potentially gain far more in a short period of time, as well as feel powerful. Some poor people come from broken homes as well, so they lack strong family ties and gangs often promise to provide the same kind of support and loyalty that a healthy family can provide. This makes gang life seem more attractive, even though it is often dangerous and painful.
I believe real criminals should get the same treatment as drug addicts. They should be rehabilitated. Individuals who understand criminal behavior (such as thoughtful, former criminals) should talk with inmates about their past and help them work through their problems. Prison psychologists are supposed to do this, but many do not understand mentally healthy criminals, much less those with significant mental health problems. Prisoners often do not trust them or take them seriously either because they can’t relate. Schools that teach criminology do not always have good understanding of the mechanics of the system that push people to crime.
Some criminal individuals will never change because they have no desire to do so. But this doesn’t mean we should give up on everyone who has been incarcerated. Prisons need to have aspects that are enjoyable. They should cultivate a strong interest in education, self-improvement, and critical thinking. They should discourage racism and encourage religious tolerance and secularism. Colleges that offer special types of degrees could even be set up in prisons.
A college degree from a prison may not be as much of an asset to a prisoner as a degree from a regular college, but it would show future employers that they made efforts, even before being released, to improve themselves. Prisoners should also be offered ways to channel their anger in productive ways and gangs ought to be separated in different parts of the prison to prevent conflict. It would also make sense to separate non-affiliated, new inmates from sections of prisons with active gang members, as well as separate different gangs from each other. Inmates would also benefit from an expansion of programs for sports and recreation, and male and female prisoners could also be joined in minimum security prisons, so that more prisoners could have consensual relationships.
Prisons should also employ psychologists who specialize in issues like psychopathy, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, isolation, and anti-social behavior, so that they can treat prisoners with mental health issues and transfer ones with debilitating issues out of prisons. Otherwise, they can become targets. An estimated 16% of the prison population suffers from one or more mental disorder and there are more mentally unwell people in prisons than in hospitals.  Ronald Reagan increased this percentage during his time as governor when he closed various mental hospitals and transferred mentally unwell people in need of treatment to county jails. This was most likely done to increase prison profits, and it is a common practice. It could be seen as “protectionist” of the “asset” of inmates.
Since the early 1990s, various class action law suits have been brought against prisons in US by prisoners with mental disorders who reported abuses that worsened their conditions. However, even when people with serious mentally disorders are correctly diverted to mental hospitals, they are generally treated no better there and in some cases they are treated worse than average prisoners.
Children with handicaps like Down syndrome and very low IQ have also been institutionalized with children with severe mental disorders for decades. They have been left and forgotten in dreadful conditions because of the financial incentive to keep them there. Punitive psychiatry is clearly just another social and economic control mechanism.
The alleged purpose of psychiatry is to help people with mental issues, but it is fairly difficult to establish patient trust if they are getting “help” from the very same people who punish them. There is not a clear enough distinction between punishment and rehabilitation. In the next few sections, I will discuss various ways to make the distinction and how we can reform the mental health industry.
The next section is also available online here: http://whatcontrolsus.com/2012/04/16/book-excerpt-the-mental-health-industry-25/
To help with these issues and learn more, you can visit justdetention.org, http://www.prisonactivist.org, narpa.org, bbrfoundation.org/ http://www.howardleague.org http://www.prisonpolicy.org, http://www.realcostofprisons.com/ or volunteer at a local prison.
 Pelaez, Vicky: The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery? Global Research. March 10 2008.
 See Previous Citation.
 Crowe, Robert: Lawsuit Focuses on Rape in Prison. Houston Chronicle, October 16, 2004. Newspaper.
 E. Fuller Torrey, M.D. More Mentally Ill Persons Are in Jails and Prisons Than Hospitals: A Survey of the States. Treatment Advocacy Center, May 2010.