It’s Time to Reform the Criminal (In)justice System

May 4, 2017

Ben & Jerry's - Reform the Criminal Justice System

We Speak Up When We See Injustice

Our values drive everything we do. And just like the chunks and swirls in our pints, they define us and inspire us. They are an inherent part of what it means to be Ben & Jerry’s.

We’ve—loudly—supported many causes in our almost 40-year history. Causes like marriage equality and LGBTQ rights, equality, climate justice, and racial justice.

The truth is that none of us, regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexuality, can be considered free if the rights of anyone anywhere are being trampled or denied. Each one of us is obligated to speak up when we see injustice. And that’s why we’re speaking up now. America incarcerates people at an absurdly high rate. Higher than any other country. This ruins lives, in particular the lives of people of color, but through its effects, our whole society. And change is long overdue.

Turning Prisoners into Profit

prison-phone-system 1.2 billionIn 2010, the US spent more than $80 billion on corrections (federal, state, and local levels combined). That’s well over four times more than what was spent in 1980. Every US resident contributes, on average, $260 a year to the prison-industrial complex. Which means that every single one of us owns a piece of this problem.

Of course, what looks like injustice to some is simply a money-making opportunity to others. Someone is profiting off other people’s misery. In fact, it is predicted there is $78 billion dollars associated with locking up people who haven’t even been committed of a crime, often while violating the notion of the constitutional right to a speedy and public trial.

Let’s take a look at some other areas where big money is ruling our criminal “justice” system:

  • The system that manages phones in prisons and jails is now a $1.2 billion-a-year industry. Rates have skyrocketed over the past 20 years and now run up to $1.22 a minute, compared to typical commercial rates of 4 cents. This makes it nearly impossible for loved ones to stay in touch.
  • Some prisons have removed visitation rooms, opting instead for video terminals, which are installed and managed by private firms, which are free to pretty much charge whatever they want (they charge A LOT).
  • Many inmates, as you’d expect, fall ill while in prison, but they’d better hope they don’t get too sick, because the (highly lucrative) prison healthcare system is awful.
  • Basic items like snacks, soap, shampoo, and the like can cost up to five times more in prison commissaries (which are often run by private companies) than they do in grocery stores.
  • Being in prison is expensive! But your family can send you money, right? Yes! Except there’s somebody making money off that money too. Private companies are now grabbing fees of up to 35% or 45% every time someone transfers funds. And poor families, as they do in every one of these examples, struggle to get by.
  • The bail bond industry pulls in billions of dollars a year. Why? Because if you don’t have tens of thousands of extra dollars in your checking account to pay bail, then you’ll need to borrow it from a bail bondsman, who gets to keep 10% of the loan even if you’re found innocent. Like every single one of these examples, this hits poor inmates and their families the hardest.

How America Says Black Lives Don’t Matter

prison-video-visitations signMany if not most of us grew up thinking that only “bad guys” get locked up, so we’ve been conditioned to ignore, or at least discount, facts like these. After all, if prison is unpleasant, even unfair, then what’s the problem? Didn’t the inmates bring it on themselves?

Well, yes, in some cases. Of course. But if you step back and really take a look at what’s really going on, then the picture is decidedly more complex, and grim.

And the thing that a lot of us haven’t really come to understand is how big a role race plays in all of this.

Numbers Tell the Story

prison-healthcare-system signBut don’t take our word for it. The statistics are damning.

The US has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. And our prison population has skyrocketed over the past few decades (from 357,292 in 1970 to 2,306,200 in 2014). Why? Well, let’s just be totally clear: because of racism:



  • African Americans are imprisoned at nearly six times the rate of whites.
  • Five times as many whites use drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans go to jail 10 times more often than whites.
  • There’s almost a 70% chance that an African American man without a high school diploma will be imprisoned by his mid-30s. Think about that.
  • Black men make up about 40% of the total prison population though they only represent about 12% of the total population.



The examples are endless. And implicit bias kicks in early. The vast majority of educators would never consciously allow race to influence their decisions, and yet, thanks to a variety of societal factors, it does. African American kids are disciplined far more often than whites, resulting in what’s called the school-to-prison pipeline, which ensures that, in communities of color, it sometimes feels like there’s no escape from injustice.


Slavery Never Really Ended

prison-commisaries signFor those imprisoned under these biased policies, even finishing your sentence is no escape. Many states won’t let felons ever vote again, or serve on a jury. Ensuring that a disproportionate percentage of African Americans do not, essentially, have full citizenship, even after having served their time in the ‘justice’ system. Not to mention mental health disorders that can stem from time locked up.

It’s almost as if this isn’t some kind of error or flaw in the criminal justice system, but an intentional feature, a complex, if you will.

Indeed, it’s not so much that the system is broken, but that it works all too well. Racism was built in from the very beginning. Take a look at the Thirteenth Amendment, which officially abolished slavery.

It stated, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”prison-money-transfer sign

Right, no more slavery… unless you’re convicted of a crime. Many African Americans were arrested following abolition as a means of social control and to make up for the gaping hole in labor after slaves were liberated. Mass incarceration is, in this way, a continuation of slavery.


What We Can Do About It

bail-bondsmen signPresident Obama, during his two terms, sought to address the injustice in the criminal justice system. He commuted the sentences of many federal prisoners, he was the first president to visit a federal prison, he sought to end the federal government’s reliance on private prisons. But the current administration, it’s fair to say, has a very different perspective and is poised to reverse as many of his reforms and policies as it can.

So what can we do?

  • Well, we can stand with leaders like Rev. William Barber and Cornell Brooks, who are putting their bodies on the line to protest inequality and injustice.
  • We can stand up for reform in our local communities. Local and state governments are driving mass incarceration, such as California, who is considering, among other things, a $250 million dollar budget increase for building jails. What could that money do if it was used for improving our schools and communities?
  • We can engage our friends and family on this critical societal issue. You’re not alone either. Leaders like Heather McGee are here to help.
  • Join movement builders such as Color of Change, who are standing up against systemic racism and racial inequity.

Whatever positive or negative changes may be happening on a national level, the real impact is felt in each of our communities. We need to put pressure on our local leaders and show them that racist policies have no place in America. That the time for change is now.

Together, we can make this happen. Together, we can put an end to injustice.