April 16, 2021
The United States incarcerates more people than any other nation on earth. Mass incarceration ruins lives, tears families apart, weakens our communities, and doesn’t make us safe. Even with a growing consensus that this system, rooted in slavery and white supremacy, must be transformed, change is coming too slowly. Why?
Because the prison industry profits from it. To make money, the prison industry needs bodies in cells. And the prison industry makes A LOT of money. Thousands of private companies make billions of dollars every year by extracting as much money as they can from the disproportionately Black and Brown and poor people this country has put behind bars—and they exploit their families and communities as well. The prison-industrial complex monetizes misery, racism, and injustice.
Our friends at Worth Rises recently put together a devastating report on the prison industry. With their help, let’s follow the money.
The Big Picture
The US is number one worldwide—by a LOT—when it comes to putting people behind bars, and has been for a long time, so it’s no surprise that a massive industry has grown up around mass incarceration. Investing in and maintaining a sprawling coast-to-coast criminal legal system based not on justice and fairness but on punishment and discrimination doesn’t come cheap—and while all Americans (especially communities of color) pay the price, corporations reap the profits.
- 2.3 million: total number of people incarcerated in federal and state prisons, county jails, youth correctional facilities, and immigration detention centers.
- 4,100+: number of private companies profiting from mass incarceration
- $180 billion: how much we spend every year on the entire criminal legal system, from policing to prisons
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The racist war on drugs that the government started back in the 1970s intentionally targeted Black and Brown people in the country’s increasingly neglected city centers. As more and more people were arrested and locked up, new jails and prisons had to be built to meet the demand. Government agencies partnered with private companies and individuals to plan, design, build, and maintain new facilities. With harsh new sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums introduced in the 1990s, spending skyrocketed, reaching a high of $80 billion in 2008. Billions of dollars continue to pour into construction and maintenance every year, which is a lucrative incentive to keep locking people up.
- $80+ billion: amount of money we spend on jails and prisons annually
- 7,000: number of correctional facilities in the US
- 277%: jail capacity growth between 1970 and 2017
- 8.5 days: How often, between 1984 and 2005, a new prison or jail was built in the US (70% of them were built in rural areas, based on the false promise that they’d boost the economy)
Thousands upon thousands of people behind bars are forced to work in unsanitary and unsafe conditions every day for little to no money. How is that possible? How can that happen? Let’s talk about the 13th Amendment. It abolished slavery in 1865, sort of—with one huge exception meant to ensure continued control over Black and Brown people. The 13th Amendment allowed for enslavement as punishment for committing a crime, and politicians and business leaders took advantage of that loophole right away.
Today, people behind bars are still being exploited—by the government and by private companies that make big profits off their stolen labor. And with PPE, hand sanitizer, and other essential items being produced in many states by incarcerated people working in unsafe conditions for less than a dollar an hour, the pandemic has highlighted just how critical prison labor reform really is.
- 67,000: number of incarcerated people working for government correctional industries (like answering phones in call centers, digging graves, and manufacturing school furniture, street signs, and license plates)
- $0.00-$0.63: average hourly wage range for incarcerated workers in facility-support jobs (like preparing food, doing laundry, and cleaning)
- 5: states that do not pay incarcerated workers (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas—states that have some of the highest rates of incarceration in the country)
- $14 billion+: wages stolen from incarcerated workers every year (estimated by Worth Rises based on how much people behind bars would earn if they made minimum wage for 30 hours of work a week)
The Correctional Telecom Industry
Telecommunications companies began treating jails, prisons, and detention facilities as profit centers back in the 1990s. Today just two companies control almost the entire correctional telecom industry, and with no competition to speak of, rates for phone calls have climbed higher and higher.
But it gets worse. Not content plunging families into debt because of the price of phone calls, these companies have recently launched new products and services, like video conferencing, instant messaging, and the use of tablets, making bigger fees possible even as they introduce new surveillance technologies to monitor correctional communication. The increase in video conferencing, for example, has usually been tied contractually to a decrease in on-site visits.
Predatory practices by telecommunications companies leave too many families who want to maintain a connection to their relatives in prison and jail with a terrible choice: Go into debt, or lose touch with the people they love.
- $1.4 billion: size of the prison and jail telecom market
- $16.35: maximum cost of a 15-minute phone call from jail (before pressure from advocates forced them to drop their price last year, one company was charging as much $25 for a 15-minute call from jail)
- 1 in 3: families with an incarcerated loved one that go into debt trying to stay in touch
End the Exploitation
That was A LOT, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. Overpriced financial, food, transportation, and healthcare services, for example, also have a huge financial impact on the lives of America’s incarcerated population.
- $1.6 billion: what prison commissaries make every year by forcing incarcerated people and their families to pay for basic necessities
Even as COVID-19 has rampaged through America’s prisons and jails, the prison industry continues to put profits before people. This system has been hiding in plain sight for a long time, and now that we see it, we can’t ignore it.
The prison industry has been using its power for years to fight against reforms that would result in fewer people being locked up across the country because that would mean lower profits. It’s been fighting efforts to impose regulations on how it operates in prisons and jails for the same reason. But if we stand together and demand change, we can make a difference. We must dismantle the prison-industrial complex and end the exploitation of America’s historically underserved and marginalized communities. Take action now to make your voice heard.
Take Action Now!
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