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by Johnny Guerrero 

When people think of a marginalized community they rarely think of incarcerated humans. Many view the incarcerated with contempt or, at best, indifference. Most incarcerated individuals realize the harm they have caused and are working to rehabilitate while paying their debt to society. I know from experience.

I am one of the incarcerated. Unfortunately, the system of justice that convicted us is engaged in a criminal enterprise itself, taking advantage of one of the most disadvantaged populations. The carceral landscape of today is nothing less than modern-day slavery, denied and masked by a veneer of deception and sold to the public as valid criminal justice.

How did we get here? The answer starts with the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” This was America’s answer to the abolishment of slavery, to support the economy after the free labor of slavery was lost. According to The Marshall Project, the US makes up 5% of the world’s population, while confining 25% of the world’s prisoners. That’s about 2.3 million people. The irony is not lost that the “land of the free” also claims the greatest incarceration rate. Mass incarceration has exploded since 1970.

The burgeoning prison population spurred predatory capitalism to an extreme. This incarceration boom caused corporations and special interest groups, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), to look at the model of incarceration and find ways to exploit the system for profit. ALEC furthered the mass incarceration system by writing model bills and laws and lobbying to gain support to pass them to advance their bottom line. These bills and laws clearly harm the incarcerated and their families–demographics overrepresented by marginalized and disadvantaged communities of color. A few of the laws ALEC takes credit for are the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law (where a life sentence is imposed for almost any crime if you have two previous convictions defined as serious or violent); truth in sentencing (a group of policies designed to curb parole and keep people incarcerated for their court-mandated sentence); mandatory minimums; stand your ground (allows people to respond to threats or force without fear of criminal prosecution); and SB 1070 (known as the “show your papers law” targeting illegal immigrants in Arizona).

The problem does not stop with mass incarceration; that is just the beginning of the exploitation. Once you’re in the system the real exploitation begins, forcing prisoners to work for extremely low wages, then charging them high prices for necessities, or fining them for phone and video calls, texts, and entertainment.

Prison jobs require you to work. If you refuse, you get written up and lose good time credits. This appears on your record when you go to the parole board and can result in a longer prison stay. Pay scales in California range from 8 to 37 cents an hour. If you are selected to work in the Prison Industry Authority (PIA), you may earn 37 cents to $1 an hour. This is not even remotely enough to survive in prison.

The businesses that support ALEC through large donations are also those that supply the prisons with inmate meals, stock the canteens, offer quarterly packages, and operate communications and entertainment services. In one example of a conflict of interest, the same holding company that owns the canteen provider also owns the food service vendor for the chow hall. Therefore, it benefits the canteen for the chow hall to serve low-quality or inedible food to drive customers to the canteen, where overpriced items are sold to starving inmates.

As prison populations began to grow, the federal and state governments were collapsing under the costs of supporting these institutions. ALEC and other businesses provided them with the answer to their problem: “carceral rent-seeking.” One example is per diem costs, a tacit and involuntary contractual obligation born out of the necessary use of room and board services within the prison. The second is through the state government’s rent-seeking to boost revenue without increasing the quality of the resources offered, essentially turning inmates into second-class citizens. This would be illegal for regular Americans. Institutions label inmates as willful non-payers, portraying institutions themselves as the victims and the inmates morally responsible for what it terms damages suffered. Under the guise of the system, the corporations that support ALEC “compete as moral entrepreneurs who regulate right and wrong by creating norms and policing outsiders.” Incarceration is becoming increasingly expensive. Prisons are finding new ways to shift the cost to the incarcerated with no oversight. No one is immune from this system of abuse, and it is more likely than not that you know someone intimately who is experiencing this injustice.

The real victims become the families of the incarcerated. They are the ones bearing the financial burden of ensuring their loved ones have basic needs. Even this part of the system is corrupt. There are fees to send money to an inmate. Any transfers under $100 costs $10, and anything over $100 incurs higher fees, increasing with the amount sent. That money is then subject to a 55% deduction for restitution. This creates a financial burden for the family as well as the inmate. Many inmates who have no family support or whose family is not financially able to help must resort to finding a hustle. A few routine hustles consist of doing another’s laundry, ironing clothes, barbering, and artwork. Unfortunately, these hustles do not pay well, and a prisoner could be written up for undertaking the higher-paying hustles, such as modifying electronics, making wine, and tattooing. However, according to Title 15 prison regulations, any type of hustle is considered illegal and could result in a write-up, extending your sentence. Is the risk worth the reward? When you’re starving or need shampoo, need and risk are relative.

Since 2021, there has been a shift in releasing more incarcerated individuals. ALEC is behind this as well, monopolizing post-release programs. They charge the released prisoner for the use of a GPS tracking device, required by most parole officers. Once again, they have found a way to monetize incarceration and keep a knee on our necks. They know prisoner’s families will pay for monitoring, just happy to have their loved ones returned to them. The fact that prisoners largely come from the poorest, most marginalized communities of color means nothing to ALEC and the other corporations behind the exploitation. This predatory monetization of prisoners and their families is slowly being exposed. The game of providing free tablets to prisoners, for instance, is widely known as another profit-driven ploy.

With these and other predatory business practices being brought to the light of day and social justice movements enacting new reforms, there is hope that there will come a day when those who violate the law, while being held accountable, are no longer targeted by state-sanctioned predatory money-making schemes. Mass incarceration is not the answer and appeals to our lowest nature, especially when driven by fear-mongering and political rhetoric. It is a revolving door perpetuating harm and victimization for everyone involved. The 13th Amendment needs re-amending so that slavery is abolished for good.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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