All attempts to reform mass incarceration through the traditional mechanisms of electoral politics, the courts and state and federal legislatures are useless. Corporations, which have turned mass incarceration into a huge revenue stream and which have unchecked political and economic power, have no intention of diminishing their profits. And in a system where money has replaced the vote, where corporate lobbyists write legislation and the laws, where chronic unemployment and underemployment, along with inadequate public transportation, sever people in marginal communities from jobs, and where the courts are a wholly owned subsidiary of the corporate state, this demands a sustained, nationwide revolt.
“Organizing boycotts, work stoppages inside prisons and the refusal by prisoners and their families to pay into the accounts of phone companies and commissary companies is the only weapon we have left,” said Amos Caley, who runs the Interfaith Prison Coalition, a group formed by prisoners, the formerly incarcerated, their families and religious leaders. “Mass incarceration is the most important civil rights issue of our day. And it is time for communities of faith to stand with poor people, mostly of color, who are unfairly exploited and abused. We must halt human rights violations against the poor that grow more pronounced each year,” Caley said here. He and other prison reform leaders spoke Saturday at the Elmwood Presbyterian Church.
“We have to shut down the system,” said Gale Muhammad, another speaker and the founder and CEO of Women Who Never Give Up. “All the companies that use prison labor have to be boycotted. And we can’t stop there. We have to boycott the vending machines in the prisons and the phone companies. We have to stop spending our money. Until we hit them in the pocket they won’t listen.”
Former prisoners and prisoners’ relatives—suffering along with the incarcerated under the weight of one of the most exploitative, physically abusive and largest prison systems in the world, frustrated and enraged by the walls that corporations have set in place to stymie rational judicial reform—joined human rights advocates at the church to organize state and nationwide boycotts inside and outside prisons. These boycotts, they said, will be directed against the private phone, money transfer and commissary companies, and against the dozens of corporations that exploit prison labor. The boycotts will target food and merchandise vendors, construction companies, laundry services, uniforms companies, prison equipment vendors, cafeteria services, manufacturers of pepper spray, body armor and the array of medieval instruments used for the physical control of prisoners, and a host of other contractors that profit from mass incarceration. The movement will also call on institutions, especially churches and universities, to divest from corporations that use prison labor.
The campaign, led by the Interfaith Prison Coalition, will include a call to pay all prisoners at least the prevailing minimum wage of the state in which they are held. (New Jersey’s minimum wage is $8.38 an hour.) Wages inside prisons have remained stagnant and in real terms have declined over the past three decades. A prisoner in New Jersey makes, on average, $1.20 for eight hours of work, or about $28 a month. Those incarcerated in for-profit prisons earn as little as 17 cents an hour. Over a similar period, phone and commissary corporations have increased fees and charges often by more than 100 percent.
There are nearly 40 states that allow private corporations to exploit prison labor. And prison administrators throughout the country are lobbying corporations that have sweatshops overseas, trying to lure them into the prisons with guarantees of even cheaper labor and a total absence of organizing or coordinated protest.
Corporations currently exploiting prison labor include Abbott Laboratories, AT&T, AutoZone, Bank of America, Bayer, Berkshire Hathaway, Cargill, Caterpillar, Chevron, the former Chrysler Group, Costco Wholesale, John Deere, Eddie Bauer, Eli Lilly, ExxonMobil, Fruit of the Loom, GEICO, GlaxoSmithKline, Galxo Wellcome, Hoffmann-La Roche, International Paper, JanSport, Johnson & Johnson, Kmart, Koch Industries, Mary Kay, McDonald’s, Merck, Microsoft, Motorola, Nintendo, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, Quaker Oats, Sarah Lee, Sears, Shell, Sprint, Starbucks, State Farm Insurance, United Airlines, UPS, Verizon, Victoria’s Secret, Wal-Mart and Wendy’s.
Prisons in America are a hugely profitable business. And since profit is the only language the involved corporations know how to speak, we will have to speak to them in the language they understand. In New Jersey the first boycott will be directed against Global Tel Link, a private phone company that charges prisoners and their families exorbitant rates and that has a monopoly. Organizers at the Saturday event, including Gale Muhammad, called on prisoners and families to stop paying into Global Tel Link accounts and boycott the prison phone service. She urged families and prisoners to write letters to each other until the company’s phone rates match those paid by the wider society for such a service.
“Prisoner telephone rates in New Jersey are some of the highest in the country,” Caley said. “Global Tel Link charges prisoners and their families $4.95 for a 15-minute phone call, which is about two and a half times the national average for local inmate calling services.”
Prison phone services are a $1.2-billion-a-year industry. Prisoners outside New Jersey are charged by Global Tel Link, which makes about $500 million a year, as much as $17 for a 15-minute phone call. A call of that duration outside a prison would cost about $2. If a customer deposits $25 into a Global Tel Link phone account, he or she must pay an additional service charge of $6.95. And Global Tel Link is only one of several large corporations that exploit prisoners and their families. JPay is a corporation that deals in privatized money transfers to prisoners. It controls money transfers for about 70 percent of the prison population. The company charges families that put money into prisoners’ accounts additional service fees of as much as 45 percent. JPay generates more than $50 million a year in revenue. The Keefer Group, which controls prison commissaries in more than 800 public and private prisons, and which often charges prisoners double what items cost outside prison walls, makes $41 million a year in profit. All of these companies have to be targeted.
It will be a long and hard battle. It will require tremendous sacrifices from those who have loved ones who are incarcerated and from the 2.3 million locked in cages in the United States’ vast archipelagos of prisons. It will require those on the outside to boycott corporations that use prison labor and corporations that gouge prisoners and their families. It will require us to build networks to support prisoners when they begin, as they must, to carry out work stoppages to demand the minimum wage. Building a movement is our only hope.
Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow,” is outspoken about the imperative for organizing to fight back. In a speech at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in March she told her audience: “Jesus taught that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. Well, we have become a nation of stone throwers. And in this era of mass incarceration it is not enough to drop your stone. We have to be willing to catch the stones raining down on the most vulnerable. And we must be willing to stand up to the stone throwers and disarm them.”
“I believe we now find ourselves at a fork in the road,” she went on. “We can continue down the road most traveled of business and politics as usual, the path of reforming our political institutions here and there, the path Dr. King was determined to leave behind, or we can choose a different path, the rocky, dangerous path that comes without a map. It is a path that is beckoning us again, thanks in large part to the courage of the young people in Ferguson who stood up when Michael Brown was shot down. It inspired thousands of people to wake up, get up and march here in New York City and beyond. If we choose this rocky path there will be no guidebooks, no map, no instructions. All we will have is our moral compass and the whispering of our angels and our ancestors in our ears reminding us to dig for deeper truths and to speak and to act with greater courage, reminding us, in the words of Dr. James Cone, that humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst.”
She called on the audience to “speak difficult and unpopular truths,” not to avoid “the racial dimensions or the profound moral questions for purposes of expediency” and not to seek “justice on the cheap.”
“We can and we must build a movement, and not only [about] mass incarceration and mass deportation, but a broad-based radical, human rights movement that ends once and for all our history’s cycle of creating caste-like systems in America, a movement for education, not incarceration, for jobs, not jails, a movement to end all forms of legal discrimination against people released from prison, discrimination that denies them basic human rights to work, to shelter, to food, a movement for voting rights for all, including those behind bars … a movement that will end the war on drugs, once and for all, and shift to a public health model dealing with drug addiction and drug abuse, a movement that will stand up to the police unions and transform the police itself from warriors into peace officers directly accountable to the communities they serve, a movement that will ensure that every dollar saved from ending the wars that have been declared on poor communities of color, the wars on crime and drugs, will be invested back into these communities, the communities most harmed, meaningful reparations and justice reinvestment, a movement that abandons our purely punitive approach to dealing with violence and violent crimes and embraces a more restorative and rehabilitative approach … a movement that is rooted in the dignity and humanity of us all, no matter who we are, where we come from or what we may have done.”
At Saturday’s gathering in Newark, among the roughly 100 participants were leading advocates for prison reform such as Bonnie Kerness, the director of the American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch Project; Gale Muhammad; and Larry Hamm, the chairman of People’s Organization for Progress. There were mothers and fathers of incarcerated sons and daughters, former prisoners including Earl Amin, who was leader of the Black Panthers in Newark and spent 34 years in prison solely for discussing the possibility of carrying out a bank robbery, and Ojore Lutalo, who was in the Black Liberation Army and spent 22 years in solitary confinement in Trenton’s supermax prison. There was universal and emphatic agreement that if we do not organized to destroy this country’s system of mass incarceration it will spread like a cancer, destroying more lives, more families and more communities.
The corporate state seeks to reduce all workers at home and abroad to the status of prison labor. Workers are to be so heavily controlled that organizing unions or resistance will become impossible. Benefits, pensions, overtime are to be abolished. Workers who are not slavishly submissive to the will of corporate power will be dismissed. There will be no sick days or paid vacations. No one will be able to challenge unsafe and physically difficult working conditions. And wages will be suppressed to keep workers in poverty. This is the goal of corporate power. The 1 million prisoners employed at substandard wages by corporations inside prisons are, in the eyes of our corporate masters, the ideal workers. And those Americans who ignore the plight of prison labor and refuse to organize against it will increasingly find prison working conditions replicated outside prison walls.
Prisons, to swell corporate profits, force prisoners to pay for basic items including shoes. Prisoners in New Jersey pay $45 for a pair of basic Reebok shoes—almost twice the average monthly wage. If a prisoner needs an insulated undergarment or an extra blanket to ward off the cold at night he must buy it. Packages from home, once permitted, have been banned to force prisoners to buy grossly overpriced items at the commissary or company-run store. Some states have begun to charge prisoners rent. This gouging is burying many prisoners and their families in crippling debt, debt that prisoners carry when they are released from prison.
The United States has 2.3 million people in prison, 25 percent of the world’s prison population, although we are only 5 percent of the world’s population. We have increased our prison population by about 700 percent since 1970. Corporations control about 18 percent of federal prisoners and 6.7 percent of all state prisoners. And corporate prisons account for nearly all newly built prisons. Nearly half of all immigrants detained by the federal government are shipped to corporate-run prisons. And slavery is legal in prisons under the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”
Vast sums are at stake. The for-profit prison industry is worth $70 billion. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest owner of for-profit prisons and immigration detention facilities in the country, had revenues of $1.7 billion in 2013 and profits of $300 million. CCA holds an average of 81,384 inmates in its facilities on any one day. Aramark Holdings Corp., a Philadelphia-based company that contracts through Aramark Correctional Services to provide food to 600 correctional institutions across the United States, was acquired in 2007 for $8.3 billion by investors that included Goldman Sachs. And, as in the wider society, while members of a tiny, oligarchic corporate elite each are paid tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars annually, the workers who generate these profits live in misery.
“It is an abomination that prisoners are paid 22 cents an hour, $1.20 cents a day,” Larry Hamm told the Newark meeting. “Every prisoner should get the minimum wage of New Jersey, $8.38 per hour.”
He went on. “Even when you come out [of prison] it moves from slavery to sharecropping because they have these fines and obligations that they put on people. … That is how sharecropping was. That is why a lot of our great-grandparents and grandparents couldn’t leave the South. Everything was owned by the former slave master. If they bought a plow they ended up in debt over the plow. If they bought seeds they ended up in debt over the seeds. They were tied to the land. Probation is like sharecropping. You are off the plantation, but you still belong to us. And look at this rapacious, exploitative system where phone companies make 50 times what a phone call should cost. And people are charging high commissary fees.”
“This is capitalist exploitation, and it must stop,” Hamm thundered. “But it won’t stop unless we build a movement to make it stop. Every organization that calls itself a civil rights or human rights organization, if they do not have the plight and condition of the incarcerated on their agenda they need to hand in their credentials.”
Last week’s call to launch nationwide boycotts signals the start of the most important frontal assault yet against the prison-industrial complex. I do not know if it will succeed. But I do know it is our only hope. Halting the abuse and exploitation of the poor inside prisons is not only the most important civil rights issue of our time, it promises to be a vital check against a corporate state that, if not dismantled, will imprison us all.
Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Truthdig.com. Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. His most recent book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.