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How mass incarceration creates 'a tremendous amount of financial exploitation'

Adriana Belmonte
·Senior Editor
·6 mins read

Listen on Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts

This is part 2 of Yahoo Finance’s Illegal Tender podcast about the for-profit prison industry. Listen to the series here.

Mass incarceration has proven to be a business opportunity as the U.S. prison population increased by 500% over the last 40 years.

There are currently almost 2.3 million people behind bars, with the prison industry generating upwards of $80 billion a year. Much of that money is made from incarcerated individuals and their families.

“There is a tremendous amount of financial exploitation and predation on the part of corporations on all people who are incarcerated and their loved ones, regardless of the facility operational structure,” Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, said on Yahoo Finance’s Illegal Tender podcast.

There are industries making money off of people losing their freedom in this country’

Tylek explained that money is made in numerous ways within the prison system: construction, architecture, design, maintenance, telecommunications, healthcare, and more.

At the same time, people incarcerated make significantly less than minimum wage. In October 2019, while wildfires were blazing across the San Bernardino area of California, people incarcerated through the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation were put to work as firefighters, making $1 an hour. (The mean wage for firefighters in California was roughly $81,580 at the time.)

Inmate firefighters (in orange) prepare to put out flames on the road leading to the Reagan Library during the Easy Fire in Simi Valley, California on October 30, 2019. - Firefighters in California battled a new fast-moving blaze on Wednesday that threatened the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, as rare "extreme" red flag warnings were issued for much of the Los Angeles region. The so-called Easy Fire in the Simi Valley northwest of Los Angeles erupted around 6:00 am, forcing the evacuation of the library and nearby homes as it spread to more than 900 acres (365 hectares), officials said. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)
Inmate firefighters prepare to put out flames on the road leading to the Reagan Library during the Easy Fire in Simi Valley, California on October 30, 2019. (Photo: MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, incarcerated individuals make earn an average of $0.14 per hour. (The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.)

“There aren't enough jobs for everybody,” Amy Fettig, executive director at The Sentencing Project, said. “People want to work. They want to make whatever small amount of money they can in order to buy shampoo or pay for a phone call so they can talk to their child. But these are all at astronomical prices because of the monopoly power, and because quite frankly, there are industries making money off of people losing their freedom in this country.”

At the same time, prisoners still have to buy things: At current prison wages, it would take roughly 40 hours of work to afford the price of two tampons at $5.55. (That’s was the price as of 2016, according to a document from the Board of Prisons.) Other essential items available at prison commissaries are also sold at relatively exorbitant prices.

“These are folks who make cents on the dollar,” Fettig said. “Women in Colorado were actually using two weeks of wages in order to buy a single box of tampons. … They are not given tampons. Now, more and more states are passing menstrual equity laws that recognize that government institutions, like prisons and jails and public schools and housing shelters should provide basic hygiene items because most of these people are completely indigent, and that they should be available on demand.”

An inmate is checked into the Orange County jail in Santa Ana, California, May 24, 2011. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld on Monday an order that California reduce its overcrowded prisons by some 40,000 inmates to fix longtime problems with inadequate medical and mental health care. Officials plan to move low-level offenders to county jails.  REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES - Tags: SOCIETY CRIME LAW)
A woman is checked into the Orange County jail in Santa Ana, California, May 24, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

In some prisons, people are charged $25 for a 15-minute call.

“Really, in a lot of ways, our incarceration system, mass incarceration is a tax on the poor, hidden in the many, many costs it inflicts on people,” Fettig said. “And quite frankly, a lot of these systems, the commissary systems that provide extra food or tampons or basic items, care items, they have monopolies. So, what you and I might pay on the outside, when you're buying it on the inside, it's astronomically more.”

And prison wages have actually declined since 2001, according to a 2017 report from the Prison Policy Initiative. In states like Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas, most prison jobs are unpaid.

This is part 2 of Yahoo Finance’s Illegal Tender podcast about the for-profit prison industry. Listen to the series here.

‘They were given very small, thin, negligible amounts of soap’

The lack of investment in hygiene was already an issue prior to the coronavirus pandemic but has become more magnified now than ever before.

“Right before the COVID crisis, as more and more jails and prisons were becoming infected in March, I was in prisons in Arizona and the people there did not have soap if they did not have enough money to pay for it,” Fettig said. “Or they were given very small, thin, negligible amounts of soap, that wasn't enough to keep washing their hands and washing their body and keeping clean in the midst of the epidemic, simply because they didn't have enough money to pay for a larger bar of soap on the commissary That cost an enormous amount of money, especially because you don't necessarily get a job when you're in prison.”

At the Albion Correctional Facility, a medium-security women’s prison in New York, incarcerated women make $4 a day bottling hand sanitizer for essential workers but aren’t given masks or hand sanitizer for themselves despite close working proximities. Staff and visitors don’t have face masks, either. (Coronavirus spread rapidly in U.S. prisons over the summer.)

This is part 2 of Yahoo Finance’s Illegal Tender podcast about the for-profit prison industry. Listen to the series here.

Demonstrators stage a motorized protest outside the Correctional Treatment Facility against sanitary conditions inside prisons, as Mayor Muriel Bowser's state of emergency due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues in Washington, U.S., April 25, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner
Demonstrators stage a motorized protest outside the Correctional Treatment Facility against sanitary conditions inside prisons in Washington, U.S., April 25, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

And while private prisons are often singled out for poor conditions for the people incarcerated within them, Tylek stressed that they’re not the only offenders.

In 2014, nearly 5,000 people incarcerated within U.S. correctional facilities died, a 3% year-over-year increase, according to The Guardian. And, the report found, the mortality rate in state prisons was 275 for every 100,000 people in state prisons, which was the highest since data collection began in 2001.

“I don't think it's just about taking attention away from conditions,” Tylek said about the focus on private prisons. “It's not understanding the scope of the problem. It's really, really dwarfing the scope of the problem. It's suggesting that there's these two players, maybe three or four that dominate the market and as long as we can get rid of these three or four players, we've solved the crisis. And that's just no way near the truth and yet there's a tremendous amount of financial interest in the system but the rest of them are obfuscated and ignored and because of that, are worsening all the time.”

Private prisons are “easy to latch onto,” she stressed. “There's an easy corporate villain that's very public and that's the other piece. These are publicly traded companies. And so people easily see these publicly traded companies, these CEOs and latch onto them as problematic. You also name them private prisons or for-profit prisons and have that narrative that attaches.”

Adriana is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @adrianambells.

Listen on Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts

This is part 2 of Yahoo Finance’s Illegal Tender podcast about the for-profit prison industry. Listen to the series here.

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