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Russell Simmons: Prisons profiting from putting kids in jail

Nicole Goodkind
Nicole Goodkind

The cost of interpersonal violence in the United States reaches 3.3% of GDP, according to the World Health Organization, with juvenile violence accounting for 46.6% of total costs from violent crime. Around 93,000 young people are held in juvenile detention facilities throughout the United States, costing states around $5.7 billion each year.

Of course the problems surrounding youth violence extend far beyond just the monetary. That’s why American business magnate, Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Recordings and founder of the pre-paid card company, RushCard, is attempting to do something about it through his “Keep the Peace” initiative. “My financial services company RushCard has recently chosen a number of programs around the country… we’re going to fund [successful] anti-violence programs in communities, which I think is very important.”

Studies by the Justice Policy Institute have shown that alternative programs like family therapy yield as much as $13 in benefits to public safety for every dollar spent. “These programs engage young people in things that are more interesting to them than violent life,” says Simmons. So far his company has funded “LIFE Camp,” an anti-violence group based in Queens, New York that works with youth throughout New York and in Rikers Island prison.

LIFE Camp teaches at risk youth and incarcerated youth about music, art and film as a vehicle to prevent violence and promote peace through community mobilization, social intervention and by providing opportunities for educational and vocational advancement. Simmons plans to donate to similar organizations in cities throughout the country.

“When we talk about the mass incarceration of young people,” says Simmons, “and we think about the number of non-violent, first-time offenders who are in jail for drug offenses… that’s a different subject. We’re talking about the cost to the consumer or the taxpayer, but we’re not talking about the profit to the prison industrial complex.”

On Monday The Justice Department released the results of a 2 ½ year study of youth prisons in New York (particularly at Rikers Island prison) and found a “rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force.”  U.S. attorney Preet Bharara put it bluntly, “According to our investigation, for adolescent inmates, Rikers Island is broken,” he told reporters.

Simmons points out that there seems to be an inconsistency in the number of underprivileged, minority youth in prison for drug offenses when compared to actual rates of drug use. “Locking up diseased people, educating them in criminal behavior, and dropping them back in communities is not a good idea,” he says.

“The destruction of family through incarcerating all of these non-violent criminals is a problem,” says Simmons. “I think that promoting programs that give kids the opportunity to see something better is a critical resolve that we have to stay on top of.”