Prison industrial complex must end, business can help

The criminal justice system disproportionately incarcerates minorities and people of color. Thousands of businesses profit

  • The criminal justice system disproportionately incarcerates minorities and people of color.
  • Thousands of businesses profit off of this process.
  • The only path to ending the prison industrial complex is for these businesses to divest from it.
  • Ashish Prashar is the Sr. Director of Global Communications for Publicis Sapient.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

We have an incarceration crisis in America. This crisis is undermining the well-marketed values upon which our country is built: liberty and justice for all

The criminal justice system, at all levels, is stacked against communities of color, Black people, and immigrants. Black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of white people. One in three Black men will go to jail at some point in their lives and there is consensus that past efforts supposedly aimed at reducing violent crime in this country were really about the continued repression and subjugation of Black and brown people.

When incarceration rates soared to record highs in the 1980s and 1990s, some corporations saw a business opportunity. They promised lower costs and, in many cases, profit-sharing agreements. Prison and jail administrators started privatizing everything from food and commissary to entire operations of facilities.

In order to address the systemic inequalities in our criminal justice system, we need to dismantle the prison-industrial complex and end the exploitation of those it targets. 

We have the power to divest from every link in the prison-industrial supply chain and take responsibility for the role businesses play because staying silent and doing nothing are no longer defensible options.

Making money from a broken system

A “prison-industrial complex” is not possible without the “industrial” part. Thousands of US businesses participate in this exploitation system, many publicly traded and household names. These corporations have monetized crime and punishment with the government’s help and put profit over everything. They fight for positioning to siphon off their share of the $80 billion in tax dollars spent annually to keep 2.3 million incarcerated,.

Of that $80 billion total, tens of billions are then funneled into the private sector through vendor contracts with healthcare providers, food suppliers, prison contractors, and countless others. 

There are 4,100 corporations that support prison labor directly or through supply chains. In April, Worth Rises released The Prison Industry: Mapping Private Sector Players (2020) cataloging the participating companies and calling for immediate divestment from 180 large, publicly traded companies involved in the prison-industrial system.

A lot of these companies are household names like Sherwin Williams and Stanley Black & Decker. In addition, dozens of boutique firms are dipping deep into the corrections-industry, like Wall Street Prison Consultants, which provides advice to white-collar offenders. 

Not just private prisons

While private prisons attract most of the attention, the market for privatized services dwarfs that of privatized facilities. Private prisons are only 8% of the market, with a total annual revenues of $4 billion. By comparison, the correctional food-service industry alone provides the equivalent of $4 billion worth of food each year. Corrections departments spend at least $12.3 billion on healthcare, about half of which is provided by private companies. Telephone companies, which can charge up to $25 for a 15-minute call, rake in $1.3 billion annually. 

Incarcerated people also work, making everything from license plates to body armor vests and mattresses. In California, some even serve as firefighters. In New York, they made hand sanitizer during the pandemic, a hygiene product they were not allowed to use. But in some places, they are employed by major corporations such as Minnesota-based 3M. These American citizens get paid 8 to 15 cents an hour for this labor. In the State of Texas where they have them picking cotton, they get paid nothing – an image of slavery. 

Before the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, businesses weren’t interested in taking a permanent stand fearing economic risks. Now is not the time for weighing economic risk or parsing profit margins. It’s time for US businesses to divest from the prison system and play their part in overhaul of the justice system.  

Companies have acted before 

South Africa’s Apartheid began to crumble under economic pressure between 1977 and 1986 as civil rights groups, labor organizations and a campus divestment movement took root and blossomed in the United States. In 1977, Rev. Leon Sullivan, a General Motors board member, wrote seven principles that companies operating in apartheid South Africa should follow. While some saw these “Sullivan Principles” as a smokescreen for companies with economic interests to stay in South Africa, they emboldened activists, student protesters and Black South Africans.

When Coca-Cola withdrew from South Africa in 1986 and sold its assets to Black South Africans as well as white, the move was a major victory for racial equality, but it was a necessity. The unified front of students, activists, shareholders and employees in the United States with activists in South Africa and the civil disobedience there forced the withdrawal.

Companies shouldn’t worry about alienating potential customers. Many Americans are demanding change. In a recent poll, 69% of Americans say Black people and other minorities aren’t treated equally in the justice system, a high-water mark. Businesses have to now back up words of solidarity with communities of color with action.

How can businesses act?

Given the scale of the system of mass incarceration and the extensive network of actors profiting from it, we will ultimately need a bold multi-pronged approach to effectively confront the prison-industrial complex. The approach should combine public, political, and financial pressure to  abolition the current system.

The blow to apartheid was so devastating because major corporations withdrew from the apartheid economy, making the political environment more amenable to positive policy changes. Companies must do the same today when it comes to the U.S. prison system.

First, we must divest by ending all financial relationships with companies that profit from or participate in the prison system. Public pension funds and university endowments must divest from companies that sell products and services to prisons. 

Secondly, companies and organizations using prison labor must cease those activities immediately. While there has been a slow departure from some companies, hundreds of others still support US prison labor. Economically disenfranchising prison laborers by paying them nothing or less than a dollar a day is as morally reprehensible as the chain gangs of Jim Crow.

Finally, if 30 years ago, American companies could forego a foreign economic interest, they can eradicate racism and injustice at home. Every publicly traded US company should be required to adopt a form of the Global Sullivan Principles. While there is debate on the efficacy of social responsibility pledges, if accountability is institutionalized, good can result.

It’s long past time to shift our public dollars away from building prisons and locking people up, and towards education, school counseling, after-school programs, and restorative justice. We will all have to look back on our actions in this moment and see how serious we were about justice and discover what side of history we and businesses were on. It’s time we put people over profit and freedom over fear. 

Ashish Prashar is a justice reform campaigner, who sits on the Board of Exodus Transitional Community, Getting Out and Staying Out, Leap Confronting Conflict and the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice.

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