Beyond Bars: Prison Labor, Mass Incarceration, Private Prisons; An Interview with Jesse Lava
The United States claims the world’s highest incarceration rate. Currently, there are 2.3 million incarcerated people in U.S. Jesse Lava, Campaign Director of Beyond Bars at Brave New Foundation talked with Emine, our managing editor, about the causes and the results of mass incarceration, and possible solutions to lower it.
Emine: Jesse, can you tell us about Beyond Bars and its mission?
Jesse: Beyond Bars is a campaign that is part of the national movement to curb mass incarceration. We produce videos, graphics, and other media to say our country should be much less focused on incarceration and much more focused on rehabilitation and prevention as ways of ensuring public safety.
Brave New Foundation as a whole has several campaigns, all of which are dedicated to using media to promote social justice.
Emine: Can you tell us the number of inmates currently incarcerated in USA and how that number compares to other developed nations?
Jesse: It is about 2.3 million people, which is the highest in the world, both in absolute numbers and per capita. So we have more people incarcerated than China, than Russia, than India—more than any other country. We also have the highest rate of incarceration; higher than Iran, higher than Singapore; a higher rate than anyone.
The United States has the unfortunate distinction of leading the world in incarceration.
Emine: How do you think the privatization of the prison system effects incarceration rates?
Jesse: More bodies locked up means more profit. So, if you are going to profit for locking people up, you are going to lock up more people. People in the private prison industry often say “Hey we don’t set the policies, we just run the prisons to make sure the public stays safe.” But, the reality is they spend millions of dollars in lobbying and millions of dollars in political donations to make sure they have a heavy influence on those policies. So, they use their considerable influence to promote policies that are not about reducing crime but about increasing incarceration. Those aren’t the same thing.
For example, CCA (Corrections Corporations of America) is the largest private prison company in the United States. In a recent annual report, they specifically said that if policies were to change to reduce sentences or arrests or decriminalize things like drugs, it would harm their bottom-line. So, they are fully aware that lower incarceration is bad for business.
One thing I want to make clear, though, is this is not just about private prisons. Even though there are a growing number of prisoners at private prisons, it is still less than 10 percent of the overall prison population. So a bigger story is about how companies profit off of prisoners in general. There are corporations employing prison labor. Starbucks has employed prison labor. Nintendo has employed prison labor. Microsoft has employed prison labor. The U.S. military, which you might possibly the most powerful lobby in the United States, benefits from prison labor. Military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests—they’re made by prison labor.
In addition, there are companies selling products to the prisons. Companies that make prison uniforms, companies that provide cafeteria food, whatever the case may be; there is a whole industry out there is built around keeping people in cages, whether they belong there or not.
Emine: Do inmates get paid for what they do, or is it free labor? Are they forced to work, do they have a right or option to say no?
Jesse: They get paid, but well below minimum wage. When you are a prisoner and can get punished for refusing to obey an order to work, it is not really voluntary. There have been plenty of reports of prisoners being abused, or placed in solitary confinement, or otherwise given horrible tasks if they refuse to do sub-minimum wage work.
Emine: Do you know the rates of black men/boys and immigrants imprisoned currently?
Jesse: The number of blacks and Latinos far outstrips whites, even relative to the crimes they commit. For instance, about two-thirds of the people who are incarcerated for drugs are black and Hispanic even though they use and sell drugs at the same rate as whites, so that rate is vastly disproportionate.
Emine: What do you think are the reasons for higher numbers of minority imprisonment?
Jesse: One is political opportunism. Americans tend to have a sense of what a criminal looks like, and that image in their minds is not a beautiful white girl; it’s a scary looking black or Latino man. And so when Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs in the 1970s, and Ronald Reagan amped up that war in the 1980s, Americans were willing to go along with it, and willing to accept the idea that yes, we need to lock up all these people, because their idea of who was going to be locked up was a minority.
Another reason is income. It would be politically dangerous if police start cracking down on middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. They crack down on the lower-class neighborhoods where there are disproportionately blacks and Latinos, though they also crack down in rural white areas where people are relatively poor and politically powerless.
Moreover, police focus on certain geographical areas where there is a high concentration of people, so they can find lots of potential people to lock up in one area. And blacks and Latinos are more likely to be concentrated in crowded inner city areas.
So as long as the war on drugs and mass incarceration broadly tended to disproportionally affect the people that many Americans deemed scary, they were not going to make a fuss about it. There was not going to be a public outcry.
I don’t think mass incarceration is entirely about race, but I do think race place a big role in it.
Many argue that more violent crimes are committed in black and Latino areas, and that’s true, but these are also communities where there are very few jobs and services available. If a society creates conditions where certain people are very unlikely to be able to thrive, it creates criminality, and then the same society punishes them for that.
And the high incarceration actually perpetuates criminality, because once you have any criminal conviction, it is very difficult to find a job after that. If you try to get public housing after being imprisoned and released, you are not going to be able to do so. In some places you can’t get food stamps, and in some places you can’t even vote.
If you try to socially integrate back into society after incarceration, you are going to find that it is very difficult to do. At Beyond Bars, we have interviewed people who have been incarcerated over and over and over again because instead of being offered treatment or rehabilitation, they keep getting locked up.
We talked to this one man in New York who was arrested 60 times due to his drug addiction, and you’d think at some point they would say, you know what, this is not working, we need to try something else. Often crimes are committed just to get more drugs.
We need to have a culture that values healing. We need to have a culture that values actual community safety and actual community strength rather than just locking people up and calling ourselves tough.
Emine: How about rehabilitation? How can greater funding for rehabilitation, training, life and employment skills etc. as alternatives that can make a difference? Also how does the problems in our mental healthcare system effect incarceration rates?
Jesse: Funding is a huge part of it. Funding for rehabilitation and prevention programs needs to go up. We also need funding for research to see what programs work best. Some treatment programs are really great, and some others are not that effective, and until we make the treatment a priority, we will not fund it enough or effectively.
There is a huge cost to the repeated incarceration of people; there is a cost to taxpayers in terms of court costs and the policing cost. There is cost to children who are caught up in this and have to deal with addicted and over-incarcerated parents. There is cost to an economy where people are imprisoned instead of working and paying taxes.
Therefore, when we don’t fund treatment, we are being penny-wise and pound-foolish because we are refusing to make a small investment and instead paying enormous costs down the road.
Emine: The President and the Congress are working on a new immigration reform. What would be your recommendation to be added to this reform that can decrease the immigrant inmate population?
Jesse: In 2011 there were about 425,000 immigrants detained while fighting deportation orders or trying to get asylum. Over half of them were in private prisons. Remember that the private prison lobby is what spearheaded the infamous law SB 1070 in Arizona. It was not written by the anti-immigrant groups although they certainly supported it. Some kind of pathway to citizenship would drastically reduce the number of immigrants detained.
Emine: How much would decriminalization of marijuana and/or other drugs on a Federal level lead to a decrease in the prison population?
Jesse: Legalizing and regulating drugs would vastly decrease the prison population. One-fourth of incarcerated people are there directly because of a drug crime. Then there are more people incarcerated because they tested positive for drugs while on probation or parole. And then there are violent crimes being committed because drugs are on the black market—just as during the prohibition days with Al Capone and the mafia. If we ended modern-day prohibition and instead controlled and taxed drugs, we would reduce the amount of violence and therefore lower the incarceration rate.
Emine: Thank you for your time…Have a great day.
Beyond Bars website: Beyondbars.org
Beyond Bars Facebook page: facebook.com/beyondbars
This article was edited by Jeri Walker-Bickett