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Corporations Reap Billions From Mass Incarceration

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A new campaign exposes the companies that profit off prisoners.


Jaisal Noor, TRNN Producer: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

A new campaign has been launched called Prison Profiteers that exposes the corporations that profit from the nation’s incarceration system, including medical companies, bail companies, phone companies, and even police departments.

Now joining us to discuss this is Jesse Lava. He’s the campaign director at Brave New Films, where he runs the Beyond Bars campaign, which launched this new project.

Thank you so much for joining us, Jesse.

Jesse Lava, Camapaign Director, Beyond Bars: Happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

Noor: So, Beyond Bars is releasing six videos that reveal different aspects of the industries that profit off mass incarceration. Tell us a little bit about this campaign and what the goal of the campaign is.

Lava: Well, the first thing to do is to put the campaign in context. The United States is the prison capital of the world. We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world and the highest number of people the world, so a higher rate than Rwanda and Cuba and a higher number than China, Russia, and anybody else. About half of the people in prison in the United States are there for nonviolent offenses.

So the question is: how did it get this way, and why is it staying this way? Why have we become the prison capital of the world, and why aren’t people crying out to figure out is there a better way to do public safety in the United States if this is the result, that we have more prisoners than anywhere else?

One of the key problems is profit. We have a lot of people, a lot of corporations—they’re a small slice of the population, but there are a lot of interests in Washington and in state capitals across the country that profit off of mass incarceration that want the system to stay that way.

So what we wanted to do with Prison Profiteers, which is a project that we undertook with the ACLU and The Nation magazine, is to reveal just how the system is working, reveal what people don’t know about how profit is happening from our prison system, and show just how vast the system is. It’s something that really is under-talked about in the mainstream media.

Noor: And we’re going to talk more about just who is behind the companies behind this. But I also wanted to bring up who is paying for this, who is paying for this massive system of incarceration you just described.

Lava: Well, ultimately taxpayers are paying for it, one way or the other. Taxpayers pay about $74 billion a year, at least as of 2007 (they haven’t updated the data system since then) directly [inaud.] incarceration. If you count however, courts and cops, which of course are part of the incarceration system, taxpayers are paying $228 billion a year. So this is an absolutely massive system that taxpayers are on the hook for.

So when we have the criminal justice system that isn’t working, that isn’t rehabilitating people, that isn’t preventing crime, and is instead stowing people away for decades on end, that’s a problem taxpayers pay for.

Now, when it comes to profiteering, prisoners and their families also pay a heavy price. So, for instance, if you have a phone company that is exploiting the people behind bars and exploiting their families who desperately just want to talk to each other on the phone, they charge outrageous rates. Those charges, those prices get picked up by the families. So that’s not good for—that’s not a pro-family policy, and it’s not good for taxpayers, either, in the long run, when we have this policy of mass incarceration.

Noor: And it’s been well established, the racial makeup of the majority of the people that are behind bars in this country.

Lava: Yeah. So a majority are African-American or Latino, 60 percent or so. And we need to do a lot to achieve racial equality.

However, there’s a couple of ways to do that. Some people might say, oh, let’s achieve racial inequality by arresting more white people for drugs, because after all, whites, blacks, Latinos all use and sell drugs at about the same rates, yet blacks are incarcerated about ten times the rate of whites. So some people might say, well, let’s just incarcerate whites more.

The problem is that our system isn’t working. Obviously, if we have more people in prison than any country in the world and we’re spending such exorbitant sums, maybe there’s a better way to achieve public safety. Maybe there’s a better way to cure drug addiction or to resolve people’s problems that lead to crime in the first place. We’re not doing it the right way. That applies to whites, blacks, and Latinos. But yes, as of right now, blacks pay the heaviest price in the system, and Latinos up next.

Noor: And can you describe this current moment? Within the past few years some would point perhaps to Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, the execution of Troy Davis, and a host of other high-profile cases that have—you’ve kind of—witnessing a growing movement against mass incarceration in this country.

Lava: Absolutely. Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, was a seminal piece of work that really helped change the conversation in this country about mass incarceration, and helping people see it as a problem of the time and not just something that liberals can just kind of nod gravely about and say, oh, yeah, I know, isn’t that unfair. It truly is one of the most staggering problems of our time that has to be contended with if we care at all about human rights, and even if we care about cost-effectiveness and public safety. Michelle’s book has done a great number number of things on that front.

My project is paid for by a foundation, by the Ford Foundation, and Beyond Bars’s. The Soros foundation Open Society has been funding a lot of things that are doing good work on criminal justice reform. And recently, Eric Holder, the attorney general, went up on public television—excuse me—he went up on television to a national audience and told people that he wants to make ending mass incarceration a priority in his administration as attorney general. That was unthinkable ten years ago. It was always tough on crime, tough on crime, tough on crime. That was how you won votes. That’s how you achieved political success. The idea of being smart on crime, of being humane on crime, that simply didn’t factor in. And now it is factoring in. And so that gives us the best opportunity we’ve probably had in decades to hack away at this system of mass incarceration.

Noor: This concludes part one of our conversation. Thank you so much for being with us.

Lava: Sure. Thanks for having me.

Noor: We’re going to continue this conversation in part two and really take a look at some of the companies and some of the industries that are profiting off mass incarceration.

Thank you so much for joining us.


Jaisal Noor, TRNN Producer: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

We’re continuing our conversation with Jesse Lava. He’s the campaign director of Brave New Films, where he runs the Beyond Bars campaign against mass incarceration. He’s behind a new campaign called Prison Profiteers (that’s at, which exposes some of the corporations and industries that are profiting from mass incarceration.

So, Jesse, can we really get into it now? Can you just name some names and tell us exactly who is behind and who is profiting from mass incarceration?

Jesse Lava, Campaign Director, Beyond Bars: Yes, let’s name names.

One thing to keep in mind is that private prisons are a burgeoning industry in the United States. They now have about 10 percent of the prisoners in the United States. And they have long records of abuse and neglect at their facilities, because, of course, it’s much cheaper to not invest in the care of your prisoners. The less you invest in your prisoners, the less you care about their well-being, the higher your profits.

So CCA, Corrections Corporation of America, is one particularly egregious private prison company. The GEO Group is another egregious private prison company. And coming up this week we have a video being released about the GEO Group and some of the [inaud.] facilities that were not taken care of in the way that you’d expect from any kind of facility that purports to be housing human beings.

But let’s go a little bit deeper than private prisons, ’cause a lot of people have heard of private prisons and they get the idea that somehow locking people up for profit is wrong. But prison profiteering goes far beyond that. Let’s look at Global Tel*Link, which is a private company [inaud.] phone services to prisons. And it’s not just the private prisons. They provide it to all kinds of prisons in the United States. They charge up to $17 for a 15 minute phone call.

So imagine that you’re a six-year-old boy and that your dad is in prison and that you want to talk to him. Your mom is going to have to shell out up to $17 for a 15 minute call just for you to talk [inaud.] Now, remember, this is a family where the dad isn’t the breadwinner anymore and he’s not paying child support, so there’s probably a single mom trying to make it on her own. How often can they actually afford to let this kid be in touch with their dad? It’s something that Global Tel*Link takes advantage of because it can. It knows people want to make these calls, so it jacks up the prices as far as it can.

So let’s look at another company, Corizon. Corizon provides medical services to prisoners across the country. They’re responsible for treating prisoners who have medical conditions. But the word treating should really be taken loosely, because the way this company makes a profit is by not treating patients. When patients have a medical condition, what’s going to make them more money? Actually treating the condition and paying a nurse and a doctor and the test makers and everything else in order to make that treatment happen? Or could they just withhold treatment, say you’re fine, and then make the same money that they were going to make anyway when they get their contracts from the state? So Corizon is another company that we should look at as a prison profiteer.

We should also think about the bail industry. Bail is something that’s not very well understood. So consider this for a sec. Normally the way bail is supposed to work is that you give the court a bunch of money, you get let out of jail, and then when you come back to court, they give you the money back. It’s basically to make sure that you show up on your court date, ’cause if you don’t show up, you don’t get your money back.

But what really happens is the only people who are able to put up bail in that way are rich folks, ’cause often bail is $80,000, $100,000, $400,000. Who has that lying around besides Mel Gibson and Lindsay Lohan? If you’re one of the other 99 percent of people in the country who don’t have that kind of money lying around, you have to call a bail bondsman, and he puts up the money for you. But in exchange he takes 10 percent. So if it was a $50,000 bail, you’re giving him $5,000 whether you are found guilty or innocent. The average bail amount is $90,000 or so, which means you’re paying a bail bondsman $9,000. So it’s not a system that’s fair to the vast majority of the public. Only people like Mel Gibson and Lindsay Lohan get a good deal out of it.

Noor: Can you talk about lock-up quotas?

Lava: Yes. Lockup quotas are something that private prisons do to ensure that they get money coming in regardless of whether there is a lot of crime. So what they do is they have states sign a contract with them that says, we are going to keep your private prison 90 percent full, in some cases 100 percent full, no matter what. So it’s basically encouraging high crime. It says, we don’t really get any financial advantage from lowering crime. Now, if they don’t fill the beds, it means taxpayers are on the hook for paying for those beds anyway. It’s basically a tax that’s imposed on anybody that has managed to fight crime successfully. So these quotas are a perfect example of what’s wrong with having prison profiteering, having prisons for profit.

Noor: And can you talk about the lobbying influence of these corporations that are making money, as well as—on The Real News we’ve discussed the role of prison and police guard unions as well.

Lava: Yeah. So let’s look at police. The Fraternal Order of Police is one example, or the National Narcotic Officers’ Associations’ Coalition. These are examples of organizations that lobby on behalf of of DEA agents, police officers, etc., to make sure that mass incarceration and the war on drugs stay in their current state of sort of peak capacity right now. And they want to make sure of that, so that their members get higher salaries, get overtime pay, etc. And I think they probably genuinely believe that it works. But then again, they think it works because it’s in their interest to think that it works.

So think about a politician. Think about what they’re thinking about at election time. They want the support of police officers. And what would happen if they were going into an election and police officers, DEA agents decided, we don’t like you as a candidate? That would be incredibly damaging. You don’t want to be going up against police officers when you’re a candidate. It’s much better to stand in front of a bunch of clapping police officers and show the world how tough you are. So that’s often what happens. And as a result, it’s very politically difficult to change our policies on mass incarceration.

Noor: Finally, Jesse, can you talk a little bit more about what we can expect from your campaign in the future, in the upcoming days and weeks?

Lava: Yes, absolutely. Prison Profiteers is about to release several more videos, one on the GEO Group, one on CCA, and one on law enforcement. So that’s going to be coming up soon.

But one thing to keep in mind is that Prison Profiteers, which you can find at, is just one example of what Beyond Bars, my broader campaign, does. So you can go to and see a variety of videos and social media campaigns that are all geared toward fighting mass incarceration.

Something we’re going to be doing coming up involves how prosecutors have tended to let Wall Street off the hook while giving low-level drug offenders massive sentences. And it’s not proportionality, and that’s not what a criminal justice system should look like. It’s anything but just. So Beyond Bars is going to be doing more on that in the months ahead.

Noor: Thank you so much for joining us, Jesse.

Lava: Sure. Thanks for having me.

Noor: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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