The Business of Criminal Injustice

Protestors standing holding signs
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

The murder in Minneapolis, Minn., of George Floyd, an unarmed African-American father, was the last straw for a community that has suffered too many killings by law enforcement officers and mass incarceration by a racist criminal justice system.

Since May 25th, the day Floyd’s life ebbed from him as a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, Black outrage has exploded into streets nationwide and around the world. The ongoing protests against systemic racism and demands for justice and change are being echoed by supporters of all races, including corporate decision makers, lawmakers and even law enforcement brass themselves.

Extensive research reveals the extent of criminal injustice and those who profit from it. Below are some of the findings reported by various sources, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Ben & Jerry’s, Brennan Center for Justice, Center for American Progress, Color of Change, Global Citizen, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care Pew Charitable Trusts, Prison Policy Initiative, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and the U.S. Census Bureau. 

The incarcerated

The United States imprisons more people than any other nation on earth, accounting for 25 percent of all of the world’s incarcerated individuals.

Black people account for just 30 percent of the U.S. population, but make up 40 percent of the prison population.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the rate of incarceration for African-Americans would only match whites after 100 years at the current pace.  

In 2016, the Brennan Center examined convictions and sentences for the 1.46 million people behind bars nationally and found that 39 percent, or 576,000, were in prison without any public safety reason and could have been punished in a less costly and damaging way, such as community service.

When President Ronald Reagan, a staunch tough-on-crime advocate, took office in 1980, the total prison population was 329,000. When he left office eight years later, the population was 627,000.

Beginning in the 1970s, the number of prisoners grew in every state — blue, red, urban, and rural. In 1978 in Texas, for example, the state incarcerated 182 people for every 100,000 residents. By 2003, that figure was 710 for every 100,000. 

Under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, popularly called “the 1994 Crime Bill,” states were given money to perpetuate policies that bred bloated prisons.

99 percent of the rise in incarceration between 1999 and 2014 involved the pre-trial population — people who have not yet been found guilty of a crime but are jailed because they can’t afford bail. 

On a given day, 3 out of 4 people held in jails under local authority have not even been convicted, much less sentenced. 

Civil asset forfeiture empowers law enforcement agencies to seize cash or other property obtained through illicit means or to commit crimes. Abusive practices land heavily on low-income individuals and communities of color, with property, including homes, vehicles being seized from those who have not been charged with a crime or convicted of one.

Cheap labor; cheated wages

As of April 2017, the average of the minimum daily wages paid to incarcerated workers for non-industry prison jobs was 86 cents, down from 93 cents in 2001. The average maximum daily wage for the same prison jobs has declined to $3.45 today from $4.73 in 2001. 

Incarcerated people assigned to work for state-owned businesses earn between 33 cents and $1.41 per hour on average, roughly twice as much as people assigned to regular prison jobs.

But only about 6 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons earn these “higher” wages.

Deductions often leave incarcerated workers with less than half of their gross pay. In Massachusetts, for example, at least half of each paycheck goes into a savings account to pay for expenses after release. New Mexico deducts 15 percent to 50 percent of each paycheck for a Crime Victims Reparations Fund, discharge money, and family support.

Saving up for a $10 phone card would take almost two weeks for an incarcerated person working in a Pennsylvania prison.

People with felony convictions are often ineligible for government benefit programs like welfare and food stamps, and face barriers to finding stable housing and employment. They may leave prison with just a bus ticket and $50 of “gate money,” if they have no other savings.

Industries that benefit from mass incarceration

Bail bond: Pulls in about $3 billion in profits a year. Color of Change and the ACLU report that the top nine bail insurance companies (Tokio Marine, Fairfax Financial Holdings, Randall & Quilter, Endeavour Capital, Bankers Financial, AIA Holdings, Financial Casualty & Surety, Lexington National, ASC-USI) back a majority of the $14 billion in bail bonds each year, resulting in a profit of anywhere from $1.4 billion to $2.4 billion dollars in the same year.

Telecommunications. Costs of more than $1 a minute for a phone call from prison is common. Some states see prices approach $25 for a 15-minute call. As of November 2018, in more than half of states, the highest in-state 15-minute call cost more than $10, and in 15 states it cost over $15.

Food and commissary suppliers. Supplying items such as food, beverages and hygiene products to prison or jail commissaries nationwide brings in at least $1.6 billion each year. Companies like Aramark make millions of dollars in profits supplying meals to about 600 prisons. .

Community corrections. Private companies charge defendants hundreds of dollars a month to wear the surveillance devices. Those who cannot pay may end up behind bars. In December 2018, President Donald Trump, with support from private prison giants The GEO Group and CoreCivic Co. (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America), signed into law the First Step Act, which includes provisions for home detention. GEO and CoreCivic dominate the community-corrections market (for services such as day-reporting and electronic monitoring), one of the fastest-growing revenue sectors of their industry.

National statistics on the racial breakdown of Americans wearing ankle monitors are not available, but all indications suggest that mass supervision, like mass incarceration, disproportionately affects Black people. In Cook County, Ill., for example, Black people make up 24 percent of the population and 67 percent of those on monitors.

Healthcare. Healthcare companies like Corizon Health Inc., which brings in $1.4 billion every year, are profiting form sick prisoners, despite having a dismal track record when it comes to making sure they get well again. 

A study released in 2017 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed nearly half the people held in jails suffer from some form of mental illness, and more than a quarter have a severe condition, such as bipolar disorder. 

A 2018 study from the Pew Charitable Trusts, more than half the states hire private companies to provide at least some of their prison health care. 

The National Commission on Correctional Health Care, which accredits programs in correctional facilities around the country, reports about 70 percent of the jails that it inspects outsource their medical services, and for-profit companies have a sizable share of those contracts.

Two of the largest nationwide healthcare providers, Corizon Health and Wellpath, both headquartered in Tennessee, have been sued about 1,500 times during the past five years over matters including alleged neglect, malpractice, and, in dozens of cases, wrongful injury or death, according to federal and state court records obtained by postgraduate researchers at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.