Never have as many people been locked up than right now, here in the United States. The US has more prisoners per capita than anywhere else on the planet and that number continues to climb at a terrifying rate. Once within the prison system, inmates are abused and exploited out of sight and out of mind of the rest of the population. With these crimes against humanity growing ever greater and the impossible to ignore racial disparity continuing to get worse, it's time we take a critical look at our prison system and the monster we've all created.
This episode is dedicated to the prisoners currently on strike across the United States who just want to be treated with the humanity that all of us deserve.
Thank you so much Sam for this wonderful transcript!
[0:00]I'm David Torcivia.
[0:02] I'm Daniel Forkner.
[0:03] And this is Ashes Ashes, a show about systemic issues, cracks in civilization, collapse of the environment, and if we're unlucky: the end of the world.
[0:12] But if we learn from all of this maybe we can stop that. The world might be broken, but it doesn't have to be.
[0:20] While the prisoners are referring to slavery in the specific sense of labor in that demand, when people inside talk about prison slavery, they're talking about a much broader sense of prison slavery in so far it's like a complete and total dehumanization and subjugation of human beings to the point where they are basically treated - it's not even basically -they are treated like an animals.
[0:49] David today were talking about the system of mass incarceration that is so infamous now here in the United States for putting people behind bars and in great numbers, and when we think about the purpose of a prison maybe we have some kind of idea that it's supposed to punish people for heinous crimes, act as a deterrent for committing crimes that we don't want to see in our society, and then serve as a way to rehabilitate people so that when they come back into society their behavior is reformed to fit societal standards. But when we start looking at this system in-depth a number of things start to challenge those assumptions.
[1:30] Yeah I mean the prison complex is a very weak facade of pretending to be this thing that we need that is a positive net good for society, and even just like very casually looking into it that whole thing falls apart and what you see instead is this system that's built entirely on exploitation, abuse, horrible treatment of humans even if those humans, what, might have been judged by society as being somebody that is, I mean quite frankly unwanted? That's why they end up in these places and that's why we treat them this way. It's such a shocking level of exploitation of labor, of horrible abuse in these places, and the whole thing just very quickly falls apart and we see it as something that's based around profit and around control but not in the way that we think in terms of controlling crime, but more in terms of controlling people and populations that are deemed unwanted.
[2:22] Right. I think the control part is very important because many people now are aware of the profit incentives to go into prisons and how those that manage and operate prisons have an incentive to put people in there and to lobby for legislation that makes it easier to do so because they make money from it.
[2:39] And in some cases they're guaranteed minimum number of beds in prisons and especially in ice detainment facilities, where the government guarantees that there'll be at least this many prisoners in this prison at all times which is like the really the end level gross.
[2:55] Like let's just assume that you know, X percent of our population is just...
[2:58] Will always be a prisoner or be being deported, yeah.
[3:02] ..but then the control part is another thing that probably doesn't get talked about enough, where if you decide that in order to maintain power we need to keep a certain cohort of the population under control and outside of the realm of power. We need to lock people outside of the ability to integrate into our economic opportunities, the ability to vote. We see that prisons serve that end really well. We over-police certain populations, we make it super easy to arrest certain populations, and then once they're in prison, once they have this criminal record, we bar them from this democracy that we have. They're not allowed to vote, they are barred from certain public programs, all so that we can maintain power for some by keeping others down.
[3:49] And of course these populations that are most impacted by these policies are, by and large by a huge majority, minorities. And of those minorities, primarily African-Americans, but this is nothing new. This is been going on at this point for well over a century, and has its roots with the end of slavery in the United States.
[4:08] Yes and let's look at this for a minute David, because this is something we are taught in public school as we come up, that you know, after emancipation Abraham Lincoln freed all of the slaves and then we entered the modern era where that type of exploitation ended. But that's not what we find when we actually look at history, because immediately following emancipation we have 4 million slaves that were suddenly free across the United States, but as a result the cotton industry - the engine of the Southern economy - was in crisis and white Southerners were not content to simply let their labor walk away. In the most important economic regions of the South, up to half of all capital and investment was in the form of human labor. Black human labor. And not surprisingly, fears of economic ruin loomed large if this wealth was lost. And when we think of the American South before the 20th century, it's easy to picture the plantation owners and their large scale slave operations, but the majority of whites did not own slaves. Most were poor and many were illiterate. And for this cohort of society, fears also loomed of competition from their newly freed neighbors. A fear that was exploited by politicians and businessman who wanted to ensure that poor whites did not find a common ally in poor Blacks to resist the exploitation levied against both of them. So broadly white Southerners feared two things: one, that the newly freed Blacks would use their freedom to seek revenge against their old slave owners; and two, that the economy would suffer from a lack of cheap labor.
[5:44] And I want interrupt you real quick here Daniel, because I don't want to completely excuse the Northerners for their participation in this process as well. Because while we blame a lot of what we're about to talk about on the Southerners, and I mean they were guilty as the slaveholders of this time, but that didn't prevent wealthy white Northerners from coming into the South and purchasing up so much of this distressed land, buying up plantations, factories, things that weren't profitable anymore with the loss of slave labor, and becoming the owners of huge swaths of Southern territories. Then of course, well they still needed labor to make these things profitable, so they turned to exploiting the labor of these newly freed Black slaves and also their poor white counterparts who suddenly found their value much diminished now that there was so much more labor available to these wealthy land owners.
[6:31] Good point David. So, how did this all come about? Well around 1874 a wave of new laws throughout Southern States and local counties came onto the scene that effectively made it a crime to be Black. These laws did not necessarily explicitly target Black people in the legal language, but everyone knew the purpose of these laws was to selectively enforce them. Vague laws that criminalize vagrancy, made it possible for an officer to arrest pretty much any Black person on the street who could not immediately prove in that moment that they were employed somewhere. Other laws made it a crime for a farmer to walk alongside a railroad. It was a crime to speak too loudly in the presence of white women, it was a crime to sell crops after dark. Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida made it a crime to change employers without permission.
[7:22] What's funny too about some of these laws is that many of them are still on the books and actively enforced. I mean I've had friends arrested for walking along railroads, that's something that still exists. Many municipalities have laws against vagrancy, laws targeting homeless people. If you don't have an address in some places you can be fined for $1,000 for being homeless basically. So, these ideas and concepts haven't gone anywhere, they're very still much on the books and being actively enforced by police departments around the country today.
[7:51] The legacy continues David. And ultimately these laws existed, they were created to put Black people in their place; which was long-term prison sentences, where they could be forced to work once again in what became a profitable arrangement for the government and local business. And so this was an interesting arrangement: the State would charge companies a fee to rent criminals by the month and the fee would change depending on the individual prisoner, which at that point you might as well have put prisoners on auction blocks. And this became known as the 'convict lease system.' Any business could rent prisoners and do with them anything they pleased. Prisoners who had just earned their freedom from the cotton plantations suddenly found themselves bound by chains and whipped in mines, factories, and other businesses where they might chop lumber, make bricks, or lay railroads. This system delivered thousands of convicts into coal mines that made Alabama's rapid industrial growth possible.
[8:49] So let's look at some numbers to get an idea of scale. So in 1886, this is you know just a few decades after the Emancipation, there were 15,000 prison workers in Southern industry. And that number grew to over 19,000 just a couple years later. A third of those workers were boys under the age of 16, and I mean it should go without saying but over 90% of these workers were Black. And what's really interesting is when you compare these numbers to today. So in the 1800's while this war was going on, the proportion of Black people in U.S. prisons nationwide was 30% compared to Blacks making up just 12% of the total population. So let's compare that to today. Black people today make up 37% of the national prison population despite being just 13% of the total population. And 33% of the national felony convictions are represented by Black people. These numbers change on the local level and in some cases it's much, much worse. Black people are 19% of the population of Virginia, but make up over 58% of prisoners. Overall, Black people comprise a higher proportion of prisoners in the U.S. today than they did in the late 1800's while slavery was still very much a present memory in the minds of everyone. And as we'll see these numbers aren't the only thing that hasn't changed.
[10:06] That's crazy David. It's insane to think that we're putting a higher proportion of Black people in prisons today then we were when this convict lease system was going on to fulfill these jobs that were vacated by slaves. And in many ways conditions under that convict lease system where worse than slavery in Southern cotton plantations. On our two-part series on slavery, we go in-depth on some of the modern slave operations worldwide today. And part of what has made slavery so brutal around the world is the expendable, low-cost nature of exploiting people in our modern economy. In the American South before emancipation, a single slave might cost $40,000 in today's value: a serious investment that a slave owner would not simply waste. Under the convict lease system however, human beings could be rented for a few dollars a month and worked much harder. In some labor camps in Alabama, convict populations died at a rate of 30 to 40% per year.
[11:08] Also a concept we touched on in part 2 of our episodes on slavery is the way labor practices became normalized within an industry, which then become standardized and almost impossible to alter. Well, because the convict lease system provided such cheap and expendable labor, business owners could drive wages down across the board for paid workers as well, and use this power as leverage to block unions another worker rights organizations from forming. This is what we're talking about when these impacted poor, White workers of the South as well. Prison labor gives businesses the ability to harm workers everywhere and this continues today.
[11:43] David let's take a step back from this prison labor and just look at the numbers for the general prison population in the United States and some ways that compares to other incarceration rates around the world.
Prisons In America Today
[11:56] Yeah this is especially important because I think really, it needs to be stated several times throughout this episode: the United States is a prison nation.
[12:05] Well we like to be number one David. I mean, if we're gonna do something...
[12:09] ...we're going to do it well
[12:10] ...we're going to make sure we're going to be at the top of the game and when it comes to prison...
[12:14] Number one!
[12:15] Yeah when it comes to prison, well let's just say we knocked this one right out of the park. We have close to 7 million people in the correctional system which includes probation, and a little over two million people behind bars. In 2015 worldwide there were 10 million people behind bars, meaning that the US represents 20% of the entire global population of inmates. That's 20% despite having around four and a half percent of the global population.
[12:44] And so as you would expect our per-capita incarceration rate is similarly off-the-charts at close to 700 people per 100,000 locked up. This incarceration rate puts us way above any other country in the world. If your rank us among countries the next highest countries in order are El Salvador, Turkmenistan, Cuba, Thailand, Rwanda, and Russia. After that Panama, Costa Rica, and Brazil. And if you were to break the United States up into separate States and include them on this list in like you know, here's Georgia, here's California, it gets even crazier. So just in terms of the per-capita incarceration rate the top four places in the world are Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia, all being around 1,000 people incarcerated from 100,000 residents.
[13:31] And David there are 31 U.S. States with higher per-capita incarceration rates higher than the very first country on that list, El Salvador.
[13:40] So that means just to break it down one more time because this stat is so crazy: there are 31 States in America that have the number 1 to 31st-highest incarceration rates in the entire world.
[13:51] That's right.
[13:53] And we had to go all the way down to number 32 to get to any place on this planet that has a higher incarceration rate than just individual States within this country, and that's El Salvador. We love prisons here.
[14:06] Another visual for you David as some have pointed out; at the height of Stalin's Gulag system in the Soviet Union the ratio of people within the Gulag system still falls below the ratio of the U.S. population in jail or prison in 2008. But you know what, let's look at how these incarceration rates differ once you start looking at race and class because this is where things really start to go off the charts, are you ready for this?
[14:32] So as we've established, while the United States stands miles above any other country on the planet in terms of people behind bars...
[14:40] Number one!
[14:41] ...that's 700 people per 100,000, well for Black people that ratio is over 2,400. For Latinos at over 1,000. Black youths are incarcerated five times more than White kids, and if you look at the data for Black men just between the ages of 20 and 39, Would you like to take a guess David what that incarceration rate might be?
[15:02] I mean I'm sure it's high? We said that the ratio overall for Black people's 2,400 so I'm going to guess maybe like double that, so like 4,800 per 100,000 people.
[15:13] Not even close David it's 10,000 per 100,000. Now for comparison, at the height of apartheid South Africa incarceration rates for Black males was around 850 per 100,000. I mean, these rates are simply inconceivable. And remember David, we touched a little bit on this in our forensic episode, "Suspect Science," about how when you start looking at the rates of crimes there's not a lot of difference in the number of crimes that White people commit versus the crimes that Black people commit. In fact, if there is difference we find that it actually skews towards White people. White people purchase and use marijuana more often than Black people, yet Black people are incarcerated at multiple times higher than White people for the same crimes.
Prison Labor Today
[15:57] I mean these numbers are absolutely mind-boggling. These are greater numbers than existed after the fall of slavery when half the country was still in the mindset that is okay to own Black people, and then we moved to locking them up instead and we're locking up more people proportionally now than we were back when people thought it was okay to own people. That's how crazy this prison system has become, how out of control it's gotten. And if we look back at where this all started, I mean it with the labor. The fear of the loss of labor, because of the loss of this institution of slavery, is what motivated these laws and the introduction of everything that built this system today. But, this exploitation because of labor has continued through today as well.
[16:35] It has continued, it's been going on for a long time now. And in fact it appears that wages have been falling for prisoners over the years. In 2001 the average minimum daily wage for inmates was $0.93. Today it's just $0.86. And that's per day. That's the minimum. And the average maximum daily wage across the country is just $3.45. While these numbers seem low, I mean who wants to work washing dishes for $0.86 a day, well the reality is actually much, much worse because these are just the wages paid before deductions. Many inmates have their wages slashed up to 50% for fees and expenses related to their incarceration. It's like, "oh thank you for doing all this unpaid work, but we're also going to charge you money because of the administrative cost of housing you," or whatever other BS they can make up.
[17:26] Daniel as bad as that is, you guessed it, it's still even worse than that! Because prisons have complete monopolies on the goods sold to prisoners and these goods are subject to unbelievable up-charges. Example time: if you happen to be incarcerated in Pennsylvania, it could take you two weeks of constant work to afford a $10 phone card. If you are a woman in Colorado, it could take you two weeks just to afford a box of tampons. And yes that's right, tampons aren't provided. So this is something we will absolutely come back to both later on in this episode and in future episodes, because these prison abuses are so large; this is the start of a series and we have so many things that we want to touch on, this is really more of an overview episode. But, I mean the fact that a prisoner even has to buy their own tampons in the first place is insane. For right now we're just going to stick to jobs for this moment. There's a lot of variety in the types of jobs an inmate might work, the ones that get the most attention involve private companies producing products for sale to consumers or institutions.
[18:27] Starbucks David, has used inmates to package coffee; Victoria's Secret has used inmates to sew lingerie; and inmates have been used in call centers for numerous companies like Sprint.
[18:40] And even the companies that you think are out there doing good work, places like Whole Foods? Well yep, a lot of their stuff is also contributed to by prison labor.
[18:50] In Nevada, you may be surprised to know that the casino industry has relied on prison labor for years. On everything from the stained glass and luxurious casinos, mattresses in resorts and hotels, chairs and other furniture for offices, and clothing for retailers to sell to tourists. Nevada is actually an interesting case as well, because the Nevada Department of Corrections has for years hidden contracts it made with businesses from the State! It even allowed companies to use prison labor secretly without paying taxes, wages, and other fees that ended up as debt for the State of Nevada. It's really strange, and much of the secrecy was uncovered as a result of other businesses complaining that prison labor resulted in unfair competition and impacting their bottom line.
[19:37] In addition, inmates are used to fulfill government contracts for everything from road signs to body armor. If you find yourself locked up in Louisiana, your labor might be on a farm. If you're in Kentucky you might sell cattle. The total value of labor provided by these prison inmates is estimated at over 1 billion dollars annually. Real quick also, looking through these things that inmates make: one of the weird things that made me feel weird reading about it was like, how much they make things for colleges? Like a lot of the furniture, and beds in dorms and things, are made by prisoners. And for some reason that made me feel really weird, more than a lot of the things they produce...seems like really extra dirty.
[20:16] Like, "here make some products that are furthering someone's education which you're not allowed to ever have."
[20:21] Yeah it's like building something so somebody can see the best future while somebody else's future is actively being destroyed in the process. I don't have a concrete reason for it, but it made me feel weird. But let's check out some of these products and let's see how this labor is actually marketed. So you can actually go online to UNICOR.gov, and this is a website that is marketing this prison labor. So if you are looking to get somebody to produce something for you, you can go here and you can contact the prison to produce products for you and your company. If you are a company that needs to order things in bulk, you can already look on here and see all sorts of products and services; so like click around here, "ooh they have a section for energy-efficient and green products, lemme click on that. I can get nice prisoner made solar panels because I'm going to save the Earth with prison labor," which also feels sort of weird.
[21:14] Just so we understand: the legal name of this company is "Federal Prison Industries Incorporated" but the trade name is UNICOR I guess.
[21:23] Right, to sort of mask that idea where this labor is coming when you look on the box. And it's so funny too; they advertise constantly this website, how you can say that if you contract products made through UNICOR you can put that 'made in America' sticker on your thing so everybody knows that you're being a good guy, taking care of American labor, not outsourcing it to overseas, when really you're just using $0.86 a day prison labor to produce these products which is way more fucked up than sweatshop somewhere else.
[21:51] Let's see. "Why buy UNICOR?" This is on their webpage. "Social value: your purchases generate lasting societal benefits, a reduction in government spending, the viability and health of our communities, improved public safety...Simply put it's the right thing to do." Oh David, they also have a marketing video which the Intercept posted online, so we're going to try and include that on our website so everyone can see the type of marketing copy they put out there for businesses in the form of videos where they actually are showing one of the call centers that a business contracted them for. It's a bunch of women in prison uniforms, sitting down at computers, taking phone calls. Some of the dialogue is saying how, "we constantly monitor them to make sure that you're getting the best value for your money, but don't worry you can also feel good because these inmates are learning how to communicate!" This is crazy, we'll put that on the website.
[22:46] They have a fact or fiction section of the website too, to dispel these awful rumors that are about UNICOR and prison made products. And it has gems like this, "Fiction: that Prison Industries hurt business and industry by cutting into their profits. Fact: Federal Prison Industries does more to help the private sector than hurt it. This is not a business, it is a correctional program. It sells its products primarily to the Federal Government, it does limited advertising and focuses primarily on labor-intensive activities in order to provide more inmates with skills and work experience. The real product that Federal Prison Industries turns out is a productive citizen who can return to society as a law-abiding tax-payer because of the skills and experience they have gained." Wow, that if that doesn't make you feel good, then I don't know what to tell you. Do you think they do podcast editing?
[23:38] I love UNICOR, you know they're really not so bad David!
[23:40] This episode brought to you by Federal Prison Industries.
[23:46] And David, this is just the tip of the iceberg because most of the value of prison labor does not come from these types of products that are being made or services that are contracted out to businesses; it comes from the fact that prisons themselves are operated almost entirely by prison labor. The food that inmates eat, the cleaning of toilets, cutting of hair, laundry, floor scrubbing, all of these essential services are carried out by inmates who are paid pennies on the hour, allowing the corporations and agencies that oversee these prisons to add more money to their bottom line by not having to pay decent wages to staff or these inmates themselves. And in this discussion, we cannot neglect those that who are locked up in immigration detention facilities around the country. There are several lawsuits ongoing right now against several immigration detention facilities involving both GEO Group and Core Civic, the two largest private companies that contract with ICE, and these lawsuits allege that human trafficking laws are being violated in these facilities. People awaiting processing or some form of trial who are held in these places are deprived of basic necessities: food, toilet paper, toothbrushes, and then they are effectively forced to work for less than a dollar a day (sometimes up to $4) in order to buy these things for high prices at the commissary. Those who refuse to work are threatened with criminal charges and solitary confinement. These conditions have prompted five Senators to write a letter to the Department of Homeland Security in protest.
[25:17] And real quick, I think a lot of attention these prisons get is focused on this labor exploitation and it really is a horribly fucked-up practice. But there's so much more to the larger prison story and the problems that go on here. We'll get into some of these later on this episode and in the future episodes. We really don't want to undersell this, but the media spends a lot of time talking about prisons solely from this labor perspective. There are so many different angles of just why these systems are so bad for the people involved in them, and those of us on the outside. We really don't want under sell that. I mean this labor stuff is just so disgusting, and maybe it's because we can relate to this as people who work for living. I mean we are all forced to work. Trying to imagine what life is like on the inside of these prisons is difficult, we only have media that typically is from police perspectives. So this is a way that we can connect with the people inside, because we know what it's like to feel exploited at our jobs, be taken advantage of. And so when we see this happening on an even grosser scale within these prisons, I think that at least for me it gives myself a real connection to the struggles that are happening inside.
[26:22] David this might be a great time then to introduce our guest, who is going to elaborate a little bit on some of the issues that go beyond just this prison labor: and that just for today is Will Adams. He works with the Oakland chapter of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, which is a part of the Industrial Workers of the World. So without further ado, let's introduce Will Adams.
[26:44] [dial tone] Hi there guys!
[26:47] Hey Will this is David over here.
[26:49] Thank you so much for willing to take some time to talk about this very important issue with us.
[26:54] Totally, yeah! Thank you for talking about it on your show.
[26:57] Will, if we could just get an introduction of who you are for the listeners and that what the IWOC is?
[27:03] I'm Will. I'm a member of IWOC Oakland. I've been working with the chapter for about 2 years now. I got involved just a little bit after the 2016 strike, and I see prisons and the prison industrial complex and the criminal justice system as a whole really as the primary means by which the State and big businesses or just like those in power sort of, like, maintain control over the working class and over communities of color.
What Sparked The Strike?
[27:43] So how did this particular prison strike come about? Was it organized directly through this relationship between IWOC and prisoners? Is this something that was initiated by inmates themselves? What does that look like?
[27:54] Yeah yeah, so this strike is wholly self-organized by the prisoners themselves, right? There's actually a very long history of prisoner organizing. There's a prisoners movement in this country, you sort of track a like new wave that sort of started in around 2010, 2009, 2011 when prisoners started engaging in work stoppages, and hunger strikes, and directly targeting the facilities that effect them and brutalize them. This strike was called by a coalition of inside organizations that - it's a coalition across really intense religious and racial and political lines, you can look at the demands which maybe we can talk about in a second - but these are Black Nationalists working with reformists all to take on the prison system specifically. And there are cease-fires being called amongst different organizations. This strike in particular was called because there was an uprising, a riot I guess you could call it, that occurred at Lee Correctional Facility in South Carolina that is just like...the only word is an atrocity, right? 7 people lost their lives during this uprising, and to give a little background on it; prisons, particularly in States with eroding tax bases where there's maybe like, one guard per 35 inmates, or 50 inmates - the only way that they can control people is by pitting them against each other. And so there's this practice called mix and match transfers, or 'gladiator fights' wherein, normally different groups that are hostile to each other inside prison are kept separate, right? But when the facility needs to exert increased control over these organizations, over these groups of people, essentially what the State would call gangs but really they're just like groups of people banding together for survival who refused to comply with prison officials. They will take these groups of people and put them in the same spot of the same yard and basically say go get your man, right? In this specific incident at Lee, they did that. Except the guards locked the door behind them. Normally fights in prison last 5 minutes, 15 minutes before it gets broken up.
[30:27] So this is a normal thing that happens?
[30:29] Yeah, but not what happened at Lee, right? Because this fight lasted for eight hours. People fought to exhaustion. And the facility at Lee is so decrepit that the cell doors within the two specific cells, the locks are broken, right? So folks couldn't even hide in their cell. And people were calling for help from the guards and the guards just ignored them. Eventually the weapons came out and people started bleeding and the guards continued to ignore them, and so people started dragging bodies - like people who are still alive but bleeding out - to the gate, and those guards still ignored them. And they let it go on for 8 hours and all seven people who died, died blood loss. And 7 is the official number...we're pretty sure that the guards transferred people to other wings or other facilities in order to cover up the actual number.
[31:27] Yeah, don't let them be called to see somewhere else.
[31:30] And in the aftermath of this event, the media only spoke with the prison official about what happened. Now, the prison official said, "oh yeah this is just gang related violence, and it's because of cell phones." But in this sort of twisted irony we only know what happened because someone with their cell phone took a video of the carnage and sent it to other inside activists and organizers, right, other incarcerated organizers. And word spread of this atrocity and the people who called this strike knew people at that facility. The intention of inside leadership was actually to hold off on a national action until 2019, but in the face of just such utter brutality they felt they had to do something now so that's why the strike was called.
[32:24] When people probably hear something like this on mainstream media and it's framed in terms of, "oh this was prisoner-on-prisoner, gang-related," you know I think people are more likely to write it off and say why are we protesting something that was initiated by the prisoners themselves? But this is such a clear example of how this system of mass incarceration creates this violence. We're going to read or at least post the demands of the strike on our website or on this episode, but what do you think are some of the most important issues that need to be addressed as part of the strike and going forward?
All Demands Matter
[32:54] So, all of the demands are important and it's really important that attention be paid to all of them. I think the mainstream media, the media coverage of the strike, I don't think there's a major media outlet that hasn't covered it at this point? Which is just like a complete turnaround from 2016, from the national strike that occurred in 2016 where we were struggling just to like, get anybody to cover it at all. One of the issues that occurred with the mainstream media covering it is that a lot of outlets have sort of latched onto just a specific, the second demand, the demand to end prison slavery and that people should be paid the prevailing wage.
[33:35] Yeah and it's always weirdly accompanied with this like, "Oh but look at the Constitution. This is legal," sort of conversation and then instead of even addressing the the prison strike or the or the things going on the prison they spend the next five minutes talking about the constitutionality of prison labor and then the story ends and it's like, what this was totally missing the point?
[33:54] Right, exactly. And while that demand is the second demand for a reason, right, it's super important, but it's also important to point out that there's 10 demands; they're all important. While the prisoners are referring to slavery in the specific sense of labor in that demand, when people inside talk about 'prison slavery' they're talking about a much broader sense of prison slavery insofar as, it's like a complete and total dehumanization and subjugation of human beings to the point where they are basically treated like - and it's not even basically - they are treated like animals. And this is something that is inherent to our our prison system, and it demands as a whole [we] address that. A bid for humanity in the face of just utter brutality and dehumanization. And it's also important to point out that prisons aren't about...prisons don't exist as a way to extract value from prisoners. Less than half of prisoners have jobs and the number of prisoners who do work...most of the work that gets done in prisons is actually just like maintaining the facility itself. Prisons couldn't function without prison labor and that's a very important point. But again, going back to the national media coverage, there's this tendency to focus on these private corporations that are using prison labor. But actually a pretty small chunk of the labor that gets done in prisons is for these companies. Really, it's just a twisted market incentive. Of course we live under capitalism and so then corporations would find ways to lower their bottom line by exploiting slave labor, essentially, at home instead of abroad in the global South. But that's not why prisons exist, and I think that's an important thing to point out and I think that that is something that taking the demands as a whole sort of gets you to.
[36:00] Yeah absolutely. We were actually talking about this earlier, how it seems the only coverage that media is interested in doing in terms of prisons; not just in terms of the strike right now but over the preceding years, is private prisons and labor in prisons. And there's no interest in any of these other topics or any of these other many demands. The brutality of prisons, I mean how much media still jokes about how awful prisons are and the rape and things that occur in it? I mean maybe it's because people who aren't in the larger prison systems who don't have experience with it can identify with labor and they can identify with abusive corporations so that's why they're mind goes to that? And identifying with the brutality that occurs, it's a world apart. It's hard to understand when the only things you have are media depictions of that and most of those media depictions are cop shows. Things like Law and Order, that show it not from the perspective of a prisoner but very much from the opposite side.
[37:04] Yeah, totally. And I think that the first demand really sort of gets at that. [What prisoners are asking] is so basic. They're asking to be recognized as humans in that first demand. They're asking for access to fresh air, to be able to to go outside, they're asking for sunshine and for metal plates not to be welded over their windows. For air conditioning or for heat, right? There are prisons in California that in the summertime will get up to 110, 115 degrees inside a cell. Sometimes the plumbing breaks and the officials don't care. And then in the winter time they will get down to, you know, 30-40 degrees and there's no heat and access to warm blankets and stuff is incredibly limited. This about not having shards of glass in your food, or not having human blood in your food, or feces, or like...
[37:55] Rat poison like we had here in Rikers.
[37:56] ...Yeah exactly. Or really just like access to edible food? Because food like the nutraloaf is the prime example, where it's this sort of dry brick that is...you have to make yourself eat it. Or just like you know, access to rehabilitation, right? Or access to law libraries where you're not in chains while you're reading the books and where the book isn't chained to a wall with a metal cage in between you. So, yeah.
What Can We Do On The Outside?
[38:29] What can people who aren't within these systems do because so much of prison work is about inside and outside. I mean the prisoners are absolutely doing their part with the organization of this strike right now and it's incredible that they've been able to organize this while being incarcerated, especially nationally. Some of that is because of people outside, and a lot of it is it due and credit is due to the prisoners inside. But for people who aren't directly connected with this, how can we help?
[38:54] So yeah, I mean there's so much you can do, right? As far as the strike is concerned, like right now specifically and in the upcoming months, just spreading the message of this strike, sharing the demands on social media, sharing articles about the strike, and then participating in our phones app actions, and the phone app is basically where we have tons and tons of people call a facility that is retaliating against strike participants or strike organizers. So these facilities...people are risking their lives to take these actions, literally, and we've already seen people being sentenced by internal review boards to a year-and-a-half in solitary confinement. We've seen people get transferred to other states away from their family and friends so that they can't get visitors.
So, we do these apps to these facilities that are retaliating against strike participants because we know from past experience that essentially blowing up their phones and shutting down their phone lines makes a real impact. And we've had success with it in the past because prisons essentially require darkness in order to operate. They're not used to public scrutiny, there's a reason why prisons are built way out in the middle of nowhere. And also just because the people who run prisons are essentially boring bureaucrats who need to be reminded that they actually work in a prison, right? That their job is to brutalize these people. And then also prisons are still fairly reliant on phones- the technology inside of prisons tends to be fairly archaic, they still use fax machines and stuff - so we field thousands of calls and we always need more people to participate in those both during the strike and after.
You can connect with a local organization near you that does prisoner support work. There's IWOC chapters all across the country. There's one in nearly every major city at this point and there's a bunch popping up as we speak. But there's also other organizations, there's Black and Pink, there's ABC's Anarchist Black Crosses, there's Critical Resistance, and there's a ton of others that I'm not going to name right now that do work to support prisoners and engage with them directly. And that's that is really the thing that people can do that will be of the most help which is, write to people right? Because prison is incredibly isolating and dehumanizing, right? And to have someone from the outside just write to you gets people through their time. Or calling them, or visiting them. And building relationships over the walls is how we're going to build power together, to hopefully, you know, eventually abolish prisons or at least depending on who you are make significant change. But, building those relationships is the crux of building power together. And then we also have a fundraiser that it's been approved by the inside strike leadership for the main organizations that are supporting the strike who are essentially just like burning cash right now, and so donations are very important for us to continue to be able to do this work.
This isn't the end of the prisoners movement, the strikes will go on for as long as it will; it might end on the 9th, it might continue onwards, but [because] retaliation is going to continue for a long time, [these people] need our continued support. Now the prisoners' movement is going to continue onward and continue fighting and that needs to be continued, just supported from the outside.
[42:36] We'll post that on the website for sure. Will I want to ask you: we mentioned media and the role that plays in shaping our view of prisons and the people inside them in. We have media, we have entertainment that depicts people of color, working class people, and others in ways the prejudge them as criminals, but we also use language that shapes the way we view people and I'm wondering, what are some ways we can change the language we use when discussing people who are incarcerated, you know without reverting to words like "criminal" which may only serve to further dehumanize them?
[43:08] Yes! Yeah! I mean, IWOC does not recognize. the sort of verdicts of the States. We don't use words like "criminal," we don't use words like "gang," because that's a way for the stage and for the powers that be to continue to dehumanize people. It's important to recognize, particularly with the word "gang" they're just like, groups of people banding together for survival, and I know this already earlier but, in the face of the oppression of prisons and of the state The word 'gang' goes inside prison and outside, right? Gangs on the outside are again just like, groups of people doing their thing. And the state uses that word within the context of the legal system to...right, one of the demands is an end to racist gang laws. So if you're a brown person from a certain part of town, or a certain block, or your cousin maybe rolls with some people, you can automatically be added to a list without you even knowing it. Then if you are convicted of a crime by the state they can add tons of extra time to your sentence.
And then once you get inside that continues to follow you. You'll continue to be associated with this gang and continue to be policed more heavily by guards and continue to be oppressed even more than you might otherwise be. And again there are like two year olds on these lists. And inside if you're Chicano and you have tattoos for instance around your cultural identity, a lot of those tattoos, a lot of that symbology is considered gang-related and so you are automatically considered to be a part of the gang if you just happen to have a tattoo. Indigenous languages are considered gang languages inside of California prisons, and that affects you all the way up to parole boards when you're being paroled, that is something that essentially counts against you when all of these random bureaucrats are deciding whether or not you can have your freedom.
Risks Higher For Some
[45:18] You know there's a diversity of people within the system between federal and state prisons, men separate from women, and now the number of immigration detention centers that have been on the rise. Are there needs that vary depending on the institution that people are in, and is there anything we need to know related to the differences in what people need the most?
[45:39] Yes, so I think it's incredibly important to note that like, for instance the folks at Northwest Detention Facility, who are on hunger strike and are engaging in work stoppages. Initially, 200 people had said that they were going to participate but because of the retaliation threatened and carried out by the state, only 70 that we know of right now are participating. And so the retaliation that was threatened was like, "if you go on hunger strike, we're going to take your kids away." Right?
[46:12] Yeah! So the folks locked up in immigration detention facilities, they have no rights. They don't get access the lawyers, they don't have any of the the civil rights that are specifically granted to U.S. citizens, and they are risking even more, right? Prisoners are risking so much but the folks there are risking even more and so that's definitely something to keep in mind.
How Large Is This Prison Strike?
[46:37] I've got one last question. I know it's hard to figure out exactly, but is there an idea of how large this movement, this action is in terms of numbers; both in facilities and in animates?
[46:48] Yeah, yeah, so right now there are (if you include Nova Scotia as a state, it's a province but we'll include it)
[46:55] Yeah why not.
[46:56] There's 12 states that are participating: Washington, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, California, Ohio, Colorado, Indiana, New Mexico, Florida, Texas, and again there's Nova Scotia. There are like 10 facilities that are engaged in work stoppages in South Carolina, and then 2 facilities with hunger strikes going on in California. I'm not going to go through what's going on in each and every State because folks can look that up, but I don't have the actual number of facilities and the number of people participating is also hard to guess just because, like, it's impossible to know what's happening in these facilities, right? Both because some of the actions taken by prisoners aren't as visible, right? Like a commissary boycott, that's not going to make the local news and the prison officials certainly aren't going to be like, "oh yeah people are boycotting commissary." But that still...the prison's budget is reliant on people buying things from the commissary at these price gouging points, like $5 for ramen. Even with work stoppages and hunger strikes, prisons are required to report hunger strikes but only after X number days, and that number days is different from facility to facility and they can also break the rules. Prisons break their own rules all of the time. Facilities have no incentive to tell the truth, either to people calling in or to the media - they're just going to deny anything is going on. And so, we know that hunger strikes started in California on the 21st because someone there who is very brave took a video of themselves refusing food. And interestingly it wasn't like, "Here's your loaf," on the 25th that facility was serving burritos which I imagine is not something that regularly gets served inside of a prison. So there's an example of the prison sort of using a carrot rather than a stick to retaliate. So in 2016 right, we didn't know the full breadth of how many people had actually participated in how many facilities until several months after the strike had ended, through FOIA requests and finally getting to follow up with people after a communication blackouts were lifted. The fact that we know this many is happening, I think that it is probably fairly large.
[49:17] Do you have anything you want to add that as we close this out, any any thoughts that we missed and that you think are important to get across?
[49:23] I just want to say that the overarching goal of the strikers, they definitely don't think that the wardens are going to like sit down at the negotiating table with them and negotiate which of these demands gets met, or not these other ones. The real goals of the strike are to thrust their struggle into the national spotlight, and to galvanize themselves as a class, and to call cease fires, and to continue to have this thrust towards focusing on the real enemy, and to push to take their place at the table of outside liberation movements and speak for themselves, right? People inside are sick of nonprofit Van Jones' projects or like, tons and tons of other nonprofits basically puppeting them for their policy reforms that aren't actually going to change anything. And they're sick of the media not actually talking to them directly about what's going on inside as what happened with Lee, right?. And I think that the strike in that regard has been enormously successful. And so progress is being made on all three of those goals, even though there are media outlets to have interviewed prisoners and then refused to publish their statements because they won't give their government name because they know that if they give their government name, they're going to be sitting in the hole for another 2 years.
[50:48] Why would a media outlet refuse to publish that?
[50:51] Well I don't know, they're happy to list anonymous sources all the time when it comes to a government official so...
[50:58] Yeah On The Wall Street Journal.
[51:00] Yeah but they won't do it when it's prisoners. And that gets back to this sort of dehumanized personhood that the prisoners have where like, every interaction that reporters have and many people have with folks on the inside, it comes from a place of skepticism. And we've definitely seen that happening in the media and it's incredibly indicative of the problem itself.
[51:21] Great, well I think it's a great thought to close this out with.
[51:24] Thank you so much Will.
[51:25] Yeah I really appreciate it Will.
[51:26] Yeah totally!
[51:29] That's such an important interview David. And some of the things that Will was describing just really blew my mind. You know, that situation at the Lee Correctional Institution...
[51:38] Yeah oh man, listening to that! I mean we had both read about what happened there and not in much depth but like, we read the stories. But hearing it just spelled out like that - it's disgusting. That's the word I keep reaching for so much when we're doing this episode, when I'm reading about the things that happened in some of the stories that we're leaving out because just frankly it's like too much. So much of the system is just disgusting.
[52:03] Right. And this idea that guards are pitting inmates against each other, I mean this is a common tactic for those in power. As we kind of hinted in the historical intro for this episode, this was also a deliberate tactic used by those in power immediately following the emancipation of slavery in the United States. Both poor White Southerners and recently freed Blacks were exploited. They were both in a disadvantaged position in society. But to prevent them from recognizing solidarity between them, they were pitted against each other; adding fuel to the racism going on at the time. and in racism, it's not a natural and innate quality among people. It has to be fabricated, and that's exactly what was going on, and we see the legacy of that today as we continue to put disproportionately people of color behind bars. And what are we putting them behind bars for?
[52:55] Yeah and I mean to be fair there are violent acts that are committed throughout this country from one person to another, but the vast majority of people who end up incarcerated and within this system are non-violent offenders and they're there for crimes that really have no victim. What's so interesting too, I mean there are people in this country too, all of us really that benefit from horrible crimes that are committed overseas in our names in order to produce products and stuff. But we don't end up facing any sort of retribution for this; but somebody who gets caught with the wrong drug at the wrong time ends up with their life destroyed when they're not hurting anyone at all in the system.
[53:30] Right and even for some of these violent crimes that do land people in prison that some would say is justified, I think Will brought up a very important point which is: the demand for an end to prison slavery is not so much about the labor as it is a general mistreatment. A system that views the people within it as subhuman, and I think that's something that simply doesn't fit the vast majority of the crimes committed. And, you know speaking about the disproportion of people of color behind bars - look David, I bought weed before. I've been publicly drunk before. And if I was hungry because my community was robbed of resources I would steal from Walmart in a heartbeat. I've done things and I would do things that if I were a black man or black woman at the wrong place at the wrong time. Not even the wrong place but just a normal place, I would be in a cage right now, maybe for the rest of my life. And I would be treated like a subhuman. So it's important for us to recognize that so many of these quote-unquote crimes of people are incarcerated for maybe wouldn't be considered crimes if they were committed by people from a different section of society.
[54:36] In which case I guess the crime at that point becomes being from the wrong group of people.
[54:41] Just like we saw immediately following emancipation. And you know another thing that really stuck out to me David about this interview, is when Will mentioned that people are punished for participating in this strike for things like work stoppages, but even things like participating in a hunger strike. Didn't he say that one person was committed to solitary confinement for a year-and-a-half?
[55:02] I mean Daniel like I mentioned in this interview that so much of the media focus on prisons and especially about labor in prisons is based on the constitutionality of this thing. That's not the right way to look at this. It shouldn't matter if it's constitutional to allow slave labor to occur because it's in a prison. That so far misses the point. Just because some piece of paper says this horribly incorrect thing is okay doesn't mean that we should be like, "oh yeah okay it's cool, let's do it. Let's argue about whether it's legal or not," instead of whether it's moral or ethical. I mean from the moral perspective there is no reason to allow slave labor to occur. Period. End discussion, there is no 'except' in these conditions. Anything that follows that word 'except' is wrong. No slavery should be the end of this. And the very fact that we have to debate this at all because it's in this stupid piece of paper should call into question all the rest that is contained in this paper because it's built on incorrect foundations. Similarly, I mean we have guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment, but those words in practice are meaningless if we're allowed to physically torture people and things that the rest of the world agrees are in fact torture, are human right abuses, but instead are common ways of punishing people in our prison system. We're so far beyond the questions of legality and just lost our morals and ideas of what's good in this process.
It's disgusting. I mean I can't even believe we're having this conversation that we have to bring this issue to light. It's not okay to torture people, like that is the end of this thing. It doesn't have to be any more difficult than that. And solitary confinement is torture. The conditions of these prisons, they are torture. Making people sit in barred cells where the temperature routinely climbs 110 degrees, 120 degrees in the summer because there's no air conditioning, that is torture. Making people wake up at 4 in the morning, turning lights on at that point because some study found that inmates are more docile if you keep the lights on all day; that is torture. Making sure people only have enough nutrients just to barely survive, to make them too weak to be able to act up; that is torture. Making inmates live conditions where the temperature routinely gets down to 30-40 degrees in the winter because there is no heat; that is torture. Our prison system is built on the idea of torture in order to control these people. In order to keep them from acting out and resisting. And when they do resist, when they find the strength to stop and say, "I can't take this anymore, I'm going to do something! I'm going to do something in a way that doesn't hurt anybody but myself like a hunger strike," and then we punish them further because of that? I mean these systems cannot be saved. There is no more reform available for prison that is built on ideas of torture, and we need to start looking at alternatives which is maybe a longer conversation. Something for future episodes and something later on in this show, but I mean I'm sorry, I'm sorry I'm getting worked up here but this is so disgusting, and they're so many people that are caught up in these things. People that I know that have been affected and I've done jail support outside of Prisons before. It's disgusting.
Benefits Of Labor?
[57:52] No better word for it David, and maybe we should shift gears for a second because punishment is one of the reasons we say we need prisons, to deter people from committing crimes and then we punish them like you're you're talking about; but another thing that is supposed to come along with this prison system is rehabilitation. Some people will point to evidence that this prison labor that is effectively slavery can help raise the likelihood that a person will land a job following incarceration. Now, without even discussing the merits of this evidence, I think we should think along the same lines that you illuminated David. Which is, that first we have to decide if something is right or wrong. And I think in this context, whether or not prison labor helps someone get a job is irrelevant. You're telling me that if we steal somebody from their home, their family, their community, and their life, and we lock them in a cage and force them to work for free, we're supposed to feel justified in this practice because they would rather sew a shirt or dig a hole than sit in solitary confinement? We're supposed to be proud of ourselves for the fact that after release, they can finally be paid for the labor they've been doing for free for years in a system that ripped them from any meaningful life they might have had? And in that episode where we talked about wildfires, "Up In Smoke," sometimes they don't even get the same jobs that they've been working like those California prison firefighters. Men and women who are trained, the same way that regular firefighters are, they go out into the environment to fight some of the most dangerous natural phenomenon we have for $2 an hour, and if they survive and they serve their time - and a lot of them remember are not even violent offenders, these are people that just found themselves behind bars for whatever bullshit reason - they can't even get a firefighter job because of their criminal history. So we see huge contradictions in this idea that doing this prison labor can even result in jobs after incarceration. But we can even get a better picture when we look at the actual numbers on overall unemployment for formerly incarcerated people. Right now people in the US who were behind bars are unemployed at a rate that is 5 times higher than the overall unemployment rate, and at 27% that's higher than the historical unemployment rate for any period in US history. At the same time, formerly incarcerated people are more active in the search for jobs than the general population, suggesting that they're trying harder than anyone else to actually find meaningful employment, and just like everything of course, this unemployment rate changes depending on race and gender. So we can't simply explain this by some inherent flaw that incarcerated people must have. White men have the lowest level of unemployment following jail time at 14%. And black women are the most discriminated group with the highest rate of unemployment at 43%. When they do find jobs after release, these jobs are more likely to be part-time than for any other group.
[1:00:52] I mean Daniel, I don't want to step on the idea that working is a good transition for inmates. I think in an ideal scenario, giving inmates skills and jobs and fair pay for their work or the value that they generate from that work is a great idea. But it's just that the way the system is implemented is so gross and with such messed up incentives. It it really tears away from whatever positive benefits we see from this. The fact that inmates are paid so little is horribly wrong, especially when they're charged so much for the commissaries. The way that phones and video calls are getting more and more expensive in order to drain whatever little amount of money they're able to generate in the first place. The way that a lot of inmates are coerced into this work, where they're forced to do it, I mean they they say that this is a voluntary thing - an inmate is not forced to work like this but for many the other option is, "Oh yeah you don't have to do this but you also can have solitary confinement. Or you will lose your yard privileges. Or ability to purchase things from the commissary." And there is no choice for a lot of them and they're forced into these very low paying exploitative labor, often times that run the prisons in the first place. And that's not a way to rehabilitate people. That's not a way to generate skills with somebody, that's a way to force people to profit for you. In a perfect world letting inmates work jobs and receive fair pay is a great solution. And I also want to qualify that with, we should not ever make inmates pay for their own incarceration because a lot of times this is something that comes up, they say, "Well you know we shouldn't pay inmates full price for their work because we're already paying to support them in the first place. We have to pay for their living, we have to pay for their food, you know it's a burden on society and they should...I mean they're repairing the damage that they already cost society with their time and they should also maybe monetarily pay us back for the cost that we are all sharing in order to support them." But that is so missing the point. Prison should be a burden on everyone including all of us in society. We should not want to put people in prison. We should not profit off of it. Every single person we lock up should cost all of us, it should hurt us collectively because that pressures all of us to come together societally and culturally and as a state to not try and incentivize people to commit crimes. To not introduce laws that lock people up for arbitrary reasons. Prison is a burden for those that we incarcerate, and it should be for all of us as well. And any scheme that involves prisoners repaying for their time that they've lost to the state is wrong. If they labor, they deserve the full fruits of their labor, the full profits of the products they create just like all workers do. And just because they happen to be behind bars while they're doing that labor doesn't mean they're entitled to anything less than the rest of us.
Disenfranchisement: Has The Debt Been Paid Or Not? [1:03:36]
And similarly this doesn't just end in the labor. A lot of these prisoners, they come out and they lost the right to vote. There are millions of Americans that have been disenfranchised because of, often times, arbitrarily enforced laws. And for many people in states where say, marijuana has been legalized, these people still cannot vote because they committed crimes that are now legal before that law was passed. And they lost so much of their life because of this. They cannot participate in the political process anymore because of a law that is gone. Because of something that they violated that is now legal and people are enjoying recreationally. The fact that we take the ability, the right from inmates; there's no reason to. If anything they should be more involved in our political process because they've seen the ugliest side of it, of how it can end. And they know most acutely the violence the state is capable of. And if anybody should be out representing us and working towards a better future, it should be the people who have had the darkest times in our present day. They've also lost many times the ability to gain scholarships, just like the pressure on gainful employment, it's much more difficult for formerly incarcerated individuals. It's very difficult to go back to school, to improve yourself, and educate yourself into a better person. To try and avoid that recidivism. And we take these scholarships, these rights away. And maybe some people would suggest if there are people who are more deserving of the scholarships because they haven't committed a crime...but prison is supposed to be about paying back what you've done, and when you get out of prison you're supposed to have repaid society because your sentence ends. We're supposed to view you with fresh eyes. You're somebody who paid back for the thing that you did that was wrong. But why do we keep taking stuff away from them at that point? It shows that collectively we don't believe this fairy tale. If we truly believe that serving your time in prison paid back your debt to society, then we would give people back all their rights that come with being a part of society, when instead we've created a caste system in this country where the people who have been through our prison systems live a second-tier life. With less access to work, no access to a political system, and many of the welfare systems designed to help people get ahead when they've been hurt denied to them because of crimes they're committed in the past and paid for.
[1:05:36] Like we mentioned at the beginning of this episode, it's about control. But David maybe we should take a step back for a moment, because this is Ashes Ashes, a show about systemic issues, cracks in civilization, collapse of the environment...
[1:05:51] ...We've got plenty of cracks here Daniel...
[1:05:53] ...and the end of the world. So how does this topic relate to the very premise of the show? Well, last week we touched on how inequality in society itself is a sign of unsustainable systems and that it's getting worse. In 1960, the wealth of the top 20% of the World by per capita income was 30 times greater than the bottom 20%. 35 years later, and that top 20% became 82 times richer than the bottom. The reason this is a problem is because the wealthy are becoming richer; not so much by providing some benefit, but by transferring wealth from others to their own pocketbooks and this is a destructive process. One example of how this destructive transfer of wealth can occur related to this topic, is the way that banks enrich themselves from police violence, by transferring money from local city budgets and by extension the communities in which police violence occurs. When the police murder someone, or frame someone, or countless other acts that come about from the need to provide bodies for this mass incarceration system; sometimes the police will get taken to court, and the court will award the victim a settlement in exchange for silence. So let's look at this for a second because, this is an incredible thing going on that few people are talking about.
The Action Center on Race and the Economy did a study that looked at settlement and judgment cost from police misconduct for just 12 cities and counties in the United States, and they found some really startling things. Between 2008 and 2017, these 12 municipalities took on over $830 million worth of debt in the form of bonds to pay for settlements and judgments related police activity. Now, that alone David should tell you how much police misconduct is going if just those cases that actually went to court and won resulted in over $830 million for just these 12 municipalities in the United States.
[1:07:50] $830 million is a lot of money Daniel, and some of these settlements, actually a lot of these settlements, are really very small. There was one very recently that was a big story in the news where this man was wrongfully murdered by police; they shot him through his garage door three or four times. It went to court, the police were found not liable for the murder, but they sued for damages and ultimately the jury awarded this man's widowed wife and his three kids $4. $1 for funeral expenses, and $1 for each child's quote, "loss of parental companionship, instruction, guidance, and mental pain and suffering." That's $1 to a 7 year old, 10 year old, and 13 year old, for a total of $4 paid out by the state.
[1:08:36] I have no response for that David. Let me take this further for you, because on top of this eight hundred million dollars worth of debt, these cities paid over 1 billion dollars in interest to banks and investors for a total of close to 1.9 billion dollars which local taxpayers paid. So just for clarity here, taxpayers paid over 800 million dollars for the crimes that police committed against them, and then on top of that they paid Wall Street and extra 1 billion dollars to help pay for those crimes. And so bringing this back to collapse and the overarching theme of Ashes Ashes; in episode 5, "End of the Road" we introduced the concept of the 'death cycle' cities can experience as costs start to rapidly outpace revenue, and how looming for natural disasters like the pension crisis that we cover in episode "Broken Promise" exacerbate this cycle. Well this police violence debt, it acts in the same way. A municipality in Connecticut paid close to 10 million dollars for a man who spent two decades in prison after being framed for murder by police. But in order to pay this fine, the city got the money by diverting funds they had borrowed to repair a bridge. Many municipalities have raised taxes specifically to cover the cost of police misconduct which can deter new citizens from bringing new revenue into the city.
[1:09:59] There's a city in Arizona that has been caught in one of these debt traps since 1983 related to an act of police violence. They currently redirect around 12% of their total general-fund budget to pay this annual debt service and have even considered elimintaing their fire department to pay it off. This might be a good time to point out that the profits that banks make from these fees and interest that they earn off the debt, causing cities to raise taxes cut jobs and even consider eliminating fire departments, that profit of course goes into our GDP which we've then used to justify having a healthy growing strong economy.
[1:10:35] There's an episode of Adam Johnson's podcast, "The appeal," episode number 11, where he talks about the way retailers such as Walmart Lobby for legislation to create harsher sentences for people who shoplift as well as some of the profit-making extortion rackets that they employ using private security to essentially blackmail people within their stores to pay up money or else face the police and some of the crazy things that go on. I highly recommend you listen to that. And so similar to this debt trap that police violence catches many cities across the nation, well when big retailers like Walmart lobby for legislation that provides us harsher sentencing, and when retailers like Walmart recommend their employees to apply for food stamps, all these are cost cutting initiatives that allow companies to capture additional profit. But when we remember David that nothing is actually profitable, it becomes clear that ultimately no costs are cut. They are just shifted to the community.The wealth of the community is transferred to big company pockets, leaving the people in that community with less money than they need to survive which incentivizes them to steal food and other essentials from those same retailers, which lands them in the hands of this criminal-legal system where judges impose $15,000 fines and long prison sentences for very minor theft (sometimes less than $50). And once members of this community are behind bars, even more wealth can be transferred from them through their forced labor, through the commissary, and by using the love that they have for their family against them by overcharging them for phone calls and emails. Who are the real criminals here? Who are the real thieves?
What Can We Do?
[1:12:21] So here we are once more at the end of an episode, and all we've done is lay down an overview of what is an incredibly corrupt industry across the United States. There's so much more depth that we need to explore here, and we will in future episodes but we've already gone long, there's so much to cover. So that brings us instead to the end of this episode and the question of what can we do as people outside of this system looking in to help? The timing of this episode was important to us, because we really wanted to highlight struggles that are going on right now as we see with the currently ongoing prison strike. Which, I mean it's slated to end in just a couple of days officially but these struggles will continue; in many of these prisons these strikes will continue.
[1:13:02] The retaliation for those prisoners who participated will continue long into the future.
[1:13:08] And we on the outside can continue to support these struggles; from people who have just frankly had too much and are ready for change. We can continue their work by letting people know about the abuses that occur in the system, by spreading their demands, by contacting our legislators, letting them know that even though we are not in these prison systems and we may not know people needs prison systems, that we still care about those were trapped inside. That we still believe they're humans deserving dignity and respect just like the rest of us. We can write to prisoners.
[1:13:38] We can donate to IWOC and you can find a link to their donation page on our website.
[1:13:43] There are a number of organizations that allow you to donate books or other goods to prisoners so they can avoid the cost of commissary costs. But most important - and it really bears repeating over and over again - is to make these struggles heard, to talk to your friends and family about this world that so many of us only view through the distorted perspective of media and of our favorite cop shows, whether it's on Netflix, or on prime-time television. These are real people involved in these systems and we need to make their voices heard. Because it only takes one accidental moment, or a shift in political wins before many of us find ourselves caught in these systems as well.
[1:14:19] And David, we can imagine a better world. But you see so much in these discussions about prison conditions and the systems of mass incarceration, the first response is, "Okay, I agree that what we have right now is a little brutal and perhaps goes over the line, but come on what are we going to do, just let murderers and rapists run free in our streets?" But it doesn't have to be that dramatic. We can imagine alternatives to the system right now. They wouldn't be hard to implement. One of the main reasons why it's so easy for guards and wardens to brutalize these people we send to prison is because they are out of sight, out of mind. And like you mentioned David about the importance for society to bear the costs of putting someone behind bars, we need to have these people closer to us so that we can see and that we can feel the effects of putting someone in a cage. If we as a society decide ultimately, that those who murder another human being deserve to be locked up for a time period, we can still do that without subjecting that person to a system that reduces them to a subhuman slave, that takes away their dignity, that strips them of any connection to family and community. We can provide them services, we can still remain connected to them through our community to show them that we don't agree with what they've done but that we haven't ostracized them from the world. Give them a reason to come back into our communities and participate. And for all these non-violent pointless crimes that we're sending people behind bars for, we can stop doing that. Mills Christie wrote at length on incarceration systems, and in 1996 he wrote, "As human beings we are interested in conflicts. It's the theme for great authors and for ordinary people. But people no longer participate in such conflicts. If we become victims, we leave it all up to professionals who are basically fed up. Conflict ought to be participated in by ordinary people, but we are just spectators of crime who now and again cry out for more severe punishment. But if we come close to the people in prison for punishment, we become more doubtful. We become more open to new ways of integrating that person into everyday life. It is very easy to create a monster of a stranger seen only through the media." And speaking of monsters that we only see through media, the over-representation of black people in prison helps cement in the public mind the association of Blackness with criminality, and then to drive that association even further, policymakers, public relations people, media and entertainment companies, they all use those to statistics to quote-unquote, "Prove that black people belong in a subordinate class in society." Or in prison. Or that they deserve that sterilization plea deal like we mentioned last week. Or whatever else we want to say to justify our oppression. We can put an end to these misrepresentations and by doing so, come closer to a better future where we all have a place in this world together.
[1:17:25] As always that's a lot to think about, but think about it we hope you will. You can learn more about all these topics, read all of our sources, as well as a full transcript of this episode on our website at ashesashes.org
[1:17:38] A lot of time and research goes into making these episodes possible, and we will never use advertising to support this show. So, if you like it and would like us to keep going, you our listener can support us by sharing this with a friend and giving us a review. Also we have an email address, it's email@example.com, and we encourage you to send us your thoughts: positive or negative. We read them and we appreciate them. Also a listener of the show made a really incredible mix of our sexy voices, put a couple tracks behind it and put it out there on the interwebs...
[1:18:14] God you're still fucking lame Daniel! 'Put a couple tracks behind it. Put it on the interwebs,' what the fuck year is it, seems like 1994.[laughing]
[1:18:22] Well David it sounds really good, I like it. I think everyone should listen to it, so we'll provide that on our website as well for people to check out, share with your friends, support it, support us.
[1:18:34] You can also find us on your favorite social media network @ashesashescast. We're going to close this episode out with something special: reading a list of the demands of the striking prisoners because we believe that they deserve to be heard.
[1:18:47] And underneath these sounds is music by the rapper Time, a listener of this show.
Break The State
[rap music starts playing]
[1:18:57] These are the demands of the striking prisoners across the country right now. Number one: immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.
[1:19:13] Number two: an immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.
[1:19:26] Number 3: the prison litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing in prison humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.
[1:19:38] Number four: the Truth in Sentencing Act and the sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to death by incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.
[1:19:55] Number 5: an immediate end to the racial overcharging, over sentencing, and parole denials of black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of a crime was white, which is a particular problem in Southern States.
[1:20:11] Number 6: an immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting black and brown humans.
[1:20:19] Number 7: no imprisoned humans shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.
[1:20:30] Number 8: state prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.
[1:20:37] Number 9: Pell Grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.
[1:20:44] Number 10: the voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pre-trial detainees, and so-called ex-felons must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count.
[1:20:58] And until next week, this is Ashes Ashes.