Private Prisons: New Slavery in the United States

The country that considers itself the defender of human rights has the biggest prison population in the world, which it subjects to harassment and mistreatment.

The United States has the biggest prison population in the world, with around 2 million prisoners across the country.

Fifty percent of this population makes up the Division of Correctional Industries, which is known as Corcraft in New York, and houses 1,820 prisoners.* These prisoners receive between 16 cents and 65 cents an hour for their work, 95 times less than the federal minimum wage that federal salaried workers receive.

Corcraft has 13 prisons in the United States, and its main clients include other state agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Transportation, as well as New York University and the Department of Homeland Security. In 2019, Corcraft Corporation earned $53 million by selling various objects made by prisoners.

New Yorkers will surely have used or seen some of these items, such as chairs or desks in universities, barricades used by police, coffins for those who have died of COVID-19 and cable ties used to restrain protesters, among other things. These are all made by prisoners, who are not required to join these work programs, but might otherwise be subject to disciplinary action or become ineligible for parole or a reduced sentence if they decline.

Seventy-five percent of the prisoners are Black, Latino and Native American. As renowned civil rights activist Angela Davis has said, “How can we imagine a society in which race and class are not primary determinants of punishment? Or one in which punishment itself is no longer the central concern in the making of justice?”

African Americans are incarcerated eight times more often than white people in the U.S.

Orisanmi Burton, an assistant professor of anthropology at American University, told the news site Truthout that, “the primary purpose of prison labor programs like Corcraft is to save the state costs on prison operation and maintenance, so that the broader prison-industrial complex can continue to expand.”

The expansion of the prison-industrial complex occurs as a result of the suffering and mistreatment of the incarcerated. When it comes to health, the lack of suitable equipment means that prisoners work with highly dangerous materials. However, it is very difficult to submit a complaint in institutions like these, which not only revolve around power, but also abuse it. Despite laws like the Prison Reform Litigation Act, which seriously limit the ability of prisoners to submit a claim in a federal court, there are at least 13 public claims that have been filed against Corcraft for work-related injuries.

The pay for prison work is wholly insufficient, but for many inmates, it is the only way to buy food, toiletries or religious items. It is also a way for prisoners to save up and send something to their families, who also suffer from being apart from their parents or siblings. Some 2.7 million American children have a parent in prison. It is very difficult for these children to grow up without parents, and it is difficult for the adults who face legal problems. According to a report by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, one in every five families ends up in debt of approximately $13,000 due to court and lawyer fees.

The prison system would not have been able to grow this much if it were not for the support of private corporations, which have a huge economic interest in incarceration. Currently, 4,000 of these corporations have contracts with corrections departments for items such as prison construction and design, food, health services, money transfers, technology and more. But undoubtedly, the big winners are the banks, which lend money to the states for public corrections departments. New York owes $3.9 billion to Citibank, JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a professor at New York University and a specialist on this subject, says that private prisons are not the propellers of mass incarceration, but “parasites on the system.”

Slavery legally ended in 1865 when Abraham Lincoln declared all Black slaves to be free. However, minorities continue to be economic and political hostages. The first corrections industries were established in 1893 in New York, and since then, the main objective has been to use prisoners to reduce state costs. At the moment, 850,000 prisoners are victims of this system of labor exploitation in the U.S.

*Editor’s note: Corcraft is the “brand name” for the Division of Correctional Industries, an entity within the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

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