The US Prison System and Why You Should Care

There are many prevalent issues within American society: socioeconomic struggles, immigration, healthcare, religious freedom, education and hundreds of others. But perhaps the single most pressing concern that contradicts our ideals in every possible way is our prison system. The US takes pride in its promise of freedom and justice; however, the fact is that we have 5% of the world’s population, and yet we bear 25% of the world’s prison population.  

I often wondered why this was true: how a fully developed nation with power and influence all across the globe has come to oppress its own people with a “war on drugs” that essentially shifted into a war on black and brown communities, and a spike in incarcerations. I wondered why the prison system continued to burn away at our society, and what forces were lighting the fumes. Now, this undoubtedly feels like a broad topic, one that does not directly impact a small city in Montgomery County. But this issue is much closer to home then any of us wish to believe. 

Every state has its own prison population, its own courts, its own prosecutors and police officers, and here in Maryland it’s no different. However, the national average of Black prisoners within a single state is 32%, while ours is more than 70%, meaning that there are more people of color living within our prisons than there are in any other state. 

Montgomery County prides itself on its diversity. We as a school pride ourselves on our diversity, but if a single member of our student body may become a victim of these corrupt systems that benefit the wealthy and oppress the people, then this topic is worth addressing.

Now, more often than not, when we are faced with massive machines like the Prison-Industrial Complex, we find ourselves struggling to dissect them, to see where they began, how they developed, why they’re still thriving today and what we can do to reshape them. We wonder how these practices affect our society, how they affect us and what we do to perpetuate these systems. 

First, allow me to define the mouthful of a term that this issue circulates around: the Prison-Industrial Complex. It’s the relationship between our jails and all the companies that profit from providing goods to government prison agencies. This is where the issue begins. The moment people began benefiting from others being locked up is when this system truly took root.

You have multi-million dollar corporations who are making thousands of dollars every single day solely because people are behind bars. The larger the prison population, the greater their profit. The more people incarcerated, the more supplies are needed to keep these jails stocked up with cheap essentials meant for daily life. Clothing, meals, toothpaste, toilet paper and every other personal care item needed is provided by these businesses. It’s why they seek political influence, why they consistently lobby to allow this system to remain in place, why they are unopposed to mass incarceration and why they want people living in jail cells. It always comes back to such a fundamental purpose that has been woven into the core of every corporate leader: making money. Nonetheless, these companies are making it in the worst way possible: off the backs of Americans who are serving their time and hoping to get out by the end of it. 

Unfortunately, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. This issue gets a thousand times worse once you delve deeper into this industrial complex. One of the main aspects that stood out to me and a topic I want to specifically highlight is prison labor.

As its name suggests, it is work done by inmates for none other than million dollar corporations. Have you ever been to McDonalds? Starbucks? Walmart? These are just a few of the many companies that benefit from prison labor. McDonalds relies on inmates to pack frozen foods and process beef for their patties, Starbucks leans on them to package coffee, Walmart for manufacturing purposes and so many more for other reasons. Perhaps this would seem like a decent way to earn money while serving time if it weren’t for the fact that average prisoners make between 33 cents to $1.41 per hour. Mind you, the federal minimum wage is $7.25, not to mention that state and local laws are often higher than this federal minimum. 

So, not only are businesses that stock prisons making money off people being incarcerated, but more than a dozen other businesses are profiting from people’s work within those walls, since apparently being a prisoner in the United States strips you of any entitlement you might’ve had to a decent wage.

Again, private prison companies, suppliers, and prison labor are just the tip of the iceberg. But it is these companies that play such a foundational role in shaping our prison system. Their lobbying has led to lax laws and inaction, their money-making is what has stunted the growth and futures of US inmates. They have made these profits socially acceptable, and, to a degree, have simply normalized making money off of prisoners. What was meant to be justice has been bought and moulded into something frightening and self-serving at their hands. 

Furthermore, the only way to truly reshape these structures is by studying the system and its effects on our society.

Of course, I will warn you that in my personal experience, it starts with an attempt to understand the US prison system, and then my focus was directed to corporations, and then mass incarceration, and the war on drugs, and over-policing, and the entire criminal justice system and everything it entails. And when all that research was complete, I was overwhelmed with a sense of disillusionment. So, what’s the solution to all this? Where do we even begin? How do we subvert a system that bloomed in an entirely different era and yet still bleeds into our own? 

My current answer: taxpayer dollars. 

Taxpayer money is spent in various ways, and it is not always allocated correctly. More often than not, a single institution is given more funds than it truly needs. To an extent, this money is being misspent. For example, the estimated US military spending is $934 billion dollars. It’s as if America has spent so much time guarding its house that it doesn’t realize it’s collapsing behind them due to internal conflicts and crippling systems. Or take the $114 billion dollars we spend on our police force. It’s far more than what is necessary, but it is given to them regardless. I am in no way saying that these institutions deserve to be stripped of all their funds; however, how much is too much? This money does not all need to be funneled in pre-set directions. Those billions of dollars could go to prisons. To create safer environments for the incarcerated, and completely erase the grip large corporations have on our prison population.

All in all, my point is that we must separate prisons and corporations. No one should be benefiting from another humans work behind bars. Personal gain should play no role in the sway of our prison systems, because the longer this goes on, the worse it will get. If all prisons are funded by taxpayer dollars, then there would be no need for any external assistance in keeping them running and there will be no corporation, or specific person who will be gaining anything.
I understand that in a capitalist country like the United States everything can become business. Be that as it may, there are things that shouldn’t be profited from: the prison system and its many victims are one of them.