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TRNN Top Stories of 2015: Eddie Conway and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges discuss the forms of slavery and exploitation thriving in today’s U.S. prison system

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EDDIE CONWAY, FMR. BLACK PANTHER, BALTIMORE CHAPTER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway from Baltimore.

Today in the studio with me I have a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. Please join me in welcoming Chris Hedges.


CONWAY: Okay. I have been talking to you earlier about the business of the prison-industrial complex and how it’s impacting the lives of prisoners and their families. And you shared that you had some experience. Can you share a little bit of that with me now?

HEDGES: Yeah. Well, I’ve been teaching in prisons in New Jersey for a long time, almost ten years. And what I’ve watched over the last decade–and it’s probably something you saw when you were incarcerated–is how they increasingly prey on the prisoners and their families to make money. And that occurs by turning commissaries over to private corporations. And because it’s a captive market, they can charge anything they want. So, for instance, we got commissary prices from 1996. We compared them with prices today. And we’re talking about basic staples–toothpaste. We were talking earlier about noodles. What people don’t know is most prisoners live on those noodles that they have to heat up. Price increases as high as over 100 percent, almost everything at least over 50 percent, and yet what they earned has remained the same. So the minimum wage–I’m talking for eight hours of work. And in many of these prisons we have for-profit corporations exploiting prison labor, the neo-slavery under the 13th Amendment, which permits prisoners to work for far below reasonable wages. So their minimum wage is $1.30 for eight hours of work, which is roughly $28 a month. But their commissary prices–and we’re talking about things that they need–deodorant, toothpaste–have risen by over 100 percent.

The other way that they exploit the people under the system of mass incarceration is turning phones over to private corporations. So in New Jersey it’s $0.15 a minute, plus the premium that you have to pay in order to put the money on your account, the surcharge tax that the state puts on all commissary items of 10 percent. So if you have a $0.05 comb–this is an actual example–it costs you $0.06. And then the removal of items that people who, when they were incarcerated, used to get–jackets, blankets–they used to give you two blankets; now they give you one. They don’t give you thermals anymore; you have to buy them from the commissary. And, most importantly, shoes.

CONWAY: Well, I’m just–you know, because I personally have experienced that myself in terms of seeing young guys in the population that are just arriving in the last two, three years no longer get the things that we used to get when we came in the prison. So I see guys walking around in the dead of the winter without coats and without, actually, boots. They’re running around in summer tennis shoes and stuff. Why? What’s this cutback? I thought that the prison-industrial complex was making a lot of money. Why is this happening?

HEDGES: Well, because it forces those who are incarcerated to go to the commissary and buy the item. So let’s talk about shoes. And I don’t know what your experience was, but this is how it is in New Jersey. You’re not issued shoes anymore. You have to buy them. You pay $45. Now, remember, these people are making $28 a month. And we haven’t even spoken about the fines. So a lot of those people get into the system and they owe thousands of dollars of fines, which are chipped out of their monthly salary. So, for instance, one of the students that I teach, who was incarcerated when he was 14–he’s now 39–still owes $6,000 of fines. So if they want to buy a pair of Reeboks, it costs–if they don’t have the $45–and most people don’t get–80-plus percent do not get money from the outside on a monthly basis. They may get over the holidays or something, but they’re kind of on their own. If they can’t afford the $45 Reeboks or the boots, they sell these sneakers with cardboard soles. It’s like something out of Dickens that as soon as you got out into the yard, they’re shredded. Because many of these prisons are quite old, they need the thermals.

And then we haven’t even spoken about bereavement, so that if you want to visit with a dying member of your immediate family, a mother or father or whatever, you can do so for 15 minutes, either a deathbed visit or you can go for viewing, but you have to pay for the guards to accompany you, which is $800. And that immediately–. So what I have seen over the last few years–.

CONWAY: Woah. Woah. Let me just [incompr.] this. That’s happening in New Jersey. In Maryland, they don’t even allow you to do that anymore. They actually cut that out completely.

HEDGES: You mean the bereavement visits?

CONWAY: Yeah, the bereavement visits. And that’s very harmful to the prisoner, because you don’t get a chance to kind of, like, make your peace with that person that you love who’s departed. So you end up suffering that loss and no way of figuring out how to grieve, right? But go ahead. I’m just curious.

HEDGES: Well, it’s just all the ways they have found mechanisms to economically exploit prisoners and their families. It used to be that you could send up to 50 pounds, I think it was, a year of goods like sneakers and stuff, which they’ve now abolished. And that, of course, makes it harder, because now the prisoner has to buy the items from this kind of in-house Walmart. And it also hurts the families, who are unable to feel, in a way, that they can care for their sons or their daughters or their husbands or wives or whatever.

But what I find most disturbing is there seems to be every year some new mechanism to squeeze more money out of the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. And I think that probably is something you saw within the system as well.

CONWAY: Yeah. Well, I mean, one of the things that they turned–the state, the state of Maryland, actually was responsible for supplying all the items in the commissary. So toothpaste, deodorant, food, something to drink, that kind of stuff, they turned all of that commercial stuff over to a company that–it’s out of Ohio, I believe, called Keefe. And that company operates commissaries in several states, including Florida. And they were up, in fact, for a class-action suit because of the way they changed the prices.

And one example is the envelopes. We used to get a pack of 50 envelopes for $0.99. They would come in a box. If you want to write, you would buy a box of envelopes, and it would last you for 50 letters. What Keefe took over, you could only get single envelopes, and they cost $0.10 apiece, so that the price of that 50 envelopes turned into $5 just automatically and you did not have a choice. You either buy from them or you didn’t send out any mail. And they did that time and time again with the basic foodstuff that they knew we needed to eat. They upped the price 200, 300 percent. You know. So yeah, that, and the state of Maryland in turn gets a fee for that.

HEDGES: Right.

CONWAY: You know. So just like they get a fee from the phone company that, as you were saying, exploits the families and the prisoners because if a prisoner calls home and the person accepts the phone call, it’s extra money for accepting that phone call above and beyond what it would be if it was [incompr.]

HEDGES: Well, and they have to put money on the account, and they have to pay a fee. So if you’re putting–I can’t remember the exact figure, but if you’re putting $10 on the account, you’re paying $3 or $4 just for the privilege of putting the $10 on.

And then we get the whole issue of privatizing the way money is sent into the prison. So it used to be that you could send a money order or something in and you could put it on a prisoner’s account. Now it is all done through a company in Florida, where, again, if you want to put $20 on the account, you’re charged quite a draconian fee. And, again, I don’t have figures right in front of me, but again, I think it’s up to $5. And that $5 evaporates, at least from your pocket, into the pocket of the for-profit company that’s handling this. So this has been a kind of momentum that we’ve seen internally within the prison system. I think it reflects the kind of predatory nature of unregulated capitalism throughout the society, because those corporations, which are in essence kind of squeezing all of us, will squeeze the defenseless. And that’s what prisoners are, in essence, a captive society. They will squeeze the defenseless in ways that are just inhuman, because they can.

CONWAY: And let’s look at it from the other side, because while I was in the prison system, they made chairs, they made clothes, they trained dogs. There’s all kinds of industries or, obviously, the license tags. There’s–.

HEDGES: Military industries. Kevlar.

CONWAY: Yeah. Yeah. So while they’re squeezing the prisoners and fleecing the population for whatever pennies they can get, aren’t they making a tremendous amount of money by using that slave labor to produce stuff? I mean, what’s–.

HEDGES: It’s neo-slavery, which under the 13th Amendment is legal. You can force people under the 13th Amendment to work without adequate wages as part of your punishment, in essence. And so we have seen, along with this exploitation, a growth of for-profit industries, private companies that are going in there and exploiting the prison labor. So, on the one hand, they’re using the prison labor to make profit, and on the other hand they’re taking that underpaid–you know, I mean, we can’t even call it underpaid when you’re making $1.30 for an eight-hour day. They’re taking that. And they’re taking what little money they have. And that’s not a new phenomenon for African Americans. It replicates precisely what sharecroppers went through, where they had to borrow to buy the seed and often the farm implements and pay the rent. And by the end, especially if the crop didn’t do well, they can work a whole season and end up in debt. So now you’re seeing people released from the prison system and they owe money to the state. And if they can’t pay that money, they get picked up again.

CONWAY: Yeah. You know. And there’s something–even as you were talking, there was another aspect that I was thinking of. Early on, several decades ago, I can clearly remember that there was this huge campaign to stop prisons from being built in certain neighborhoods, in certain counties, and there was a desperation. The population was exploding in the prison system, and the state needed places in which to build prisons, and they went to different counties and whatnot, and they could not get authorization to build prisons. And so at some point they start de-industrializing America and jobs disappeared, not only just out of the black community, but jobs disappeared out of the rural communities. And then, all of a sudden, in all of these counties, there were requests like put a prison here. And when you talk about that economic slavery thing, just remind me of Hagerstown and it reminds me of Cumberland. And in Cumberland, Maryland, there’s a massive prison complex up there now, and it’s the source of jobs and economics in that region. And inside those prisons is population from the urban centers, a black–the population is mainly black, the guard forces mainly white, and it’s an economic arrangement similar to slavery that you were saying.

HEDGES: Right. Of course. Well, the students that I teach often refer to prison as being a plantation, having the dynamics of a plantation, including which is something writers like Richard Wright, Baldwin, and others talk about, understanding the demeanor by which you can comport yourself in front of the guards who are all-powerful. And when you get up to these communities–and Mumia Abu-Jamal is up in Frackville, Pennsylvania. And when you go into the prison, you will see on the list of the corrections officers who work in the prison three, four, maybe up to eight of the last names, because their brother’s in there, their cousin’s in there, maybe even their spouse is in there.

CONWAY: Their sons.

HEDGES: Their son’s in there. It’s–.

CONWAY: And daughters.

HEDGES: And daughters. It’s the only business going. And I think what’s so heartbreaking–I’ve driven up and see Mumia a couple of times–is those buses that leave at about midnight or one in the morning from places like Newark or wherever or Philly, you know, bringing the families and bringing the kids. And we haven’t even spoken about how visitors are treated.

CONWAY: Well, let’s do that. We’ll do that. We’re going to come back for another segment and we’re going to talk about the treatment of family members and so on and other things. So thank you for joining me.

HEDGES: Thank you, Eddie.

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


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Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.

Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.