Eddie Conway talks with Bianca Tylek, founder of the Corrections Accountability Corporation about thousands of corporations funding private prisons and immigration detention centers and what citizens can do about it
EDDIE CONWAY: Why should the community care that they are funding private prisons, and detention centers, and the prison-industrial complex in general, when they are concerned about their welfare and their safety? Why should they care about this?
BIANCA TYLEK: Sure. So I have a few thoughts and a few, sort of, responses. I think the first thing is to say it’s a complete misconception, a misleading narrative, that has been perpetuated by the industry that mass incarceration exists to protect our public safety. That is not, in fact, the case. Mass incarceration has continued to increase despite decreases in crime, despite other markers and indicators that we are actually in a much safer society. And we nevertheless continue to incarcerate. We are 22 percent of the world’s population in the US, and we are–excuse me. We are 4 percent of the world’s population in the US, but we have 22 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. This is the way we use the carceral system, prisons and jails, not to address public safety, but to disappear people and hide social issues that include things related to racism, things related to inequality, to mental health, our inability to deal with mental health concerns, substance abuse, the LGBTQ community. All of these communities that are disenfranchised and vulnerable and marginalized by our population we have used the criminal legal system to address. And so it’s a complete, as I said, misleading narrative to suggest that mass incarceration exists to deal with public safety.
So what does that mean for the private industry?What that means is this is a narrative that’s been very useful for them in order to have people feel fearful about others, about the notion of crime, overblowing the notion of crime. Also, they have in many ways shaped what we even view as crime, right? Right now we know that there is a trend nationally around marijuana legalization, right, and hopefully we get there. But the pace with which we’ve been moving has been largely slowed by the lobbies that are pushing against marijuana legalization. The largest lobbies, three largest corporate lobbies against marijuana legalization, are alcohol, a competitor to marijuana; pharmaceutical industry, also a competitor to marijuana, specifically medical marijuana; and private prisons, those that benefit most from the criminalization of marijuana.
And so the notion that marijuana continues to be illegal in certain spaces, and in certain districts and states, certain counties is largely shaped by corporate interests. So when we think about what is public safety and public safety is some kind of response to what is crime. That in and of itself has been shaped by corporate interest.
EDDIE CONWAY: What do you mean when you say that the project centers on returning resources directly to the community, directly to impact the communities? In what way does that happen?
BIANCA TYLEK: Sure. So, we work–I think what you’re referring to is that, you know, one of the things we say is that we work to protect and return resources to directly impacted communities. And so what does that mean? I’ll give you sort of an example. In our most recent work we helped lead a coalition this summer of roughly a dozen organizations that helped force legislation and got the City Council in New York City to pass legislation that made New York City the first and only jurisdiction in the country where phone calls out of city jails would be free. And so with this, you know, I hate saying ‘first,’ because the reality is is that up until, you know, roughly 20, 30, 40 years ago phone calls were actually free everywhere. And then as the private industry started to come in, those costs started to be shifted to the people who were in the system, as well as their support networks. But now with this new legislation in New York City, New York City becomes the first city to go back to providing free phone calls for everyone in its city jails. And that’s roughly 9000 people. And so on a conservative estimate that bill will save directly impacted communities roughly $10 million a year as soon as it is enacted. And so it goes into effect in May of 2019, roughly.
EDDIE CONWAY: Can you talk about the Capitalizing on Justice project that y’all ran?
BIANCA TYLEK: Sure. Capitalizing on Justice is an art exhibition that we opened in October. This exhibition we have been working on for roughly six or seven months. It features largely the works of currently incarcerated artists. I think very often in criminal justice work, you know, we talk about what it means to engage the directly impacted community. And I think, you know, really amazing organizations do a fantastic job of engaging support networks of people who are incarcerated as well as formerly incarcerated people. But sometimes we forget about those who are actually currently incarcerated as having power to be part of this conversation and be part of the movement, as well.
And so what we did was we we recruited in many, many different forms. Cold mailing, putting ads in different spaces, talking to local organizers from across the country that responds to the mission that we have as an organization, which is to decommercialize the system, and really looked for artists, incarcerated artists across the country, to tell us, what does that idea of capitalizing on justice and their own commodification mean to them? What does it look like to them? To convey the largest issues around this problem through their art. And so we were able to get 75 pieces from as far as–because we’re based in New York–as far as San Quentin in California; as deep as death row in Arkansas up to Indiana, to Colorado. We have a piece from you know the highest security facility in the country, from ADX in Colorado, ADX Florence. And of those 75 pieces, we selected using a curatorial committee made up of some formerly incarcerated artists, as well as really prominent curators, gallerists that are dedicated to social justice in New York, and selected roughly 30-32 of the pieces to be showcased. And what was really important to us during that process is that for all of the pieces that would be showcased and all the pieces that came to us, we also paid all of the artists.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK. Well, this is the follow up question. What can people do to help the project, the Accountability Project in general? And just in general, challenge the corporations that’s making money? What can the public do?
BIANCA TYLEK: Sure, thank you for that question. So I think there’s a number of things. First, I think we’re really excited to be seeing that there’s a lot more coverage of this issue. One of the things we embarked on when we first launched and started doing this work is ensuring that the prison-industrial complex is actually covered by media, covered in conversations around criminal justice. Which I think have often been overseen just because it seemed like such a daunting task to take on. And so I think first and foremost is really just public education is so necessary. That, you know, if you’re a person for whom this really resonates and you want to be part of the movement, then you know, help us by just sharing the information, educating your peers. And you can do that by sharing articles that you see. We, in particular, if you follow us on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, our handle on all three is CorrectionsPROJ. And on all of those avenues and all those mediums we share articles that are written every single day in different outlets on the issue of the prison-industrial complex. And so sharing that with your networks, I think, first and foremost, and making sure that it’s part of the public narrative is important.
EDDIE CONWAY: Thank you for joining me.
BIANCA TYLEK: Thank you for having me, Eddie. It was great, and we really appreciate the support, and are here to hopefully help end the exploitation of people in the system and and help the movement towards liberation.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK. And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.