Rattling the Bars: Stopping Corporate Exploitation in Prisons (Pt. 1/2)
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: I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore.
Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. We’re going to look at who makes profits from the prison industrial complex, and I have with me today Bianca. Bianca is the director of Corrections Accountability Project. She combines her expertise in both criminal justice and financial services to combat the commercial exploitation of the criminal legal system. Bianca, thanks for joining me.
BIANCA TYLEK: Thank you so much for having me, Eddie.
EDDIE CONWAY: What inspired you to create this project? And tell us about the various things that you do.
BIANCA TYLEK: Sure. So the Corrections Accountability Project, our mission is to eliminate the influence of commercial interests on the criminal legal system and end the exploitation of all those that it touches. So I launched this organization roughly 17 months ago in June of 2017, and I launched it in response to what I saw as sort of a lack of intentional and systemic efforts to challenge the prison industrial complex in all of the both corporate, nonprofit, labor and government actors who seek to make revenue and profit off of mass incarceration and mass surveillance.
And I think that while there was a strong appreciation for just how influential the prison industrial complex had become in the industry and economy that had been built around human caging and control, there is a lack of sort of financial sophistication and business acumen among criminal justice advocates, and that’s in large part because it’s a field made up of lawyers. And as a lawyer, I can tell you that – not the most financially sophisticated crowd, social workers, directly impacted people and still others. And so, sort of noticing that and having a pretty unique skill set for this field, which is that I actually spent four years in the private sector on Wall Street, I really wanted to find a way to use the skills that I had developed to build up companies to actually dissolve them, particularly those that seek to exploit people in their misery and pain.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK. I see this project has identified over 3000 corporations across 12 sectors that profit from mass incarceration. Can you tell us about maybe the top five and the most egregious, and also tell us what twelve sectors are you referring to?
BIANCA TYLEK: So what we talk about, we talk about this 80 billion dollar industry, right? 80 plus, we should really say, because there is 80 billion that we know that the government is spending, but we also know families and support networks are spending more to support their loved ones who are incarcerated, and we estimate that on a conservative level around 3 or 4 billion. So there’s a massive industry, and it’s growing. And so, within that industry, there are multiple different sectors. As you noted, we outlined 12 in this report that we wrote back in April, The Prison Industrial Complex: Mapping Private Sector Players. Those sectors include things like food and commissary, health care, community corrections, telecom … let’s see what else … there’s case management, there’s prison labor and rehabilitative programs, as they like to be called, and there’s still financial services, building and construction, and I think I’ve still only named eight.
And so, through all those different sectors we know that there’s many, many different companies that are involved in this field. And so, if I was to give sort of a few examples of some of those companies, there’s your most egregious actors, the ones that we know really, really delve into this field heavily and make all of their revenue off of the criminal legal system. And so, those are companies like formerly CCA, currently Core Civic, or the GEO Group, which are your largest private prison operators in this country. They together make more than 4 billion dollars in revenue annually.
Then you have your major telecom companies like Securus and GTL that rein in roughly 600, 700 million dollars apiece annually in revenues. And these are companies that specifically provide telephones inside of prison facilities, they have now moved into providing tablets and money transfer service, and Securus also owns one of the largest electronic monitoring companies. So those in the telecom space we also know and have familiarity with are Keefe and Union Supply, Aramark, Sodexo, all major companies that operate in the food and commissary business. Obviously, Aramark and Sodexo also operate in other industries, but Keefe and Union Sully are almost exclusively commissary companies for prison environments. We estimate that Keefe makes about a billion dollars in revenue a year.
So these are sort of your biggest, most problematic correctional only companies. You also have, let’s say, Corizon or Correct Care Solutions, which was actually just acquired in the health care space, NaphCare. These are all companies that specifically specialize in correctional health care. But there’s also ones that are sometimes really surprising, companies that maybe aren’t really, really, really big names associated with the prison industry, but are big names in other senses, and I think their overlap is important to note. So the ones that I like to sort of lift up, and I think always hit home, is take a Stanley Black and Decker, for example. Stanley Black and Decker is a company that many listeners may be familiar with. They have the hammers, screwdrivers, you might have one of these in your home. They also have an entire division of their business that’s dedicated to detention hardware. It has its own website, it has its own salespeople, its own marketing force really dedicated to selling things like doors for solitary cells and things to that extent. So I think understanding how many, maybe, products in your own home come from companies that are also profiting in this field.
Western Union is maybe another one. We are all familiar with Western Union in sort of the free world, if you want to call it that. And they’re probably exploitative to everyone at all times, but particularly so in the present environment. They do manage money transfers in many states, in some states charging as much as 9 or 10 dollars for somebody to make a 10 dollar deposit or money transfer, so what is 100 percent fee. And we’ve actually seen that in counties in Texas, in county jails. Another one might be CenturyLink. CenturyLink is a larger telecom company, they have cell phone service and other types of telecom service for us on the outside. They’re more dominant down in the South around Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, but they also do telecom within prisons, and they tend not to be the outward facing company, they usually partner with an explicit telephone or prison telecom company like a Securus, but they’re the back infrastructure. And so, they have the contract and use another company to sort of interface with the public so that their identity remains sort of hidden in this market. But they’re another big player.
So there’s certainly a lot of companies that are major players in this space where this is their unique and only space, and then there are companies that we all utilize maybe on the daily and don’t recognize that a portion of their revenues comes from people who are incarcerated and their support networks.