How businesses can help end the prison-industrial complex

Lenore Staats

Enslavement continues in the U.S. It’s called prison, and American businesses have historically been heavily invested in the prison system. The 13th Amendment, enacted at the close of the Civil War, didn’t exactly end slavery when it stated “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof […]

Enslavement continues in the U.S. It’s called prison, and American businesses have historically been heavily invested in the prison system.

The 13th Amendment, enacted at the close of the Civil War, didn’t exactly end slavery when it stated “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” This loophole made room for authorities to work around the abolition of slavery and gave birth to the American prison-industrial complex. Today, oppressive laws and policies continue to expand the reach and impact of that system rooted in enslavement and unjust, even torturous practices condemned by the Western world—from solitary confinement, withholding or delaying healthcare, and retaliatory practices from judges who increasing sentences for people who reject plea bargains to the outright murder of prisoners.

[Photo: Avril Morgan/iStock]

In America, Black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of white people, and one in four Black men will go to jail at some point in their lives. Today, we are at a tipping point. Rather than continue to contribute to a fundamentally dehumanizing system, Americans are calling to dismantle it, and that pressure needs to come from every side—in the streets, at our desks, and on the trading floor. We must divest permanently from every link in the supply chain and take responsibility for the role business interests play in society, because staying silent and doing nothing are not defensible options.

Business profits and prisons

A “prison-industrial complex” is not possible without the “industrial” part, which is made up of thousands of American businesses around the country, many of them publicly traded and household names, such as Sherwin-Williams, which sells the paint that covers prison walls and handily provides a design compliance guide for prison contractors; Aramark, which provides food, commissary items, and cleaning supplies to prisons and jails; and 3M, perhaps most well-known for manufacturing Post-its, which uses prison labor in its product cycle.

Incarcerated people also make everything from license plates to body armor to mattresses—and are often paid less than a dollar per day for their work, if they’re paid at all. This labor isn’t always voluntary; if an inmate does not work, they can face punishments such as solitary confinement. The prison-industrial complex may not be visible to the average consumer,  but it’s massive: Tens of billions are funneled into the private sector through vendor contracts with healthcare providers, food suppliers, commissary merchants, prison contractors, and countless others. These private corporations have fully monetized crime and punishment with the help of our government.

[Photo: Avril Morgan/iStock]

In moral terms, this structure is unconscionable, but it persists. It’s so entrenched that even prisoner-led protests and hunger strikes meant to call attention to this moral problem have, up until now, done little to bring about any change for the 2.3 million incarcerated individuals in the U.S.

As the Black Lives Matter protests continue, Americans are determined not just to call local police departments and governments to account, but American companies, too. Historically, businesses have not been interested in taking a permanent, effective stand against enslavement in the U.S., loath to let profits slip through their fingers. But now is not the time for weighing economic risk or parsing profit margins. It’s time for businesses across America to acknowledge their role in supporting mass incarceration and permanently divest from the prison system.

A path to divestment

The first step is to divest from any company that profits from the American prison system. Divestment means ending all financial relationships with companies that profit from or participate in the prison system. Not only should public pension funds and university endowments divest from any holdings in companies that sell products and services to the prison system, but investment vehicles such as mutual funds and exchange-traded funds, which are owned by millions of Americans, should also divest from those holdings. An April Worth Rises report, The Prison Industry: Mapping Private Sector Players, highlights more than 4,100 corporations that support prison labor directly or through their supply chains and calls for the immediate divestment from 180 large, publicly-traded companies that cause immense harm through their involvement in the prison system.

The second step is for companies and organizations using or profiting from prison labor to cease immediately. While there has been some slow divestment from using prison labor by well-known consumer companies such as Victoria’s Secret, Starbucks, and Whole Foods, many U.S.-based companies still support prison labor in America. Economically disenfranchising prison laborers by paying them nothing or less than a dollar a day for their work is just as morally reprehensible as the chain gangs of Jim Crow and the enslavement of Black people before the Emancipation Proclamation.

[Photo: Avril Morgan/iStock]

Finally, every publicly traded company in the U.S. should adopt an adapted set of the Global Sullivan Principles and be held accountable for their implementation. Developed in 1977 by General Motors board member and minister Reverend Leon Sullivan, these principles outlined codes of conduct that all companies operating in apartheid South Africa should follow, as a way to use economic pressure to protest that system of apartheid. They aimed “to support economic, social and political justice by companies where they do business [and] to support human rights and to encourage equal opportunity at all levels of employment, including racial and gender diversity on decision making committees and boards,” which directly conflicted with the institutionalized segregation of apartheid—and they worked to set a standard of corporate social responsibility. When Coca-Cola made the decision to withdraw from South Africa in 1986 and sell its assets to Black and white South Africans, the move was hailed as a major victory for racial equality, but by that point, it was a necessary business move. The unified front of students, activists, shareholders, and employees in the U.S. with activists in South Africa, and the ongoing civil disobedience and protests, helped make that withdrawal happen.

There is debate on the efficacy of corporate social responsibility pledges, as they are often toothless and used for public relations gains. But, as with apartheid South Africa, there’s some precedent for expecting these pledges to join human rights campaigns. If external accountability is required and institutionalized, such principles—that aim for businesses “to assist with greater tolerance and understanding among peoples; thereby, helping to improve the quality of life for communities, workers and children with dignity and equality”—can also be of inestimable value to justice work and ending the prison system in America.

In a recent poll, 69% of Americans say Black people and other minorities are denied equal treatment in the criminal justice system. If 30 years ago, American companies could begrudgingly agree to let go of a foreign economic interest because of public demands at home and abroad, they can take action now to permanently root out racism and slavery on their own soil.

In years to come, we will all have to look back on our actions in this moment and ask how serious we were about justice in America. For all of us—individuals and businesses alike—the answer will be apparent: The prison system will either be gone, or it will include more of us than ever.

Ashish Prashar is a justice reform campaigner, who sits on the Board of Exodus Transitional Community, Getting Out and Staying Out, Leap Confronting Conflict, and the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice.

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