In the winter of 2014, I was charged with seven counts of armed robbery. I faced 35 years in prison. The truth was, I knew I’d done wrong—even if it was out of desperation—and felt I deserved to be punished. When I took a plea-bargain for twelve years, however, and was sent to prison, I encountered exploitation, not punishment, and certainly not rehabilitation. With good time, I will be 37 when I get out. The thought of everybody forgetting I existed terrified me. Letters were hardly enough to maintain relationships, so I made every effort to stay relevant in the lives of my loved ones via telephone and e-messaging. Though prisoners in Washington aren’t permitted internet access, JPay, a private tech company, offers an email-like service, utilized from rudimentary electronic tablets, which are purchased at marked-up prices by prisoners. In Washington, e-messages cost roughly 30-cents for 6,000 characters, including spaces. In 2014 alone, JPay made 70.4 million dollars off incarceration (Think Progress).
Phone communication is worse. Local calls cost about 10 cents per minute to call. This quickly adds up for those of us trying to maintain a marriage or parent a child. In one year, the telecommunication company, Securus, made $114.6 million dollars from its contracts with prisons and jails (Prison Policy). The Washington Department of Corrections makes $3.8M a year in kickbacks from phone calls alone (Prison Phone Justice).
We know that incarcerated people able to maintain contact with family outside are less likely to return to prison after their release. But while the prison system makes it hard to maintain these contacts, it is quick to exploit incarcerated people for their money and labor (Prison Legal News).
I learned in school that long before I came into the world, slavery was abolished in the United States. But the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude — except as punishment for a crime (EJI). This is particularly unsettling when you consider that Black and Brown people are disproportionately incarcerated in the U.S. Comprising about a quarter of the U.S. population, Black and Brown people are approximately 42 percent of those incarcerated in federal prison (BOP).
Enabled to offer slave wages, most prison jobs in Washington pay around 70-cents-per-hour before the Department of Corrections takes its cut for fees such as “Cost of Incarceration,” so the burden of paying for communication tends to fall on the prisoner’s loved ones (Prison Policy Institute). Companies such as Correctional Industries and Union Supply Direct also set up sweatshops in carceral facilities, and pay workers slightly more as an incentive to package products on their assembly lines. Clothing, bags, and packaged food for sale in the U.S. are all made in prisons (CAL).
I was one of the people moved out of a prison because of impending closures. In the Washington State Reformatory (WSR), I had developed a routine that allowed me to focus on a writing career I’ve built during my incarceration, and communicate regularly with my wife in London. When I arrived here at the Minimum Security Unit at Monroe Correctional Complex, I was told that I would be forced onto a Community Work Crew in which I would maintain Monroe city parks for about a dollar an hour. By the time I got off work, my wife would be asleep. I told my caseworker that I could no longer write or communicate with my wife because of this forced labor. She responded, “You should have thought of that before you came to prison.”
Fortunately, I avoided the work crew and was able to continue my work advocating for the abolition of today’s legal slavery. One organization, the Prison Abolition Initiative, took notice and invited me to participate in an upcoming film series, titled Collapsing the House. It will expose the inhumanity of mass incarceration through intimate portraiture pieces of artists and activists behind bars.
Many of my neighbors weren’t so lucky. Day after day, they leave the prison to labor in the sun, snow, and rain, while they should be earning degrees, learning job skills that will carry them through life once released, or participating in rehabilitation. Interpersonal harm needs to be addressed. But when 68 percent of all people released from prison end up returning (Prison Legal News), and profiteers continue to get rich off their confinement, can we really say that addressing crime is what our carceral system is doing?
Michael J Moore’s books include the Bram Stoker Preliminary Ballot “Highway Twenty“, the bestselling post-apocalyptic novel, “After the Change“, the psychological thriller, “Secret Harbor” and the middle-grade series, “Nightmares in Aston“. He is an Active Member of the Horror Writers’ Association with two films in production. His book “Cinema 7” is due for release this year with HellBound Books. Follow him on Twitter @michaeljmoore20.
Private companies make hundreds of millions of dollars each year off of incarcerated people.
These profits come at the expense of incarcerated people being able to maintain contact with their communities.
A system that exploits instead of rehabilitates incarcerated people is one reason that 68% will eventually return to prison.