Incarceration is not a distant threat but a fact of life for most working class and minority Americans. An unprecedented portion of our society, 3.2% of Americans, nearly 10,000,000 are either currently behind bars or on parole—the highest incarceration rate in the world. This system is at its core unconstitutional and discriminative, creating an entire culture centered on punitive solutions and imprisonment of the poor. It utilizes public revenue to generate profit for a handful of private corporations.
A critical racist and reactionary force, the American prison system was designed to continue the economic and physical oppression of certain sectors of our society. According to Helia Rasti from the prison abolitionist group Critical Resistance (criticalresistance.org), “When you see who’s locked up… Number one are indigenous people, then after that you have African-Americans, then people from Mexico, Central and South America.”
Rasti and thousands of supporters are fighting to “[end] society’s reliance on prisons and policing as a solution to social and economic problems.” We must join the struggle, not only to reform the treatment of prisoners but also to dismantle the entire exploitative prison system itself!
More than Nickel-and-Diming
They only have to suspect you to incarcerate you. Through the pretrial system, even innocent people can find themselves oppressed by the expansive prison industrial complex, put in debt or behind bars. When suspects are arrested they have few options to guarantee a fair trial—they must either pay bail or wait behind bars for their court date.
Bail can range anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000, placing freedom well out of the hands of most working class Americans. If the suspect cannot pay the full amount, they are funneled into the bail bonds industry by corrections and court staff. In this system, the suspect (or suspect’s family) gives a non-refundable 10%-15% of the bail to a bondsman who (supposedly) posts the rest, freeing the suspect and ensuring that s/he reappears in court on the appointed date.
An example: the typical bail for resisting arrest in California is $15,000. This means that if an activist is arrested, s/he must pay out $1,500 to a bail bondsman in order to be released before and during their trial, whether or not they are eventually found innocent. $15,000 is an absurd amount and most people engaged in the worker’s struggle cannot easily furnish $1,500. Some bonds agencies even offer student discounts and other buying incentives while putting the people directly into commercial debt.
For most suspects, pretrial release is the only way that they can work to pay for their family or their legal obligations, as well as build a compelling case. Those who sit in jail prior to their court date are more likely to be convicted due insufficient resources and restricted freedoms as well as face foreclosure, job loss, etc. There is no clearer violation of the 6th Amendment, which guarantees a speedy trial, and the 8th Amendment, which prohibits excessive bail. According to Rasti, “pretrial incarceration is just another way to bring more public money into the prison industrial complex.”
There are currently over 500,000 people awaiting in dismally overcrowded jails, which costs taxpayers $6 million annually according to NPR. Defendants are subjected to this exploitative pretrial system whether they’re eventually found innocent or guilty. We are essentially paying for the system that retards our own social progress. Rasti put it this way: “That you can spend a few days in jail for not paying a 30 dollar parking ticket shows how close this system is to all of us.”
As an extension of the prison industrial complex, the major bail companies alone make billions every year off of increased arrest rates. Every other country in the world has made commercial bail bonds illegal (with the exception of the US-supported judiciary in the Philippines) and instead provide alternatives to securely release defendants. The crimes committed by the prison industrial complex, specifically the bail bonds industry, are manifold.
In theory, bondsmen are supposed to pay the full bond if the suspect jumps bail, or re-arrest the suspect using bounty hunters (private citizens who use often employ violent means). According to NPR, though, most bail jumpers are apprehended by local law enforcement. If a suspect remains fugitive, most bond firms only end up paying 5% of the forfeiture to the court, meaning that they remain a profit in either case at public expense: bondsmen owe California courts over $150 million.
But because the prison system is so expansive and largely privatized in the United State, bondsmen still thrive like vultures in this climate of institutional discrimination against those engaged in social struggle. Despite that, Kentucky, Illinois, Oregon, and Wisconsin have outlawed the commercial bail bonds industry all together. All other states must follow suit and fight the externalized impact of incarceration.
The threat of the corrupt bail bonds industry looms over the multitude. In the words of one of the most infamous names in the business Lipstick Bail Bonds, “Remember, you don’t have to be a criminal to be arrested, so keep our number handy at all times.” For an intimate look at bail bondsmen and bounty hunters in action, there are countless videos available on YouTube.
Slavery in 21st Century America
The first commercial bonds were issued over a hundred years ago by Pete and Tom McDonough in San Francisco. It should be noted that this founding pair was in and out of jail their entire career for charges related to bribery, corruption of law enforcement, and other crimes. From its shaky inception to today’s glamorized fugitive bounty hunters on reality TV shows, profits in the bonds are and have been made by any means necessary.
Bails bonds and corrections corporations continue to donate millions of dollars to push through legislature and fund right-wing candidates (according to opensecrets.org). Big prison corporations, like the Corrections Corporation of America, are actively lobbying to extend the privatization of the prison system and end non-financial pretrial release.
By doing so, the prison industry ensures that the “law” puts more people away for longer, thus securing a consistent labor base for their corporally enforced capitalist exploitation scheme. As corrections is increasingly privatized, the incarceration rate skyrockets. Inmates and detained suspects usually do not make financial political contributions. We are seeing the criminalization of the poor.
Under the guise of increasing institutional efficacy, the corrections industry and its subsidiaries have been crippling communities and bankrupting individuals by extending its punitive practices on the public dime. Rasti points out the damage of prison privatization: “When human services are privatized we get poorer quality and less accountability… We’re talking about people’s lives.”
Critical Resistance and the Party for Socialism and Liberation are actively fighting to abolish the destructive and rampant prison industry in America and abroad,.“We need to revise the way we address harm in our society.” Many legislators believe that we need more prisons, but the people and not capitalist forces must address the problem of crime at the root of our society.
Rasti fervently advocates decarceration. “Spend the funds creating jobs for people. There is a very real need to build infrastructure that benefits society. Prison is an anti-infrastructure, reducing public resources.” There are numerous documented non-exploitative solutions that seek to build upon mistakes and not excessively punish. Rather than sending non-violent offenders to private factory prisons, funds must be spent on rehabilitation and community service as positive solutions.
– Michaël Veremans