Okay so if you’re still with me after that title, you’re probably wondering “WTF?!”Or “Where is she going with this?!” it’ll all come together I promise. This past Friday, Netflix released Season 4 of their widely popular prison dramedy "Orange is the New Black” and it was not lacking conversation starters, to say the least. In addition to commentary on racism, islamophobia, and the Black Lives Matter movement, they also had some very potent depictions of private, for-profit prisons and prison industrial complex. And I believe a lot of it is worthy of further discussion.
Season 3 dealt with the possible closing of Litchfield Prison and the eventual switch to being a for-profit, privately run prison. It ended up becoming an asset to the MCC Corporation and Season 4 opens showing the results of this switch. For starters the prison becomes overcrowded. The reason for this being more heads equating to more money both from the government and from being able to use the labor of these prisoners for profit. This highlights one key issue with private/for profit prisons --it makes inmates into a necessity when the goal is supposed to be correcting them and reentering them into society. It also puts possible reforms to the system at odds with the agenda of these corporations running them. These corporations have found a way to turn every aspect of the lives of inmates, including their very existence, as a way to make money. And prisoners have no way or right to revolt against this system of exploitation because although the 13th amendment abolished slavery, prisoners were left exempt from this protection. Corporations are free to use them up, and use them they do.
In OITNB, the ladies start making underwear for a lingerie company named ‘Whispers’ a not so coy way at calling out Victoria’s Secret who have been discovered to benefit from the exploitation of prison labor. Vickie isn’t alone, however. Walmart, Starbucks, Verizon, Sprint, J.C. Penney, K-Mart, Whole Foods, Wendy’s, McDonalds, and many others have all exploited prison labor for their products. These companies use prison labor because they are greedy. Why to pay warehouse workers upwards of $10/hr. when can they use prisoners and pay sometimes as little as .15/hr.? Many of these companies also hide behind independent prison labor factories so that the can try and hide the fact that they are benefiting from prison labor. In addition to corporations benefitting from the labor of prisoners, they also benefit from the day to day lives of the prisoners. Food supply companies, Telecommunication companies, Call center, healthcare companies, and the bail industry all benefit from supplying the prisoners with food, phone calls, and healthcare. However, they have even found a way to exploit this. Phone companies charge exorbitant amounts per minutes for prisoners to make calls. Healthcare corporations make millions off of prison contracts while prisoners die from their lackluster medical care. And Food supply companies make hundreds of millions of dollars to supply prisons with food while they send maggot-infested food and their workers smuggle in contraband for prisoners. The prison has become a money making business. And much like with slavery, the more entrenched something becomes in our society and now in our economy, the harder it is to get rid of it.
For many reasons, the comparison of slavery and for profit prisons will never be fair. I mean come on, ITS SLAVERY. However, there are many parallels that can be drawn between the two. Both flourish from the exploitation of the marginalized. Both strip the humanity away from those that they profit from. And both will or were hell to get rid of. For slavery it took a civil war, for prisons well we’ll have to wait and see.