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My Little Brother And The Prison Industrial Complex

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Why were people so quick to assume that locking away an increasingly large proportion of the U.S. population would help those who live in the free world more safer and secure? This question can be formulated in more general terms. Who do prisons tend to make people think that their own rights and liberities are more secure than they would be if prisons didn’t exist?

Angela Davis (Why Are Prisons Obsolete?)

Two weeks ago I penned a letter to a federal judge in support of lenient sentencing for one of my brothers. I’m particularly close to this brother because we are so close in age (20 months apart). We attended high school and college together. He’s been incarcerated for the past year and a half while awaiting the verdicts from his state and federal trials. Prior my brother’s ordeal I’ve had almost no personal experience with the judicial system. I’ve always seen it as a black and white issue. You commit a crime, you go to jail. You don’t want to go to jail, you obey the laws. I now know that criminality is completely gray.

People who are apart of America’s prison system aren’t all monsters who need to be locked up and have the key thrown away. They’re people, just like you and I. They’ve just made mistakes. They’ve broken laws which society says are punishable by having your freedom taken away. I recently finished Angela Davis’ eye-opening Are Prisons Obsolete? One thing that I took away from the book is that the way our society views criminalization is skewed at best. We have to ask ourselves that if the purpose of locking up criminals is to keep those who don’t break the law safe then how efficient is the current system? Prisons are filling up faster than we can build them, yet according to statistics crime rates are still rising. The threat of  revocation of basic freedoms is not a sufficient deterrent to stopping crime. If the statistics are showing that deterring crime is not the primary reason for incarceration, then what is? I believe the American judiciary system has essentially leased the prison system out to private, for profit corporations.

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Just as the privatization of war has corrupted our moral base of our armed forces and the way our country approaches conflict, the privatization of the prison system has changed the way we view and manage criminals. The end game to both the privatization of war and prison is profit. In war no money is made if there is no conflict and in prison no money is made without prisoners. There then comes pressure for the lengthier sentencing from judges in cases which may or may not warrant the time handed out. Its an ethical issue that needs to be examined.

Case in point the recent 28 year sentence levied upon Pennsylvania judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. who was convicted of taking $1 million in bribes. The bribes were from developers of juvenile detention centers. The Associated Press stated:

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court tossed about 4,000 convictions issued by Ciavarella between 2003 and 2008, saying he violated the constitutional rights of the juveniles, including the right to legal counsel and the right to intelligently enter a plea.

Ciavarella, 61, was tried and convicted of racketeering charges earlier this year. His attorneys had asked for a “reasonable” sentence in court papers, saying, in effect, that he’s already been punished enough.

“The media attention to this matter has exceeded coverage given to many and almost all capital murders, and despite protestation, he will forever be unjustly branded as the ‘Kids for Cash’ judge,” their sentencing memo said.

Sad but true.

The general public is mislead to believe jailing people is the only way in which those who violate the laws of the land can be punished. The concept of long term jailing is a relatively new concept. Think about movies or television shows you’ve watched (Braveheart, Game of Thrones, etc) and how those people who committed crimes were punished. It wasn’t through long term imprisonments, it was usually carried out through executions that would be considered inhumane today (beheading, hanging, firing squad). Although the “prison approach” is relatively new compared to other forms of punishment we believe that it is the only viable option.

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I won’t go as far as Angela Davis in suggesting that prisons are in fact obsolete. I believe they are in fact necessary. There are some people who need to be cut off from society for the greater good of everyone. Do you know how super resistant forms of bacteria form? They are brought into existence when doctors prescribe antibiotics for every little sniffle or cough. A lot of bacteria will die off initially but eventually the bacteria will adapt and become stronger. Eventually antibiotics will have no affect. Prisons are like antibiotics prescribed for every little sniffle. Whenever a situation arises we throw prison at it hoping it will go away. Eventually prisons won’t work anymore. What will we do then?

Today my brother will be sentenced for the crime he committed and I cringe at the idea of him being apart of the Prison Industrial Complex. We need to reexamine the treatment and exploitation of prisoners. Committing a crime shouldn’t automatically revoke your constitutional rights. As I said earlier criminals are still people and they aren’t all monsters. They have families and people who care for them who suffer right along with them. Most people are one bad decision away from where my brother is so his ordeal has forced me to look at criminality and the Prison Industrial Complex from a different perspective.

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How do you feel about the privitization of prison? Are you close to anyone who is currently in prison or has served a lengthy prison sentence? Do you feel there is only black and white when it concerns criminals? Also, is prison a true rehabilitation method in criminology?

Comment(40)

  1. This is always a difficult conversation. I have so many family member, men and women alike, who have been to prison (some still there).

    For the most part I honestly believe prison is counterproductive in terms of rehabilitating citizens. More often than not, as statistics have shown, previous convicts end up back in the system. It's extremely difficult, if not downright impossible in some cases, to have a normal life and average to good career once going thru the system. I think they way we punish criminals should definitely be looked at.

    Also, when I first heard that there were people literally making money from imprisoning folks I honestly thought it was a joke. I'm still amazed. But then the alarmingly high number of people going to prison and the attrition rates make that much more sense….

    Great post Tunde!!!

    1. its crazy how much a revolving door the prison system is. add dense policies like three strikes law and you have people who could still be productive citizens in jail for life for offenses that otherwise wouldn't deem more than a couple of years behind bars.
      My recent post Take Me Back to 1953

    2. "For the most part I honestly believe prison is counterproductive in terms of rehabilitating citizens. More often than not, as statistics have shown, previous convicts end up back in the system."

      I wonder is it prison that counterproductive….or the laws/regulations that are in place in society outside of prison that we apply to ex-convicts the major culprit? Is it fair to say the reason many individuals that are released from prison that go back do so because they feel their only option is to make more unwise decisions in order to survive? Like Tunde said it's a lot of gray and the way the system works should be more detailed on a case by case basis depending on the threat of the prisoner.

      1. I suppose if could be the latter. But based on my own personal experience's with family members in and out of the system I think it's perfectly fair to say the reason many ex-convicts end up back in jail because their survival options were limited.

  2. The only person I know in my extended family who has had encounters with the prison system (in the US as well) is in and out and making no effort to improve his life and decision-making, so I haven't been forced to take a closer look at things like you have. However, one thing I learned in my sociology courses is that prisons are supposed to have a significant rehabilitation component to them, and they are currently failing miserably.

    A lot of time, the punishment does not match the crime….and as we all know, factors such as race play a bigger role than they should in the meting of punishments. Which is interesting, because when it comes to the workforce and hiring decisions, it's a human rights violation to consider a Prohibited Ground. Yet, people high up in the system don't seem intent on looking into the fact that minorities receive disproportionately harsher sentences and are sometimes jailed on unreasonable grounds. And they certainly don't take into account how these things affect the rest people's lives (all groups, not just minorities) as they try to reenter society. The only potential the current system has for rehabilitation is making inmates averse to the idea of returning, but because it's sometimes very hard to find stability post-prison, they find themselves unwillingly being repeat offenders. That's not to excuse some hardheaded individuals. The fact remains that a lot of people were already struggling to begin with, and this puts them in an even worse situation and unable to find legitimate means to support themselves and a family.

    In conclusion, I don't think it's a black and white issue at all. I hope that they are reasonable with your brother's sentencing, and that he will be able to reunite with his family sooner rather than later.

    1. "and as we all know, factors such as race play a bigger role than they should in the meting of punishments. "

      you know i kind of wanted to delve into the disparity of convictions between races but i didn't want to make it into a race issue. it is kind of hard to avoid though. the fact that the face of crime in this country is inherently linked to people of color is amazing.

      thank you for your well wishes.
      My recent post Take Me Back to 1953

      1. You're welcome.

        I tried to bring it back to a more general issue by pointing out the fact that post-prison life is difficult for everyone, but there was no skipping the race factor no matter how hard I tried. It's too blatant and well documented.

  3. Great post and introduction, sir.

    How do you feel about the privitization of prison?Wish I could go into more detail (and maybe I'm just paranoid) but I will say having working for a Criminal Justice institution in the past – and hoping to do so again in the future – I will say I was surprised by the number of private entities involved in the prison system. Like most casual observers, I assumed prisons were run by the government but there are a lot that are run in conjunction with or outright by private companies. I'll save my opinions on that but you're right, Business 101 dictates you need to sell a product in order to have a successful business or as you said, "in prison no money is made without prisoners." People might not like it but it's a fact.

    Are you close to anyone who is currently in prison or has served a lengthy prison sentence? Fortunately, no.

    Do you feel there is only black and white when it concerns criminals? Also, is prison a true rehabilitation method in criminology? Yes and no. Some crimes truly are black and white, right and wrong. Our judicial system is actually backward in the cases it expedites and hands out ridiculous sentences for – minor drugs offenses – versus the cases it extends forever with appeal, upon appeal – like murder cases and other serious crimes. It's strange.

    To your latter question, I don't believe it's prison itself that affects society so disproportionately. It is the fact that once you go to prison, you get into a cycle because there is, generally speaking, no opportunities for you after prison (especially if you commit a federal crime). I believe this is why recidivism rates are so high. I'm fine with sending people to prison if they break the law and I actually do believe prisons in themselves can rehabilitate some people. However, as a society, we need to decide as a whole whether or not we will continue to punish people their entire lives for crimes they committed in the past. Because if that's the decision, then yes, we will continue to fail the people prisons are allegedly designed to help – and that includes the prisoners and the law abiding citizens outside the walls.

    My recent post Review: Think Like a Man

    1. Just to piggyback off your comment, there's actually a reason for that minor drug offense disparity. Call it racism if you want, but basically, crack cocaine and cocaine affect communities completely different. That's why you can have a ton of cocaine and get probation, but if you have an ounce of crack and you're going to jail for 25 years. The stronger sentencing was a decision to stop the drug trade, not necessarily because they viewed the drugs are more severe. I think it's racist, but it did clean up the problem fairly quickly.

      1. its very racist. cocaine was seen as a middle to upper class drug because it was more expensive. it was used by musicians and actors alike. it was seen as a recreational drug while crack was cheap and associated with black people. this led to harsher crimes for essentially the same drug and a disparity in convictions. how many white people do you know who use/d crack?

        i won't sit here and complain about it though because that would be like condoning drug use in our community. instead i would say if we want to end the discrepancy we should stop using drugs all together.
        My recent post Take Me Back to 1953

        1. I'm not a racist but I can play one on the Internet. Playing devil's advocate, it really was a class issue. It was a violence issue. Cocaine in the crack form is a lot more addictive and its users are likely to act violently when demanding the drug. For example, you have a doctor who uses coke and he can still go to work everyday and contribute to society. Then you have crack, and that person is homeless and turning tricks to buy more drugs. Crack raised the murder rate in America. Not Cocaine.

        2. "Crack raised the murder rate in America. Not Cocaine."

          This is definitely simplistic. Cocaine continues to fuel murder violence in the US, and abroad.

          "Cocaine in the crack form is a lot more addictive and its users are likely to act violently when demanding the drug. "

          Even still, criminalize the violent offense. That isn't judicious to criminalize someone for possessing a drug that may have potential for causing violence.

        3. I'm sorry but it's just a fact. It's not something we want to talk about but look at what happened from nationwide standpoint when cocaine came in our country. The high murder rate was pretty concentrated in Florida with a great number of people who weren't US citizens. Crack cocaine then kills the inner cities across the US.

          And crack is more addictive than cocaine. And crime prevention is all about using past information to make guesses about future occurrences.

    2. "Some crimes truly are black and white, right and wrong. Our judicial system is actually backward in the cases it expedites and hands out ridiculous sentences for – minor drugs offenses – versus the cases it extends forever with appeal, upon appeal – like murder cases and other serious crimes."

      its crazy how police officers (or people of power and stature) who are found guilty of neglect in murdering unarmed persons get lenient sentencing but other individuals receive stiff penalties for example plaxico burress. son got 2 years for shooting himself. i've heard stories of people getting less time than that for vehicular manslaughter while being under the influence. but like i said i do think that some crime is black and white. some people just need to be put away for a very long time.
      My recent post Take Me Back to 1953

  4. great post, T!! and congrats on the writing gig!

    i wont go into my stance on the PIC. but i became rudely awakened to this issue in college and it made me outraged. and to think that soooo many ppl – even those of us who are very educated and learned – have no idea what is going on in this country as far as corrections are concerned.

    i will say that i too became more intimately aware of the penal system when a good friend of mine from church was sentenced to a serve time for a federal crime. it was heartbreaking and sad, esp considering all the changes he had made in his life over the years and his past was still coming back to haunt him.

    i think the criminal justice system, much like the education system, just needs a restart. but the only way to do this is to change the mindset and attitude of society. as you mentioned – continuously throwing prison at every criminal problem, without proper diagnosis and consideration of alternative forms of rehabilitation is only amplifying the problem and making it more impossible to treat. (p.s. LOVE the bacteria ref – soooo appropriate! lol)

    in the end, i think its the voters responsibility to demand a change in the criminal justice system. we cant continue to let big business profit off of our [largely] black and brown communities who are suffering the most (i wont go into how locking people of color away in jails far away from the communities they belong to takes more money out of those communities but thats whats happening).

    1. thanks ww.

      i agree with the hard reset of the whole system. but its going to be very hard to do because the culture is so engrained in our society and saying anything outside of the norm makes you seem like a utopian. not only are corporations who run these complexes profiting from prisoners but companies that we know by name use prison labor to maximize their profits. outside of outsourcing labor to third world countries prison labor has to be cheapest labor within our borders. think about it. you don't have to pay them and they can't unionize. they are essentially slaves.
      My recent post Take Me Back to 1953

      1. outside of outsourcing labor to third world countries prison labor has to be cheapest labor within our borders. think about it. you don't have to pay them and they can't unionize. they are essentially slaves.

        EXACTLY.
        My recent post My God vs. My Country

  5. I've never had a run in with our penal system until recently. I got caught up last year (misdemeanor). Through the court dates and lawyer fees, I will never want to get caught up again. So yes, I believe people can be rehabilitated through the court process.

    My battle buddy I've known for eight years caught a felony. Colorado doesn't mess around. His charge has a mandatory imprisonment of 36 months I believe. We were in the same unit. I was supposed to be godfather to his second beautiful child. I can only pray he learns from his mistake but is prison the right way to rehabilitate him?

    1. I don't believe it is only black and white when it comes to criminals. If you have access to a good lawyer, you can get off of alot of sh*t. It's sad but lawyers manipulate the system plus the good ole buddy buddy system with DA's, judges, etc.

      Who truly knows how to fix the broken system. I believe if you legalize drugs, a large percentage of our legal system will be relieved. Of course you have to social aspects etc, but black and brown get so caught up in the fast money of the drug game. Gangs lively hood is based on it. Our children need mentors/male figures in their lives to avoid getting caught up in the system. Prison is only the top layer of our problems.

      1. i know that i've made a lot of decisions in my life that could have easily had me caught up in the prison system. through a combination of God's will and sheer luck i've never been arrested or been behind bars. i'm not so quick to judge those who are. i hope things work out with your friend.

        and you're so right about having a good lawyer. our family has shelled out a good amount of money for to hire a great lawyer. if you get caught up and have to be represented by a public defender your chances of beating the case decreases marginally.
        My recent post Take Me Back to 1953

  6. Great post!!! Unfortunately money and connection heavily influence our judicial system. While I believe that some people need to go to jail (rapist, murders, child molesters), I think a lot of our prison system is filled with people who really need rehabilitation not incarceration. For example a large proportion of the jail population is filled with people who have drug addiction problems. Those people don’t need jail they need NA and a system that truly helps them become clean.

    1. let me paint a comparison for you. two 25 year old women. one is white and comes from a wealthy, influential family. the other is black and comes from a lower class family. both have drug problems. they are addicted to cocaine. both are arrested for possession. the white woman is bailed out immediately and her family checks her into betty ford (which is expensive beyond belief). the black woman doesn't make bond and sits in jail till her trial. at trial the judge sees that the white woman is making strides towards rehabilitation and gives her probation. the black woman is given a year in jail and now has a felony record which affects her ability to seek future employment and restricts her right to vote, get student loans and government assistance. class and money play a huge role in how the judicial system works. both women essentially committed the same "crime" but only one life is ruined.
      My recent post Take Me Back to 1953

      1. I know you didn't want to make race an issue, but THIS right here is such an issue. It's a prime example of how the Mitts of the world can draw conclusions that have them thinking criminal = person of color.

        Great post!!!

    2. I come from a country where maximum sentence for rape is 8 years, if the crime was especially cruel and the victim was raped multiple times. For a "normal" rape a first-timer will get probation or max. 1 year 8 months in prison.

      Legislation always fails.

  7. Good post Tunde!
    How do you feel about the privitization of prison? – I abhor the thought of it. Good comparison with military contractors. I've heard my brother-in-law say this about military contractors "How can they give a f**k about he outcome if they are only in it for the money?" I feel the same way about prisons. You don't care about rehabbing criminals if your company is only in it for another low-bid contract. Many of those who are locked up have no business being in actual prison. South Carolina has almost thirty prisons and and a population of about 4 mil. Something doesn't add up.

    Are you close to anyone who is currently in prison or has served a lengthy prison sentence? – I'm not close to anyone but I'm acquainted with people who are locked up. Several of my high school classmates just drew federal time for a "massive" drug ring. Thankfully all of my friends kept on the straight and narrow… for the most part.

    1. Do you feel there is only black and white when it concerns criminals? – I will start by saying that those who I know that are locked up earned their spot there. Sentencing always puzzled me though.(Mostly the death penalty) American society has a very Old Testament mindest when it comes to crime and punishment. I question the judicial system but I am a part of the blood thirsty mob that is America. We love our revenge. I guess I'm saying that our prison systems are a strange reflection of ourselves.

      Also, is prison a true rehabilitation method in criminology? -Yes, and no. I think a man or woman can change but they have to want to change. They have to be given proper help to change also. On the flipside many of the convicts that I know were sociopaths to start with.

      1. you know i don't agree with the death penalty at all. a lot of people ask me if a person killed your mother or another family member i bet you would be singing a different tune. i don't think i would. sure i would be mad and i would want to see justice served but i don't think anyone on this earth can judge if another lives or dies. the whole revenge aspect bothers me.
        My recent post Take Me Back to 1953

        1. madscientist7: "i don't agree with the death penalty at all."

          Agreed. Point blank, the government shouldn't have a hunting license on its citizens. Considering how many cases of executed "criminals" that were later found to be innocent with DNA evidence, the death penalty should be out of the question.

  8. The amazing thing is how long this has been around. There was a documentary on PBS called “Slavery by another name” that details blacks being rounded up and thrown in jail just to be sold to the coal mines. Now there’s a bill on the books that is considering officially starting it up again hiring prisoners out to corporations. Now, I’m not saying that some people don’t deserve to be in prison, I just disagree with prison for profit.

    1. i caught that documentary and it was amazing. the prison lease system DOES NOT need to come back. if you think that the prison industrial complex is bad now and there is a disproportion amount of people of color in jail it will only get worse with the prison lease system. in my opinion it is glorified slavery.
      My recent post Take Me Back to 1953

  9. I agree with post. What Paul B said is also true. Actually, there is a company called the FPI, Federal Prison Industries. The Penitentiaries are receiving contractions to produce electronics, clothes, etc by using inmates and paying them way below the minimum wages. This has gone back since the 13th amendment was established up till like 40-60 yrs ago. Prisoners were leased to companies like At&t, verizon, a lot of these same big institutions that exist today. I totally forgot the website where I read this from and will post it when I find the article again but it goes in depth into the whole structure of this form of Slavery. Prisoners were tortured like crazy. And there is a bill attached to the 13th Amendment stating that non whites are free unless incarcerated and I believe government has been trying to pass this as a law for a long time. FPI still exists today n it still creates a lot of problems with Private businesses or other companies looking for Bids and contracts for jobs.
    Im not trying to be a Conspiracy Theorists but its not crazy to say that this is what the real Leaders of America wanted all along.

  10. The privitization of prisons has taken away from the purpose behind them… To reform behavior that is detrimental to society. I know people that are in prison or have been (most of them deserved to be though) and they were making everything from golf clubs to motherboards for helicopters. And of course they got paid next to nothing for it.

    While I do think some crimes are black and white, I don’t feel that way when it comes to crimes involving drug use and its production. If you don’t own anything else in this world, you will always own your body. If you want to build it up or break it down, that’s on you (as long as you’re an adult). My grandfather used to make his own wine… That’s a crime as far as I know, so according to the law he should have been in prison. Why society would have to be protected from an 81 year old retired parole officer mmaking wine for himself and his family is beyond me.

    Lastly, I don’t think prisons reform people. They are much more unsafe than free society and inmates simply learn how to survive by joining a gang and putting up a front to intimidate others. If they don’t then they will get victimized by the other inmates. There should actually be programs to help these people, counseling and therapy. Most inmates just come out worse than when they went in as opposed to being a better person. Some even get to the point where they feel more comfortable inside of prison than out.

  11. Great post. Haven't read all the responses, but I'll answer the questions. The moment I learned that prisoners were making ski wear and other goods is when I started referring to it as legal slavery and soon after that Angela Davis came and spoke at my high school. There’s already an issue with government transparency, privatization only adds a smoke and mirrors because they lack accountability. There’s minimal oversight. Freedom, or lack thereof, should not be a business. When education, healthcare, prisons etc. become businesses then money becomes the priority and the mission of the organization takes a backseat. I’ve had more than several family members to serve time in prison for various lengths. I currently have two male cousins in prison. I’m not close with either of them, now anyway. One is in jail because he was arrested as his fraternal twin and we’re still fighting to get him out. I have another cousin close that I am close to, but I can’t sympathize with many people who have loved ones in jail in her case. I’m kind of relieved that she’s in jail, but that’s really another topic. I believe prison serves a purpose, but to refer to them as "rehabilitation" and "correctional" is a stretch when the vast majority are repeat offenders. Crimes should be punished and the punishment should be unpleasant. However, there is a growing culture of individuals who are nonchalant about current methods with incarceration. They view “josing” their time as just another phase in life. Not enough is being done to prevent initial prison entry, discourage re-entry and assist assimilation after imprisonment. I guess my main issue is with society’s dependence on the criminal justice system to treat social problems, like mental health and substance abuse, education etc. Now this “dependence” is being promoted for profit.

  12. Great post. I need to read that book.

    I cannot look at criminality as a black and white issue – there is plenty of gray. I think laws are used (1) to protect the thieves of the ruling class (i.e. corporations) and (2) to further oppress the working class and people of color.

    "I won’t go as far as Angela Davis in suggesting that prisons are in fact obsolete. I believe they are in fact necessary. There are some people who need to be cut off from society for the greater good of everyone."
    This is where I'm at. I respect the abolition movement but at the same time I don't want to live in communities with rapists, etc. And I'm not even going to pretend to have a viable alternative to prisons. I absolutely hate the privatization of prison as much as I hate the privatization of other institutions (e.g., education) that should be under community control (in an ideal world).
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  13. i am a social worker. i deal with many children with one or both parents in the system. And what i learned is its generational. fathers, then their sons and i am bring the children to visit. DAMN i hate it! you would think the children would go the straight but trust me they dont. Can you blame society for wanting to have a safe environment. why cant i raise my children without worrying about someone breaking into my house to take what i have worked hard for, or steal my car or boost from my favorite mall store and now i have to pay a higher price tag to cover the cost.
    besides, being in prison is too bad,,,the prisoners have access to facebook (internet), health care, and cable – trust me i pay a high premium for good cable, lol.

  14. as a kid who's father was locked up for most of my childhood i can say that jail saved my dads life , he told us on the last time when he was locked up that i will come back a better dad and father and he did what he said he would do. But the negative effects that this situation has had on my family is taking more time to heal than thought. I will admit that some people need to be in jail for their actions especially the killing of another human although i cant condone this i accept that some cant and don't want to be changed. No when we get into the discussion of jail for profit that makes my stomach cringe and its sick that people are really paying for these places just for profit , when its been shown that the money thats spent by the states on inmates could be used for teachers, firefighter and policemen just to name a few it seems we have lost our way and all we care about is the almighty dollar.

  15. Don't know many people that have been in the criminal system, but the few I do know happen to be the kindest men I've ever known.

    The current prison system IS slavery. If you're making these inmates build furniture, make license plates, etc. for 5 cents an hour and then selling them at a huge profit, what else can you call that? It's inhumane and one of the biggest human rights violations of the day.

  16. The judicial system is corrupt. Period. Prisons in Amerikkka are obsolete considering they're not used for their intended purpose. You can invest in them via the stock market, how is that even legal?

    Prison is nothing more than big business. Modern day concentration camps and legal slavery. Solitary confinement is inhumane and dehumanizing. There's no need to sugar-coat or attempt to justify this broken system of capitalism that corrupts everything it touches.

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