Is your favorite business employing what could easily be described as contemporary slavery to cut costs and push product? Would you even know if the answer were yes?
The truth is, you probably wouldn’t. That’s because the prison-industrial complex in the United States is deeply entrenched in just about every sector of the economy, from military manufacturing to apple picking. And more often than not, that prison-industrial complex is rigged against low-income Americans and people of color.
So what do we do about it? That’s what we’re covering today on Business Casual with Ashish Prashar, a widely respected justice reform advocate and former young offender.
Ashish explains the importance of prison labor for both corporations and state economies, the necessity of prison-industrial reform, and the hard truth of America’s incarceration problem.
This is a tough conversation to have...when was the last time you were forced to reconcile your modern beliefs with a Constitutional amendment ratified in 1865? But it’s way past time to have the conversation. Ashish offers a remarkable starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about the prison-industrial complex—I hope you’ll listen now.
+ While we’re here: I drew on my conversation with Ashish to write about the prison-industrial complex in my new Business Casual column. Read that piece here and subscribe to the weekly newsletter here.
Business Casual - Ashish Prashar
Kinsey Grant, Morning Brew business editor and podcast host [00:00:07] Hey, everybody, and welcome to Business Casual. It's me, Kinsey Grant, here to take you with me on a journey. This topic we are talking about today is a big one, and one I know you are just as curious about as I am. So let's get into it, shall we? [sound of a ding]
Kinsey [00:00:23] You should mentally prepare yourself right now to learn something new today. We're talking about a topic that really hasn't gotten the airtime it's deserved—maybe ever. But it is a force behind both major corporations in the private sector and major budgets in the public sector. The stats are staggering, second only to how staggering the human impact is. Today, we're talking about the prison industrial complex and the ways prison labor has helped to prop up both states here in the U.S. and businesses around the world.
Kinsey [00:00:51] It's admittedly a big and thorny conversation. But if this summer has taught me anything, it's that it's a big, thorny conversation that we should have had ages ago. To me, though, there is no time like the present. So with that, I am very excited to welcome my guest today, Ashish Prashar. Ashish, welcome to Business Casual.
Ashish Prashar [00:01:10] Hi, thanks for having me.
Kinsey [00:01:12] You are a widely respected and widely known justice reform advocate, former young offender. You've also worked extensively in PR in government in the U.S. and the U.K. You've got a great CV. We're lucky to have you here today. You are definitely one of the foremost experts in having this conversation, and I'm really excited to have it.
Ashish [00:01:31] It's really a pleasure to have this topic being talked about at the widest scale outside the criminal justice community as well.
Kinsey [00:01:38] Right, and I think that our listeners here today are probably going to have a lot of questions. I would just encourage everybody, as you hear this conversation, reach out, send a DM, send an email to any of us, who will put ways to get in touch in our show notes. And I want to just keep this conversation going. My hope is that this is sort of the opening [laughs] kind of ceremony for what should be an ongoing conversation after this interview itself is over. So let's start here. What is prison labor as it exists today? How does it work?
Ashish [00:02:06] I think for our listeners today, I think it would be really helpful to take it back one step and figure out how this system was built to even use prison labor. Our criminal justice system was built to oppress communities of color, in particular Black people. Our justice system really isn't broken, as often a lot of people describe it. It's doing what it was designed to do.
Ashish [00:02:25] In America, yeah, Black people are incarcerated five times the rate of white people and one in four Black men are in jail or will be in jail or prison sometimes and at some point in their life. And people ask, how is that possible? It's a combination of oppressive laws and policies that continue to expand the reach and impact of our system that is rooted in enslavement. I mean, even think of recent things like the crime bill and other things that were passed in the '90s. But it really goes back to the root—something that happened just after slavery was abolished. Something that happened just after the Civil War.
Ashish [00:02:56] And Ava DuVernay has got a great documentary on this, called the "13TH," which I recommend everyone watches as [indistinct] do a better explanation of this than me. But the 13th Amendment was enacted at the close of the Civil War, and it didn't exactly end slavery when it stated neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall be duly convicted, shall exist within the United States. This loophole made it easy, almost, for governments and institutions and authorities to work around the abolition of slavery. And it gave birth to the prison industrial complex as we know it today.
Kinsey [00:03:33] So that, except as a punishment for crime, was a loophole.
Ashish [00:03:36] That was. Yeah.
Kinsey [00:03:37] And yeah, you mentioned after the Civil War—it's important this was ratified in 1865, literally right after the Civil War. So how does that still exist today in 2020? How are we still having a conversation? I know obviously laws have a very long shelf life and we have based our entire belief system in America on laws created in the 1770s. But this seems like something that should have been changed. If the system's not broken, it was designed this way. How is it still designed this way?
Ashish [00:04:08] It's because of business. So I mentioned at the end of that, the prison industrial complex, American business has historically been heavily invested in our prison system. America, whether we like to discuss this or not, and it is something that you mentioned in your intro, like this summer has really connected people to some of the travesties that have gone on before. People are either open to the fact that we had exceptional growth when we had slavery.
Ashish [00:04:31] That didn't stop. It was just packaged differently at some point. Our prison industrial complex is not possible without the industry part of it, which is made up of thousands of American businesses around the country. Now, every year our government spends our taxpayer money—I think about 80 billion, probably more than that now—of our money on incarcerating what is between 2.2 and 2.3 million people in prisons and jails. Of that, tens of billions of them funneled into the private sector through vendor contracts with healthcare providers.
Ashish [00:05:03] You have food suppliers, prison contractors, and countless other organizations from transport to fixing things outside in the streets. And if that was not enough, these corporations have also devised strategies to extract billions more from the communities supporting incarcerated loved ones, like phone calls and other things that they have to pay for to get access to their loved ones who are incarcerated. This is predominately hidden from the public view, and these private corporations have fully monetized crime and punishment. It's big business to lock people up.
Kinsey [00:05:36] Right.
Ashish [00:05:37] And with the help of our government, no less. And whether you draw that straight out of the pockets of the incarcerated people or their support networks or from taxpayers' coffers, they put profit over everything with grave consequences. And something like—I have to double-check this figure—but something like over 4,100 corporations profit from mass incarceration of our most marginalized communities. And a lot of those are household names that every listener on this podcast will know, from Amazon, General Electric, Sherwin Williams, Stanley Black and Decker.
Ashish [00:06:09] And dozens of boutique firms that, you know, from Wall Street prison consultants, which help white collar offenders get out of punishment to a [indistinct] service that is only available in prison. And because of this reach, the market for privatized services in prison actually dwarfs privatized facilities. Private prisons only account for 8% of our market, with a total of like $4 billion in revenue there. And by comparison, the correctional food service industry alone provides the equivalent of that $4 billion worth of food each year. By the way, the food is terrible. [laughter] Don't expect it's good quality food.
Kinsey [00:06:51] First-hand, yeah [laughs]
Ashish [00:06:51] And, you know, [indistinct] you expect nothing less from them. But the corrections department spends like $12 billion on healthcare, similar to what we spend now here. We spend an abundance for healthcare. Those are private companies. The telephone company, which I mentioned earlier, can charge up to $25 for a 15-minute call and rake in $1.3, $1.5 billion annually. The range of profit for service is extensive, from the transport vans to halfway houses to video visitation, which has obviously grown under the COVID environment we're in right now, to email, to ankle monitors for people who are doing community service or have been released but on a tag.
Ashish [00:07:32] Too many companies, the roughly $80 billion that the United States has spent on corrections each year, is not a national embarrassment—it's a gold mine. So we asked why it's possible today and why labor and everything else that we're going to touch on is possible, it's because the structure was built for this profit-making machine.
Kinsey [00:07:52] So this concept of profit over everything—this is a gold mine, not a broken system—is a different frame of understanding the prison system, I think, for a lot of people in the United States, at least. Also, I just want to point out that 2.2 million people is a ton of people. That's the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. This is an enormous, enormous portion of our population who are participating unwillingly in many cases in this system that's padding the pockets of other people.
Kinsey [00:08:20] So talk to me a little bit about, before we get into the companies and the private prisons, the people who are incarcerated, who are participating in prison labor, are being paid in some cases, just not very much. Right?
Ashish [00:08:35] Yeah. So, look, when I say paid, again, we fight for minimum wage on the outside of prison. But that corporate use of prison labor is actually relatively small. It was used a lot more before the '90s, '80s, you know, when we had that prison boom after the crime bill that was passed by the Clinton administration. But prison labor today, I think only about 5,000 people work for companies, but that doesn't factor in the number of people working in prison for private contractors.
Ashish [00:09:03] Like I mentioned before, the food providers, the healthcare companies, the commissary, the cleaning and everything that runs the prison itself, that's private contracts. But of this 5,000 people, a big name that comes to mind is 3M, an organization that makes our Post-it notes. They use prison labor to make their products. And they're also one of the largest raw materials suppliers to prison to make state goods.
Ashish [00:09:27] And states actually are the reason there is such high use of prison labor right now. It's not actually corporate companies. State goods can be famously, as you probably remember at the beginning of the pandemic, Governor Cuomo famously celebrated the fact that prison labor was used to make hand sanitizer for us, as citizens. The irony of all of that was in a national emergency, he called that and did what, I think, it was a terrible thing for him to do, to use labor like that to make hand sanitizer for us.
Ashish [00:09:59] What was even worse was the prisoners themselves—those incarcerated men and women—weren't allowed to use the hand sanitizer themselves because it was a dangerous substance because it had alcohol in it.
Kinsey [00:10:09] What??
Ashish [00:10:09] So they're suffering the same pandemic we are, probably in worse conditions by the way, because all the guidelines have been you have to be six feet apart. You have to wash your hands. You have to wear a mask. None of that was provided in prisons as famous as Rikers. But people are in shared cells, sometimes only 10 feet by six feet wide, shared toilets. They don't get regular soap all the time. They're on 23-hour lockdown. They didn't have space. But they weren't even allowed the very hand sanitizer that they made for us as citizens on the outside.
Ashish [00:10:40] And at the end of the day, whether they committed a crime or haven't, whether they're guilty or not —
Kinsey [00:10:44] Right.
Ashish [00:10:44] They're still human beings. And we celebrate making that for our governor, at least in New York, celebrate making that hand sanitizer from our prison labor. More regularly, outside of times of pandemic, they make license plates, they make school desks in our public schools, they make the trash cans you see on the side of streets. They are firefighters in California fighting our wildfires, putting their lives on the line.
Ashish [00:11:06] But those same people who fought those wildfires can't then become firefighters after they leave prison because of their record. So the irony there is lost to me. They are literally putting their lives on lines. Firefighters themselves in California have called them heroes, and yet they can't join the fire service after the fact. And you want to ask what they were getting paid? Eight cents to 15 cents an hour.
Kinsey [00:11:27] To fight fires?
Ashish [00:11:28] To fight fires.
Kinsey [00:11:30] To do some of the most dangerous work around.
Ashish [00:11:32] Yeah.
Kinsey [00:11:33] This is intriguing, though, that we are celebrating—Governor Cuomo celebrated that prison labor was used to make hand sanitizer. I think oftentimes people who would make the argument in favor of prison labor would say that these are necessary job skills. You're learning how to have a life after you are no longer incarcerated. But, at the same time, that isn't always possible. Like you said, they wouldn't even be able to get a job as a firefighter after fighting fires.
Ashish [00:12:00] Right. What they teach people in prison isn't going to help them in their lives outside of prison. It is labor. It's nothing more than labor. One of the biggest growth areas right now is food. We talked about all those areas that I mentioned before. But the food industry, with the way our current administration has been attacking immigrants and its immigration policies in general, it's been harder for them to get low-skilled migrant workers in farms in both California, Arizona, Texas along the border.
Ashish [00:12:29] Immigration that's legal, most of the time, anyway, it's that just to do the job and go back. So we now estimate, I think, something like 30,000 current inmates are working on food in the food system in our country. Prison inmates are picking fruit and vegetables at a rate not seen since Jim Crow. And you ask how this is done. Convict leasing for agriculture is how they do it. It's a system that allows states to sell prison labor to private farms.
Ashish [00:12:54] And states are increasingly leasing prisoners to private corporations to harvest food for American consumers. States such as Arizona, Idaho, Washington grow labor-intensive crops, like onions, apples, tomatoes that require a lot hand use. And the prison system has responded by leasing convicts to growers who are desperate for workers. I think California in 2016 made over $2 million in profits for the prison industry, made $2 million in profits from the fruit and agriculture sector. And this isn't new, right?
Ashish [00:13:25] So we all know that. We see it in movies, we see it in everything else that since reconstruction, states abuse prison labor to solve other needs across our country, from infrastructure, road and rail construction, to mining and agriculture. And convict leasing itself is a powerful tool of white supremacy. And I think we have to ask ourselves as like, listeners here, but as citizens and neighbors of our fellow human beings across this country, we're always outraged when private companies are using prison labor.
Ashish [00:13:55] So, you know, like 3M, I mentioned earlier on, and we're outraged when we see private companies use it abroad. We've looked at the sweat factories in India, Bangladesh, in other parts of the world. And even more recently, the exposure of the [indistinct] situation in China, where they're basically internment camps and they're making the masks that are protecting us right now during a pandemic. And we're outraged by that. But at the same time, we're OK with our institutions of government using that labor here.
Ashish [00:14:25] And we don't ask ourselves those questions. And I think like slavery, it's not acceptable at any level. And that's my position on profiting from incarceration and using labor. There is no acceptable level. It's inherently, morally, and ethically wrong, frankly.
Kinsey [00:14:41] Right. And, you know, I completely agree that the outrage exists when we see it happen in other parts of the world, and yet here we are in the United States, oftentimes this is swept under the rug or we just never even have the conversation. I do have to wonder, though, there are examples of people who have said, I learned fantastic vocational skills while I was incarcerated at work. Are those just fringe cases? Are those just the minority of people who leave prison and feel like they benefited from that labor?
Ashish [00:15:09] Look, you said it yourself. There's 2.2, 2.3 million people locked up. I would argue that for most of these people, prison has had a detrimental impact to their life, from their health, to their mental well-being, to every other asset, to their family potential breakdown or any other thing. I think when you weigh up how many people have been successful leaving prison, overturned successfully to life, to how many still suffer the torturous environment they live in.
Ashish [00:15:39] You could use me as an example of like, I went to prison at 17, but I'm, you know, I had a support structure. I was allowed to, in the U.K., we have something called A levels, which is in between school and university. My family thought that I could take those exams in the year 2000, 2001 in prison. And in that point, 2002 is when justice reform wasn't a thing in the U.K. It wasn't a big topic. We were still doing the tough on crime stuff from the '90s at that point. And even that would be the same here in the U.S. And it took my family to fight for that. And —
Kinsey [00:16:10] And if do you don't have, yeah —
Ashish [00:16:11] And if you don't have that, and that was in the U.K., I would argue the brutality here is much more connected to the history of enslavement. And I just don't think left or right, we've as a society or our political structures want to see people succeed after they've been incarcerated.
Kinsey [00:16:31] Do you think that's why we have such a recidivism problem, people returning to prison after going once?
Ashish [00:16:37] I think we don't spend our money on the right things. I'm openly a prison abolitionist. So I don't believe in prisons at all. I believe we should be more judicious in how we handle crime and what we lock people up for in the first place. There's a huge amount of people locked up for minor offenses, parole violations, often people also who are just remanded. Think about Rikers, for example. Right now, there is, I think, 3,000 people in Rikers.
Ashish [00:17:06] A lot of them have not even been sentenced to anything right now. They're remanded—during a pandemic, by the way. So technically, their sentence is a death sentence before they've been convicted of anything. And some of them will take plea deals to get a conviction so they can get out. There is so much injustice in our system —
Kinsey [00:17:21] At least have a date to get out.
Ashish [00:17:21] Yeah, a date to get out. There is so much injustice in our system. And that's why I'm a person who believes, I mean, to rip it up at the root—if you want to have a prison system, it needs to be ripped up at the root and reconstructed. It can't be reformed or amended the way we talk about it today because it's inherently built off slavery.
Kinsey [00:17:41] So is it realistic to expect that the abolitionist argument would gain enough steam that that actually happens in, let's say, our lifetime?
Ashish [00:17:50] I think you need to show people a path to abolition. Look, I'm a realist as well. I know that we're not going to end all prisons tomorrow.
Kinsey [00:17:56] Right.
Ashish [00:17:56] And I know every time I say we need to release prisoners, I get, you know, what about rapists and murderers? And, again, that is a very, very small amount. Violent prison is a very small amount of 2.3 million people incarcerated; I think it's under 5%, or something like that. The majority of people inside prison are there for minor offenses.
Ashish [00:18:13] Frankly, there's a whole generation of people in there for marijuana offenses, a drug that is now legal in lots of states. I would argue [laughs] that they should be locked up and the government needs to make its mind out right now. Is it legal or is it not at a federal level or not? And should people who are in there for literally dealing small bags of drugs or even smoking it, frankly, there's a lot of people generationally in for smoking it because they've got three offenses from way back when, when it was illegal. Should they be in prison right now? Should they have a record? Should that not be, like, wiped out?
Ashish [00:18:41] So you could probably release a significant chunk, two-thirds of our prison population right now, because they're not deemed as a threat to society. They are in there for minor convictions, minor offenses. And I think what you would do then is use that money to help people not have to commit a crime again. You redistribute that income.
Ashish [00:19:02] So when people talk about defunding the police, it isn't about defunding the police. It's about redistributing that money to be used for better things like housing services, social services, mental healthcare, healthcare in general. A lot of crime is a crime of need, not a crime of, like, anger or like one of horror. It's a crime of needs. People need things inside and they're often—we are criminalizing poverty. We're not criminalizing things that are really a pain on our society.
Ashish [00:19:31] And I think when you see that reduction in numbers of people incarcerated from all those minor [indistinct], and use that money wisely and put it back into our society. We need to spend—what do we think about our society going forward. To your point about would it happen in our lifetime—what do we want to see? Do we want to see our neighbors supported when there's something wrong rather than having cops roll up on them when they have a mental health disorder? Do we want to see them get the right care instead of thrown into a prison cell for that?
Ashish [00:20:01] People has asked me, what does this look like? I joke with it—it's the defund the police stuff. I joke that if you come to the Upper West Side in New York, the most police I saw over six years was guarding a statue when we had the BLM [laughs] marches going through our neighborhood. Most of the resources we spend our money on are schools, community centers, playgrounds being clean, and good facilities for our neighbors. And if we did that in every part of our society, you'd probably see a lower crime rate at the same time.
Kinsey [00:20:29] Well, we've already gotten ourselves in a great conversation with tons to think about. We're going to take a [indistinct], here from our sponsor, then get into where big business and the economy comes into all this. — And now back to the conversation with Ashish Prashar. So we were talking about the money aspects here. Where the money goes. Where the tax dollars go. Who makes money off of this? Is there a way to put prison labor in as brief an explanation as possible into context in corporate America and our economy as a whole?
Ashish [00:21:02] I think it's very hard to get the exact numbers. They're very good—I think I mentioned earlier on they weren't really good at, like, hiding what type of services they provide, how they're used. And as I mentioned earlier on, I think 5,000, only 5,000 they use for corporates. Everything else is used by a corporate, but it's for the prison itself or the state to use that labor.
Ashish [00:21:21] I think the best way to look at it is like, you know, I think there's an organization called Worth Rises. And they put together a report that came out in April that has a list of the 4,100 companies—I think it's 4,150 companies—that are involved in the prison industrial complex. And Worth Rises—again, they were very conservative with [indistinct] deliberately. Because they didn't want to overstate it, but they want to make sure that you realize that it is everything in our society.
Ashish [00:21:47] But the key point is that the financial services sector is the connecting dots between all of this for everyone. The financial services sector, famously JPMorgan and Bank of America and other big banks, pulled back from private prisons and their ties. But their ties to the prison industrial complex are long and deep. For example, they issue municipal debt. Most prisons are built off that debt. They trade it by [indistinct] and, you know, [laughs] make a profit of it and no prison, frankly, could be built without it.
Ashish [00:22:17] However, if you really want to focus on the true culprits of this, it's private equity. They have been shaping our prison industrial complex for years. And most correctional services companies are privately held, from the foods provided to the clean-up company to the gardeners and the private contractors, because they own those companies that are in that work. They don't have any public reporting requirements, so it's really hard to work out exactly what's made by who and by when. And the correctional system is notoriously hostile to outside [laughs] scrutiny.
Kinsey [00:22:50] So there are so many tentacles here and it feels nearly impossible to actually track the supply chain of anything [laughs] that we invest in, consume, buy, sell—all of it. There is, I'm sure, a way in some way, shape, or form to figure out that supply chain. But right now, it feels like an incredibly daunting task. We've experienced what feels like a little bit of a tipping point the last several months in the United States. But are people realistically going to say, I won't go to Starbucks anymore if Starbucks continues to maybe use prison labor? Is it a realistic outcome here, right now?
Ashish [00:23:22] I mean, it's a [laughs] $80 million, $80 billion question, I guess.
Kinsey [00:23:27] Yeah. [laughs]
Ashish [00:23:27] Yeah, I mean, look, I will be the first admit. Do I know if anything that I consume is not made by either our prison industrial complex or slave labor anywhere in the world? Probably not. I try to be aware of it as much as possible, but given the complexities of how it's interconnected from a financial services sector through to farmers, I don't know where my fruit or vegetables are picked from now, because immigration has gone down, so we're using prison labor. So I don't know what small farms and what they're shipping it into. So it's really hard to make that decision. However, there are some obvious ones, like the 3M example. They make our Post-it notes. Well, why don't you use someone else?
Ashish [00:24:07] There are some obvious ones where we can penalize those companies and say we're not gonna stand for any of this. But I think the first step is to divest from any company that profits from the prison system. Divestment means ending all, like, financial relationships with companies that profit from or participate in the prison system.
Ashish [00:24:25] This is more of a company or shareholders demand rather than the average citizen. But not only should public pension funds, university endowments divest from any holdings in those companies that sell products or services to our prison system, but investment vehicles like mutual funds and ETFs, which are owned by millions of Americans, should also divest from those holdings. Like I mentioned, there is a report by Wealth Rises that's released every year. 2021 came out in April. It captures the 4,100 companies that support prison labor directly or through their supply chain as much as it can be done.
Ashish [00:25:01] Because, again, they make it really hard to be transparent. And it calls for the immediate divestment of at least, I think, 180 publicly traded companies in there and who cause harm, immense harm, frankly, through their involvement in the prison system and prison labor.
Kinsey [00:25:16] So we'll get into the solutions to all these problems. I want to talk about that extensively, but I have to wonder how come we feel like we can hold corporations more accountable than we can the states that are also participating in this broken—maybe not broken—system? Is it because a corporation feels like something that has a face, that has a CEO, that you can tweet about it? Or why do we feel that we can do this, but we can't hold states accountable in the same ways.
Ashish [00:25:46] Well, I think companies out there are more visible. Yes. Because the infrastructure behind the state isn't just the politician. So it's like the civil service. It's the infrastructure that's been built for centuries. So it feels easier to boycott Facebook when you feel that they are causing incitement, hate, or spreading racial tension or frankly, just racist remarks. It's easier to call your company to, like, you should not advertise on Facebook because they're racist, right? The color of change has led an amazing campaign to get companies, like Coca-Cola, like Pepsi, and everyone else, to stop buying advertisements.
Ashish [00:26:22] It seems like an easy win for a lot people. However, I think this moment is different. I do think we're holding politicians to account. You know, like what's really sad a little bit is the media's coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement. I live in New York. You live in New York. The protests have continued. They're on like 100 days now. And last weekend there's something 15,000 cyclists that blocked bridges and tunnels and roadways in Manhattan.
Ashish [00:26:49] And the protests have been getting the same size as they were at the beginning. It only gets coverage when there's potentially an incident between the police and protesters themselves if there's any violence, because they want us to focus on a specific angle. People are holding both government and our institutions and our companies to account at the same time right now. We don't know what's going to what the end of this is going to look like, but I do believe people are not giving up this time.
Kinsey [00:27:13] OK.
Ashish [00:27:13] They do see this as a moment in time, similar to the civil rights movement of the past. And what's different, I think, for today, than even the civil rights, I think we've built on what the civil rights did, and they've paid homage and respect to those leaders. We just lost John Lewis. There is no one in the Black Lives Matter movement and beyond who is a protester for anything that doesn't respect and admire John Lewis. However, what's different is, I think, the Black Lives Matter movement this time is female-led.
Ashish [00:27:40] And by being female-led, they're also more encompassing of feminism, LGBTQ rights, and it's also been international. And, you know, some of the biggest protests outside the United States have been in Berlin and Paris and London, calling for the end of like police brutality here and in their own countries, and about the prison industrial complex. They've been calling for an end of that in their countries too. So the movement feels bigger and different and it will also go back to is: We have time.
Ashish [00:28:06] Like, we are at home, and people are focused on creating real societal change right now. And business has a role to play in that. And they're holding both of them in account. And it's easier to maybe attach yourself to the brand name and attack that. But I do think it would be—I think it would be wrong to say we're not attacking the states right now and politicians are holding them to account. I do think people are on the streets doing that. It just doesn't get the coverage it deserves.
Kinsey [00:28:33] Right. Let's talk for a moment about the international component here. Is this a uniquely American problem—this prison industrial complex—or does this exist in other forms and iterations across the globe?
Ashish [00:28:44] Look, private prisons—first they exist in multiple countries [indistinct]. I think some the biggest private prisons outside of America and Australia are in the UK. Private contractors in prisons, I mean, a lot of other people that provide prison transport and they make a ton of money off the prison industrial complex in both the U.K., Europe, Australia, and other countries. I think the labor issue is the biggest unique American problem, if that makes sense.
Kinsey [00:29:11] Yeah.
Ashish [00:29:11] I'm not saying it doesn't happen in other countries that are poorer, probably developing. I'm sure it's there. I mean, let's just be honest. The [indistinct] thing is internment camps in China. We're not doing that. And I would argue that, you know, that stuff you saw in World War II, I mean, that's some really dark stuff. And I don't think you're going to see our prisoners are treated brutally, but I don't think that's happening here right now. So, yes, it's not uniquely American. I think the way it's designed to penalize communities of color and specifically Black people is unique to America. It's designed to give us a loophole to have slavery again, in a weird way, for our states as well as our companies.
Kinsey [00:29:51] OK. So a lot of what we've focused on in this conversation so far is understanding the problems with the system as it exists today. We're going to take a short break to hear from our partner, and when we come back, we will talk solutions. —
Kinsey [00:30:03] And now back to the conversation with Ashish Prashar. What do we do? How do we fix this? I mean, we talked some about boycotting companies and trying to hold companies, corporations, their CEOs, but also the government to account beyond just deciding to protest or to not buy a certain good from a certain company. What can we do to effect change? What needs to be done? What's the solution to this problem?
Ashish [00:30:28] Well, I think it does still start on the street. It still starts with, like, marching up to City Hall every day and every week, frankly, and making sure our governor and frankly, our president know that we're not OK with this anymore. And we will continue to push this movement until you actually change the system, whether it's the policing, whether it's the courts and how they issue punishment, and even the prison industrial complex. That can't stop, because if that stops, you lose momentum too.
Ashish [00:30:54] But in terms of the company aspect of it, it isn't just like a social boycott. It Isn't the black square that lots of people posted when the Black Lives Matter movement started to kick off. It's about real action. It's not just boycotts. It's actual financial divestment. I think I mentioned earlier briefly that it is divesting from every company that profits from the industrial complex.
Ashish [00:31:15] And that is hard. I'm not going to pretend that's easy. I struggle with it. I'm sure a lot of people struggle with it when they buy a good, they don't where that comes from sometimes. And as I mentioned earlier on, there are 4,100 companies involved in it in some way. And your pension fund could be connected to it. Your mutual funds and ETFs. So, you know, you got to divest. Divestment means ending all financial relationship with those companies that profit from the prison industrial complex.
Ashish [00:31:40] Not only should it be pension funds, university endowments—it is those ETFs and mutual funds. But I think it's also—there's a second step for companies. And going back to your point about prison labor, it's looking at what is out there from the likes of Worth Rises, from color of change at the organizations that are directly profiting from the labor itself, asking them to cease that immediately. But also, even if it's via the state, we should be making sure, like, Governor Cuomo doesn't outsource labor to make hand sanitizers that our prisons can make.
Ashish [00:32:15] We should demand that stops as well. So that's holding both the businesses and the state—put some ethics to our prison industrial complex, that I don't believe it should exist. But while it does exist, our states should not be giving people away for labor. And while there has been some slow divestment using prison labor, well-known consumer companies, many in the U.S., still support prison labor in America through those contracts that I mentioned earlier on.
Ashish [00:32:43] So they're the ones who are providing the food, the cleaning service and everything else, they use prison labor that way. And we need to decide whether they should be making a profit from that at all or whether our government should allow them to make a profit from the $80 billion that we spend on them.
Ashish [00:32:55] This is an extension of slavery, right? It's almost trafficking, frankly, and we shouldn't be allowing people to be used as slaves anywhere in our society. And I think we should stand up to both government and corporations and set up principles that they can't operate this way. And, you know, finally, for me, every public traded company in the U.S. should adopt or an amended version that applies to the U.S. of those global Sullivan principles. And being held to the account that they listed in the seven principles.
Ashish [00:33:31] And look, while there's debate on the efficacy of, like, corporate social responsibility pledges, often they can be toothless. Often they can be seen as a PR exercise. [laughs] I mean, I work in PR, so I know that firsthand. But if external accountability is required and institutionalized principles, that aim can be indispensable, frankly. Because they're like values that you can call that company out on. [indistinct] this is Americans who own something and their [indistinct] can say, well, you didn't stick to those principles that can help us on the path to ending the current prison industrial complex.
Ashish [00:34:03] Because before any of your listeners leave today, I want them to answer one question for themselves: Which side of history do I want my business to be on? Whether I work there or buy from there, what will it take to arouse true action? And what will our presence in them as employees or as us as a society ultimately prove?
Ashish [00:34:24] Because without sea changes, any claims of allyship or solidarity with communities of color, in particular, our Black colleagues, our Black friends, our Black neighbors, often [indistinct]. And we have the opportunity right now, because of the unique moment we sit in with this pandemic, with this civil disobedience and disruption, to right now change the course of history, dismantle this prison industrial complex that's been a part of our country since the end of slavery.
Kinsey [00:34:53] Absolutely. And I think, you know, externally we can think of this and I mean, externally, as people who are not currently incarcerated, we can think of this as voting with our wallets. That's the first decision that we get to make is who we support. That is our right as people to decide who we want to support with our money. But I think there's also a question for me of inside the prisons, for the people who are incarcerated.
Kinsey [00:35:17] It's probably, I think, not a likely immediate outcome for a total abolition to happen right away. So what do we do? Is it paying people who are working via prison labor more, more fairer wages? Is it totally abolishing the labor that exists at all? I'm curious what the next immediate kind of solution could be for the people who are already incarcerated right now.
Ashish [00:35:39] We have to abolish prison labor. I mean, like slavery, there is no acceptable level. I think we mentioned earlier on, it was 8, 15 cents. In Texas, they don't pay anyone any money to work in prison labor. And if you want to look at what Texas is having people do, they're picking cotton. If there is no more connection to slavery than that, I don't know what is.
Kinsey [00:36:00] Yeah.
Ashish [00:36:00] There is no level of prison labor to me that is acceptable. It's inherently, morally, and ethically wrong.
Kinsey [00:36:07] Right. And it is in the financial interests of a lot of these businesses that contract with prisons to [laughs] propagate recidivism. Because as it exists, everybody is going to want to get it on the cheap. For these big businesses, we're talking about abolishing prison labor at the [indistinct]. What would they do—you know, the businesses that are intimately involved with prisons—how would they react? What would be the immediate fallout for our business world?
Ashish [00:36:37] Again, it's going to cost them a lot more to make their goods and services. I mean, we have to recognize that a lot of things that we have access to, whether it's N-95 masks that are cheap right now because we have people making them in China or Post-it notes that are really cheap because 3M make them in prisons and other products and services.
Ashish [00:36:58] We have to accept it's going to cost them a lot more to make them. And frankly, they shouldn't put that cost on the consumer. They should just suck that cost up. And I know it's hard for business to accept, but there is a moral side to this that has to be—this is ethically wrong. I mean, you are basically using slave labor. There is no other words to combine that. Yes, you could pass that cost on. And we as Americans may have to get used to paying for some higher prices for some goods.
Ashish [00:37:25] But I think even then, we will ask our businesses why we are being squeezed. I think people right now, given we're in this environment, again, a pandemic and Black Lives Matter and other movements right now that are happening, I think we're going to not accept that higher price because you have to now use real labor. You have to pay minimum wage, you know, things like that.
Ashish [00:37:44] And by the way, minimum wage, in itself, is not enough to deal with the cost of living. We're dealing with an economic time where we have a similar economic wealth gap to just before the French Revolution, someone told me the other day. [laughs] So you can see that people are not in a place where they're going to be paying exorbitant amounts, for goods they've got cheap for those years. So people will have to accept less profit.
Kinsey [00:38:08] It almost brings to mind for me the conversation that was a very important and popular one last year about the role of a corporation, what a corporation should serve. It's not just shareholders, it's also stakeholders. I hope that that we, as an American people, can understand our role as stakeholders. We have more power than we often give ourselves credit for. It's not just writing in to a CEO or something like that. It's also just not buying things [laughs] or, like you said, refusing to purchase things at a price that doesn't feel fair to all stakeholders involved in the process.
Ashish [00:38:41] Yeah, I mean, I just think American consumers are smarter than we give them credit for. And I think people are, again, I guess that's that people are awake right now, and people are looking at what the injustices of our system, whether it is through their economics all the way through to the prison industrial complex. And I think you're going to see a moment in time right now where we're going to see systemic change. Businesses will have to be used to it.
Kinsey [00:39:01] Right. And I would like to also think that this is one example of how we can understand our power as people who have wallets and buy things [laughs] that —
Ashish [00:39:09] 100%.
Kinsey [00:39:10] We can affect change in a number of ways. Regardless of your beliefs, you have the power to actually do something. So, you know, Ashish, we have learned a ton from you during this conversation. I would like to, as we finish up here, learn a little bit more about you. So I got a couple final questions [laughter] [indistinct]. So what has been the biggest lesson that you have learned in the last six months?
Ashish [00:39:33] God, I think for me, the last six months, especially during this pandemic, has been the ability for people to see through bullshit. Like, I think it's like, you know, the electorate doesn't know what it needs. And people don't know how hard these things are. I think you're seeing how smart people are.
Kinsey [00:39:54] OK.
Ashish [00:39:54] Yeah. Still a lot of education to be done about, especially about issues like this, because it is so hidden from the public eye. But I think once people realize, they're mobilizing together and I think we are more connected as a people than society or news sometimes has us believe.
Kinsey [00:40:10] OK. I like that. I like that. Final question. Do you have a mantra or words that you choose to live by?
Ashish [00:40:17] That's a hard one. [laughs]
Kinsey [00:40:19] I feel like I'm asking you to make a dating profile or something. [laughs]
Ashish [00:40:27] No, no. Nelson Mandela's always been a hero of mine through childhood. And then obviously, during my time in prison, [laughs] I read two people: [indistinct], of all two people. It's a really weird combination —
Kinsey [00:40:39] Fantastic combination.
Ashish [00:40:41] [indistinct] But Nelson Mandela always said stuff like, don't judge me on my successes, judge me—don't judge me when I get knocked down—I'm butchering this quote, by the way—it's like judge me by the amount of times I get back up.
Kinsey [00:40:52] Right.
Ashish [00:40:53] And I think, to me, that's my mantra. That I am, you know, grew up in a middle class family in London. Had a bit of privilege, but I cocked it up. And, you know, a lot of people who go to prison didn't have a first chance at life. I did have a first chance in life. But, you know, successfully is my second chance at life. But I've made mistakes since then. You know, even in politics, like when I worked there, the likes of Boris Johnson—but I've made errors along the way. But I get back up, and now I want to use my privilege as much as I can to help my brothers and sisters, who are returning citizens, who are currently incarcerated, but also help dismantle a system that unfairly treats them the way they are treated today.
Kinsey [00:41:27] All right. I love ending with that. That was a fantastic answer for a fantastic last question to a fantastic conversation. Thank you so, so much, Ashish, for coming on Business Casual. I think that this was an eye-opening conversation for me. There is so much that I didn't know going into this. Even with the research that I did before [chuckles] this conversation, I still feel there's a lot to be learned and I'm excited to continue to do it. And I hope that we keep having these kinds of conversations. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I really appreciate your time.
Ashish [00:41:58] Thank you, Kinsey.
Kinsey [00:42:06] Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Business Casual. Ashish and I talked extensively about what goes on for the incarcerated people inside prisons, but how do they get there? And more importantly, how do they stay there? That's what we're talking about next on Business Casual—bail funds and how they work in the context of the broader prison industrial system. Make sure you're subscribed to Business Casual so you don't miss it. And I'll see you next time. [sound of a ding]