Locking Up Black People Is Big Business

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Last week, I got to participate in American Injustice: A BET Town Hall. It’s a series of live conversations with leaders from Cory Booker to Kamala Harris about how we got into this crisis of mass incarceration.


It’ll air this Sunday. If there’s one thing I want people to take away from it, it’s that locking up Black people is big business.

Since the 1980s our prison population has more than quadrupled. Crime, of course, has not quadrupled. It’s been at historic lows.

We now lock up 2.2 million people, more than any other country in the world. A disproportionate number are people of color with Black people incarcerated at 5 times the rate of white people. Women—mostly mothers who are the primary breadwinners in their families—are the fastest growing population behinds bars.

We are tearing apart families, destroying futures, and wasting human potential on a mind-blowing scale. This does not happen accidentally. The truth is there’s a whole system of businesses and people that profit from taking away people’s freedom.

Building and staffing prisons is big business, especially in towns full of closed factories reeling from a loss of manufacturing jobs that’ve gone overseas or been made obsolete by technology. It’s an easy answer for politicians under pressure to create jobs.

The bail industry is made of modern-day loan sharks preying off poor people and people of color. DA’s set bail far out of step with the charges or people’s ability to pay—so they either go into debt or pay the highest price—their freedom.


We know all too well the story of Sandra Bland, who was hauled in under the pretext of a traffic stop, couldn’t pay her way out, and hung herself in a jail in Waller County, Texas. Or Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old falsely accused of stealing a backpack, who spent 3 years in jail, most of it in solitary confinement, before taking his life.

Money bail is a trap. It leads to pre-trial detention, which ruins lives. In our research we found if you borrow $1,000 for bail, you’re likely to pay a private bondsman $6,000—even if you show up to court or your charges are dismissed. Black people get higher bail for identical crimes. And the average felony carries $10,0000 bail, so do the math and you’ll see what working class people are up against before they can even hire a lawyer or have their day in court.


All of this creates huge incentives for people to take plea bargains, whether or not they’re guilty, no matter how flimsy the evidence against them.

Meanwhile, prosecutors build lucrative careers acting “tough on crime.” They lock up people who’ve been pressured to take deals, pulling them out of their jobs and families, which has a ripple effect in their communities, undermining public safety.


These are the issues Color Of Change works on every day through campaigns to end money bail, demand accountability for police violence and flip the script on prosecutors, where we’ve helped reform-minded candidates rise in a dozen cities from Ferguson to Philadelphia, Orlando, and Chicago.

It’s daunting work, but not all the stories are tragic. Ebony Thomas spent three days in an Atlanta jail after she was arrested for an unpaid ticket, missing sticker, and light out on her car. Her family thought she’d been hurt, or worse. But a year later, she stood with us as part of Mama’s Day Bailout and helped raise the money to send 147 women home on Mother’s Day.


We’ve led campaigns to shame prisons for forcing incarcerated people to do dangerous, backbreaking work, like fighting forest fires in California for as little as $1/hour. Our work led to the first law in the country to make phone calls from jail free. We’ve gone after the worst offenders, like California’s largest bail agency Aladdin, now under fire for corruption and keeping bail premiums high.

Profiteering in the prison industry should come as no surprise. But it does surprise people.


Our criminal justice system is a labyrinth of unfair, racist, counterproductive laws that’ve been built up over four decades. And the only way we’ll undo them is by coming together to have brutally honest conversations about what’s going on behind closed doors.

With 1.4 million members behind us, we are building power to transform the system. That means building political power, showing up en masse at town halls and in voting booths to set new standards for prosecutors and hold those in office accountable from Dallas to Detroit.


It means changing the narratives we see everyday on TV, on the news where data shows Black people are portrayed as criminals in far greater percentages than they actually commit crimes—and on popular crime shows. It means teaming up with influential artists like John Legend and Common to show how money bail, probation and parole, and pre-trial detention have become another form of incarceration for millions.

It’s time to break down where injustice hides and show people what we can do about it. Because there is so much we can do, together.


Mass incarceration is big business. If we want justice, we just have to follow the money.

Rashad Robinson is President of Color Of Change, a leading online racial justice organization. Driven by more than 1.4 million members working to build political and cultural power for Black communities, Color Of Change is creating a more human and less hostile world for all people in America.



The part of all this I like to drive home to folks is that part about forced prison labor. Prisons are the modern day plantations. An increasing number of farmers are using prison labor to work their fields. Law enforcement is incentivized to put people away because hey these crops aren’t gonna pick themselves.

You know those manufacturing jobs that “disappeared”? Prisoners are doing a lot of that shit now. Because business figured out you could get prison labor on the cheap. You don’t even need to leave the country.