How a College Crush Made Me An Activist Against Prison Profiteering

An old photo of college students gathered on the grass with a red arrow and "Jesse in college" point...

In college I had a crush on a girl named Meredith. Although I didn’t know it at the time, that crush helped put me on track to be where I am today: fighting against prison profiteering in America.

We both attended Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts school known for being a cauldron of hipsters, neo-hippies, art nerds, and the occasional jock. When I first entered Wesleyan, I wasn’t much of a political activist. Meanwhile, Meredith was a campus leader. She took on trade justice, working to ensure international trade benefited not just corporations, but also workers and the environment. She was a fast talker who exuded idealism and moxie, as if she’d just walked out of an Aaron Sorkin script.

In 1999, when I was a freshman, there was a huge protest in Seattle against the World Trade Organization (WTO). Hundreds of thousands of people showed up. Meredith flew all the way from Connecticut to partake in the action.

The 1999 WTO protest in Seattle. Image courtesy of Because We Must.

“I should have been there,” I thought. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to impress her; it was that she raised the bar for what dedication looked like. Shortly after she returned from the WTO protest, I started doing trade activism. 

Fast forward 14 years. I’m now a professional activist, and I run Beyond Bars, a national campaign against mass incarceration. We produce videos and engage social media to promote a fairer, more cost-effective justice system. Locking up people has become a big business in the U.S. Yet while mass incarceration is highly profitable for a sliver of the population, it does little to improve public safety. Our goal is to show Americans how the current system wastes money and undermines the common good through videos that they can relate to.

The United States is the prison capital of the world. It has less than 5% of the world’s population but nearly 25% of its prisoners. About half of America’s prisoners are convicted for nonviolent offenses, a good chunk of them for drugs. When offenders are incarcerated instead of sent to rehabilitation programs, their families become fragmented and their post-prison career prospects disintegrate. That doesn’t make anybody safer.

The poor, especially African-Americans and Latinos, are bearing the brunt of the incarceration burden. Occasionally, you see a rich kid — like Michael Douglas’ son Cameron — ensnared in this morass. But in general, the cops target those who don’t have the education, money, or political clout to fight back.

Racial disparity in stop and frisk statistics in New York City. Image courtesy of NYCLU.

Meanwhile, in order to maintain this massive system, taxpayers put up $74 billion annually  for incarceration alone and $228 billion for the justice system as a whole. That money isn’t creating jobs, hiring good teachers, or establishing programs in rehabilitation, mental health, and crime prevention — the very things that would keep our streets safe.

Beyond Bars’ latest initiative, Prison Profiteers, exposes the industries that are making money off of mass incarceration and working to keep the system the way it is. The project entails six videos, each on a different profiteer. Beyond Bars produced the videos and released them in partnership with the ACLU and the Nation magazine.

The biggest prison profiteer we’ve highlighted is Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). This private prison company makes about $1.8 billion a year from locking people up. CCA has no incentive to rehabilitate people; in fact, it has an incentive to keep crime rates high to increase occupancy. It spends millions of dollars lobbying to bring as many inmates as possible into its facilities. Check out our video about CCA below.

Our series also features the GEO Group, a private prison company that, like CCA, has a long history of abuse and neglect. Beyond private prisons, however, there are myriad ways for corporations to make money of mass incarceration. Consider Corizon, a company that is contracted to provide medical services to inmates yet makes money by denying medical services whenever it can and by hiring ill-trained staff. Because of Corizon’s neglect, some prisoners die of treatable diseases and live in excruciating pain when starved of medication.

The rest of our series delves deeper into the prison profiteering story. We’ve got a video on Global Tel*Link, a phone company that charges families up to $17 for a 15-minute call to their loved ones in prison. (And you thought your phone company was ripping you off.)

We’ve also produced videos exposing the exploitative bail industry and law enforcement officials who seize money from people they suspect commit crimes, even without proof. Put all of these pieces together, and we’ve got a criminal justice system working for the benefit of a few institutions, not the public.

Many Americans are under the misconception that locking up more and more people ensures public safety. Whenever there’s a ballot initiative asking people to increase the mandatory minimum sentence for one crime or another, it usually passes. That’s because Americans, in particular, too often act out of fear rather than rationally considering the facts. If we want more safety, at lower costs, with better outcomes for families, we’ve got to move beyond mass incarceration and towards a policy of prevention and healing. It might sound touchy-feely, but it works.

My college crush on Meredith went unrequited, by the way. C’est la vie. It happens. But my interest in social justice, which Meredith helped to instill, has remained. I never again want to find myself saying, “I should have been there. I should have done something.”

This is my brief moment on earth to do what I can, as it is yours. Crush or no crush, we’ve got work to do.

Editor's note: This article is part of PolicyMic's Day of Discussion about prison peform.