Throughout our many episodes, we've had the privilege to go behind the scenes with activists on the front line of criminal justice reform. We know that there are multiple factors to address like ending mass incarceration, cash bail, and calls to exonerate wrongful convictions. Still, this week's guest is the Fellowship Advisor at Columbia Law and former Equal Justice Works Fellow, Bianca Tylek, shares with Xander the incentives fueling this $80 billion prison industry and how she's dismantling what she referred to as "an extension of slavery."
Bianca shares her journey of growing up in and out of the family court systems to probation hearings, all of which led to her passion for criminal justice. She spent four years working in Wall Street's financial services before attending Law School.
Her experience was eye-opening to the fiscal incentives driving injustices and costs to surveillance and incarceration. Tylek says, "That $80 billion industry is preventing us from moving towards a world where we can actually see safety and justice without needing police and prisons."
She says that the cost doesn't even include that of families who cover commissary and telecom phone service costs but that "Private prisons aren't even necessarily the scope that people think they are.” Private prisons cost $5 billion and then add the cost of law enforcement, which brings it closer to $180 billion.
Tylek believes the prison boom that started in the 80s and 90s is where the incentives truly began. "There was a prison being built every eight days in the US for a better part of the decade," she says, which led to rural Americans fighting for those jobs due to the insufficient job markets at the time.
However, these jobs didn't yield economic growth in those areas and instead had adverse effects on the people, such as increased domestic violence cases. "Jobs in prisons and jails, contrary to what people might believe, actually have very high rates of suicide," Bianca says, "They're awful places to everyone that walks through the doors. We want better jobs." She began working with labor forces and governments to flip the script towards job training programs and closing prisons.
After the Civil War, the need for labor led to the increased incarnation of black people, which is still allowed under the 13th Amendment. "Our US constitution actually says that slavery is allowable so long as 'X' condition is met," Bianca says. These Black Code laws of the past have led us to the incentivized system still used today.
By 2017, Tylek realized, "Corporations are not infallible." and she founded Worth Rises, a nonprofit advocacy group that exposes exploitation and commercialization within the criminal legal system. "We work to lead, coordinate education, policy, and corporate campaigns."
Worth Rises fights to reform the prison phone system, healthcare, construction, and transportation by going after the investors and equity groups. "Corporations are not these big institutions that magically make decisions," Bianca says, "There are people at these corporations that make these decisions."
Bianca uses her skills in financial services towards reform and community corrections. "We're looking at introducing the 28th Amendment, which would eliminate the exception clause and abolish slavery once and for all." Bianca believes her work promotes the intersectional activism needed.
"If we can abolish the industry, the work of our comrades in this field can move." She says, "To reduce sentencing, work to defund prisons and police, all of that stuff can move because the financial actors and those financial incentives are removed from the equation."
Worth Rises offers accessible online curriculums from radio shows to 60-second videos to help people get involved. "The reality is that we know very little about the prison industry," Bianca says. "I hope people dive in and learn more.”
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