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Originally published on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2015 at 8:00 AM

Prison, Profits and the Exploitation of Young People

Instead of filling college classrooms, our children are filling prison cells.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline funnels our youth out of public schools and into the Prison Industrial Complex, where they are reduced to near-slavery. In exchange for their lives and labor, for-profit companies like Corrections Corporation of America pay our youth as little as 95 cents a day.

The prison system is a business, whose primary product is not equipment, but the labor of human beings. Prisons can turn a profit by selling this incredibly cheap labor to large corporations like Starbucks, Microsoft, and Nordstrom. As Chris Hedges notes in "The Prison State of America,” "prisons employ and exploit the ideal worker. Prisoners do not receive benefits or pensions. They are not paid overtime. They are forbidden to organize and strike. They must show up on time. They are not paid for sick days or granted vacations. They cannot formally complain about working conditions or safety hazards." The low price of this labor enables certain industries to remain competitive in the United States.

In addition to companies whose bottom lines depend on cheap prison labor, there is a vast web of companies that further profit by producing goods and services for the prison infrastructure. These include companies that provide food and medical care to inmates, employ guards, and manufacture security and surveillance equipment. For example, Chris Hedges notes that "Aramark Holdings Corp., a Philadelphia-based company that contracts through Aramark Correctional Services to provide food to 600 correctional institutions across the United States, was acquired in 2007 for $8.3 billion by investors that included Goldman Sachs." Prison is big business.

This entire infrastructure is built on a steady influx of youth of color to the prison system. Black students are three times more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled for the same actions. Students who are suspended or expelled are then three times more likely to enter into the Juvenile Detention System the following year than students who are not suspended or expelled. And of that population, they are 80-95% more likely to end up in the adult penitentiary system.

The ACLU reports that the United States has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prison population. Blacks make up 18.4% of the United States population, but over 40% of the prison population. Corporations are unjustly profiting from the labor of our youth—and disproportionately, black youth. Our legal and educational systems are at fault for creating and maintaining this epidemic.