The 13th Amendment: How companies are turning prisons into cash cows

Here's how the 13th Amendment allows companies make a dubious profit off the backs of prisoners.

Shaka Senghor: So prisons in America specifically are some of the biggest, most dysfunctional businesses we have in our society, and they are a business because of the cheap and free labor.

When you read the 13th Amendment—that basically was the amendment that broke through slavery and freed the men and women who were enslaved at the time—there is a clause in there that allows for the re-enslavement of people in the event that they’re convicted of a crime. And so in prisons throughout our country, you have people who are working for basically free, and if they’re not working for free they’re working for wages that, if we saw that happening in another country, we would be very critical of.

When I was in prison I worked for $0.17 an hour; that was my starting rate working in the kitchen. But there are also big corporations who invest in prison labor because they can get this labor for $1.50 an hour. The sad part about it is that, in turn, they don’t even hire these men and women when they’re actually released from prison. Everything in prison has inflated costs. It costs us—inside prison, when I was inside—anywhere between $3 and $15 for a 15-minute phone call.

We don’t have to pay that out here in free society. There is a way that we can send emails to men and women inside prison, and it cost five cents every time we send that, whereas out here in society we can send emails without any charge. And so there are so many ways that the prison is exploited: the cheap labor, the cost of services and goods, and it’s a model that, sadly and unfortunately, has affected a large segment of our society.

I think most people aren’t aware of why the business models of prison exist, because most of our society has been left clueless in regards to how our judicial system works. And it’s largely been through the effect of campaigns that politicians have run for years, this whole idea that one of the greatest fears you should have is crime in America. When you’re operating out of a space of fear you’re not thinking clearly, so you’re not willing to examine things that are right in front of us.

And so the way that the prison system has developed and evolved over the years, is it originally started as government-run, state-run institutions, and then people started seeing investment opportunities when the states and couldn’t keep up with the budgetary cost of incarcerating so many people. We currently have over two million men and women incarcerated throughout the country, and we represent five percent of the world population, yet we incarcerate 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people.

And so, at some point, states could no longer keep up with those budgets, private investors moved in and seized an opportunity, and then they started structuring laws in a way that ensured that people continue to be incarcerated for the most frivolous things. Like, 40 years ago we didn’t have as many laws on the books that we have now, and when you look at how the war on drugs itself impacted incarceration rates, if you follow that pathway you’ll see how people seized on that opportunity and began to invest in private businesses.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery—but it still remains legal under one condition. The amendment reads: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Today in America, big corporations profit of cheap prison labor in both privatized and state-run prisons. Shaka Senghor knows this second wave of slavery well—he spent 19 years in jail, working for a starting wage of 17 cents per hour, in a prison where a 15-minute phone call costs between $3-$15. In this video, he shares the exploitation that goes on in American prisons, and how the 13th Amendment allows slavery to continue. He also questions the profit incentive to incarcerate in this country: why does America represent less than 5% of the world's population, but almost 25% of the world's prisoners? Shaka Senghor's latest venture is Mind Blown Media.

Public health crisis: Facebook ads misinform about HIV prevention drug

Facebook's misinformation isn't just a threat to democracy. It's endangering lives.

Photo Credit: Paul Butler / Flickr
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada.
  • Over the years, Facebook's hands-off ad policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its political ads.
  • Unregulated "surveillance capitalism" commodifies people's personal information and makes them vulnerable to sometimes misleading ads.

LGBT groups are saying that Facebook is endangering lives by advertising misleading medical information pertaining to HIV patients.

The tech giant's laissez-faire ad policy has already been accused of threatening democracy by providing a platform for false political ads, and now policy could be fostering a major public-health concern.

LGBT groups take on Facebook’s ad policy

According to LGBT advocates, for the past six months Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada. The ads, which The Washington Post reports appear to have been purchased by personal-injury lawyers, claim that these medications threaten patients with serious side effects. According to LGBT organizations led by GLAAD, the ads have left some patients who are potentially at risk of contracting HIV scared to take preventative drugs, even though health officials and federal regulators say the drugs are safe.

LGBT groups like GLAAD, which regularly advises Facebook on LGBT issues, reached out to the company to have the ads taken down, saying they are false. Yet, the tech titan has refused to remove the content claiming that the ads fall within the parameters of its policy. Facebook spokeswoman Devon Kearns told The Post that the ads had not been rated false by independent fact-checkers, which include the Associated Press. But others are saying that Facebook's controversial approach to ads is creating a public-health crisis.

In an open letter to Facebook sent on Monday, GLAAD joined over 50 well-known LGBTQ groups including the Human Rights Campaign, the American Academy of HIV Medicine and the National Coalition for LGBT Health to publicly condemn the company for putting "real people's lives in imminent danger" by "convincing at-risk individuals to avoid PrEP, invariably leading to avoidable HIV infections."

What Facebook’s policy risks 

Of course, this is not the first time Facebook's policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its ads. Social media has been both a catalyst and conduit for the rapid-fire spread of misinformation to the world wide web. As lawmakers struggle to enforce order to cyberspace and its creations, Facebook has become a symbol of the threat the internet poses to our institutions and to public safety. For example, the company has refused to take down 2020 election ads, largely funded by the Trump campaign, that spew false information. For this reason, Facebook and other social media platforms present a serious risk to a fundamental necessity of American democracy, public access to truth.

But this latest scandal underlines how the misconstrued information that plagues the web can infect other, more intimate aspects of American lives. Facebook's handling of paid-for claims about the potential health risks of taking Truvada and other HIV medications threatens lives.

"Almost immediately we started hearing reports from front-line PrEP prescribers, clinics and public health officials around the country, saying we're beginning to hear from potential clients that they're scared of trying Truvada because they're seeing all these ads on their Facebook and Instagram feeds," said Peter Staley, a long-time AIDS activist who works with the PrEP4All Collaboration, to The Post.

Unregulated Surveillance Capitalism

To be fair, the distinction between true and false information can be muddy territory. Personal injury lawyers who represent HIV patients claim that the numbers show that the potential risks of medications such as Turvada and others that contain the ingredient antiretroviral tenofovir may exist. This is particularly of note when the medication is used as a treatment for those that already have HIV rather than prevention for those that do not. But the life-saving potential of the HIV medications are unequivocally real. The problem, as some LGBT advocates are claiming, is that the ads lacked vital nuance.

It also should be pointed out that Facebook has taken action against anti-vaccine content and other ads that pose threats to users. Still, the company's dubious policies clearly pose a big problem, and it has shown no signs of adjusting. But perhaps the underlying issue is the failure to regulate what social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff calls "surveillance capitalism" by which people's experiences, personal information, and characteristics become commodities. In this case, paid-for personal-injury legal ads that target users with certain, undisclosed characteristics. It's been said that you should be wary of what you get for free, because it means you've become the product. Facebook, after all, is a business with an end goal to maximize profits.

But why does a company have this kind of power over our lives? Americans and their legislators are ensnared in an existential predicament. Figure out how to regulate Facebook and be accused with endangering free speech, or leave the cyber business alone and risk the public's health going up for sale along with its government.

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