As factories and other businesses remain shuttered, prison inmates in at least 40 states continue working. Sometimes they earn pennies an hour, or nothing, making masks and hand sanitizer to help guard others from the coronavirus. Those same prisoners have been cut off from family visits for weeks, but they get charged up to $25 for a 15-minute phone call, the Associated Press reports. They also pay marked-up prices at the commissary for soap so they can wash their hands more frequently. As COVID-19 cripples the economy, leaving millions unemployed and many companies on life support, big businesses that have become synonymous with the world’s largest prison system are making money. “It’s hard. Especially at a time like this, when you’re out of work, you’re waiting for unemployment … and you don’t have money to send,” said Keturah Bryan, who sends hundreds of dollars monthly to her 64-year-old father at a federal prison in Oklahoma. Meanwhile, she said, prisons continue to gouge. “You have to pay for phone calls, emails, food,” she said. “Everything.”
More than 20,000 prisoners have been infected and 295 have died nationwide, according to an unofficial tally kept by the COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project run by UCLA Law. Since the 1990s, prison and jail administrators have privatized everything from food and commissary to entire operations of facilities. Some big corporate names and many smaller companies vie for a share of the $80 billion spent on mass incarceration each year in the U.S., roughly half of which stays in the public sector to pay for staff salaries and some health care costs. A report released Thursday by the advocacy group Worth Rises detailed some 4,100 corporations that profit from prisons and jails. It identified corporations that support prison labor directly or through their supply chains.