COVID crisis exposes prison profiteers

Food Not Bombs Solidarity launches campaign against prison profiteers outside Aramark in Philadelphia, March 15. Credit: WW photo, Joe Piette

By Cindy Lou Miller

“If you want to understand any problem in America, you need to focus on who profits from that problem, not who suffers from that problem.” — Dr. Amos Wilson. (

One of the main rules of caution about avoiding COVID-19 has been social distancing, which has proven to be impossible in crammed jails and double-celled prisons. The guards have brought the virus in from the outside world.

Prison abolitionists across the country have been frustrated by the miniscule release rate of incarcerated people. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf promised the release of 1,800, but only released 159. Bruce Norris was paroled from SCI Phoenix in December 2020 after serving 45 years. His commutation papers sat unsigned on Wolf’s desk for a week. While waiting, Norris contracted COVID-19 and died.

Protest marches, car caravans, vigils, legislative visits, Zoom meetings, phone zaps and letter writing campaigns have been held, raising that release is the answer to stem the prison spread of COVID — all to little avail. Food Not Bombs Solidarity, a group of activists inspired by the research of an incarcerated member, held a demonstration outside Aramark headquarters in Philadelphia. They decided that exposing and naming some of the corporations the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections contracts to provide the services used by incarcerated people might help up the ante.

Aramark is the shameful company that provides shoddy meals consisting of low-grade, poorly prepared “food” for 99 cents a portion. Aramark also contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention camps, hospitals and colleges. For workers at Aramark, average pay is $11 per hr. The multibillion dollar company has been sued many times in the last 20 years — all over the country.

The Company Store

To supplement the lousy quality and limited portions of Aramark meals, incarcerated workers, with wages as low as 19 cents an hour, are forced to use the prison commissary. This harkens back to the sharecroppers and coal miners who were forced to use the “company store.” If they lack the funds, they must rely on family members — meaning that families are forced to subsidize the prison system.

All items must come from the commissaries, notorious for highly inflated prices. In many states prison commissaries are operated by private companies. Keefe Group and Oasis Management Systems are two used in many Pennsylvania prisons and jails. These private companies often pay a portion of their profits back to the host prison.

The high cost of contact

Incarcerated persons and their families are forced to pay outrageous per-minute prices for phone calls. Securus Technologies, which controls the phone service, has faced numerous lawsuits. Tom Gore, investor in Securus and multimillionaire owner of the Detroit Pistons, was recently called out by Black Lives Matter activists, who demanded he pay reparations to their community after scamming hundreds of dollars through these predatory phone charges. Calls are also recorded.

In August 2018, the PA DOC falsely claimed that drugs were being sent through the mail. In a no-bid contract, DOC Secretary John Wetzel immediately hired Smart Communications to handle mail. Letters and cards are now sent to the company’s processing facility in Florida, where they are photocopied. The people they were intended for are sent copies, while the original letter is on record. Smart Communications is paid $4 million a year to maintain a searchable database called MailGuard, which not only tracks incarcerated people but their friends, family and anyone sending them mail. (

Pennsylvania incarcerated workers are also charged an average of 25 cents per email by Global Tele Link, whose transmission and delivery times are measured in days. Tablets to send email must be purchased at the commissaries at pumped-up prices. All emails are recorded.

Pennsylvania prisons have used the COVID-19 pandemic to eliminate in-person contact visits. They initially provided free Zoom visits. However, since Zoom would not record the calls, the DOC switched to Polycom, which records all visits.

Death by medical neglect

Notorious for their shoddy services, Wellpath and Corizon are two of the corporations contracted to provide health care on a by-the-hour basis. Doctors and nurses — who visit the facilities only once or twice a week — are mandated to spend a certain amount of time with a patient, who is charged $5 per visit. Aspirin is usually the prescribed medical remedy at 10 for an additional $5.

Many medical personnel people have refused to believe the cries for help or offer treatment to incarcerated people. When it is offered it is usually substandard. It is no coincidence that many of our elders and political prisoners suffer from cancer.

When Mumia Abu-Jamal contracted hepatitis C, SCI Mahanoy prison refused to administer the treatment until they were sued and ordered by the court to do so. Poor quality food, air and water caused MOVE 9 member Delbert Africa to contract cancer. Released in January 2020 after 42 years, his treatment had been so terribly botched that it could not be reversed. He died 6 months later. Many political prisoners have died mysteriously in prison or soon after their release. We call this death by medical neglect.

By contracting with outside companies, the PA DOC insures itself against litigation and grievances. If sued, they simply refer the matter to said corporation, who usually has plenty of funds and lawyers on staff. Also, much of this info is hidden — these corporations are protected by nondisclosure clauses in their contracts.  The DOC also benefits from kickbacks contained in some of these contracts.

We challenge and call out these profiteers who drain resources from our incarcerated loved ones and their families. We call out the systemic racism built into the “injustice” system. We are still building our campaign and deciding next moves, but putting out information about these leeches is a strong first step.

Miller is a prison abolitionist and organizer with Food Not Bombs Solidarity and Mobilization4Mumia.

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