As factories and other businesses remain shuttered across America, prisoners in at least 40 states continue going to work. Sometimes they earn pennies an hour, or nothing at all, making masks and hand sanitizer to help guard others from the coronavirus.

Those same inmates have been cut off from family visits for weeks, but they get charged up to $25 for a 15-minute phone call — plus a surcharge every time they add credit.

They also pay marked-up prices at the commissary for soap so they can wash their hands more frequently. That service can carry a 100% processing fee.

As the COVID-19 virus cripples the economy, leaving millions unemployed and many companies on life support, big business that has become synonymous with the world’s largest prison system is still 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 transfers hundreds of dollars each month to her 64-year-old father at a federal prison in Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, she said, prisons continue their nickel-and-diming.

“You have to pay for phone calls, emails, food,” she said. “Everything.”

The coronavirus outbreak has put an unlikely spotlight on America’s jails and prisons, which house more than 2.2 million people and have been described by health experts as petri dishes for the virus’s spread.

Masks and hand sanitizer often still don’t reach inmates. Testing is often not done, even among those with symptoms, despite fears that the virus may spread to surrounding communities. And in some parts of the country, those experiencing symptoms languish in sweltering buildings with poor ventilation.

The concerns extend to prison medical providers, often accused by health experts of providing substandard care even in the best of times.

Sheron Edwards shares a dorm with 50 other men at Chickasaw County Regional Correctional Facility in Mississippi. Given his past experiences with the prison’s medical provider, Centurion of Mississippi, he worries about what will happen if coronavirus hits.

“I’m afraid they’ll just let us die in here,” he said.

When he was at the notorious Parchman prison several years ago, Edwards said, Centurion would allow him only one session of physical therapy after a 6-inch rod and screws were placed in his broken ankle.

“Even though that wasn’t life threatening, it was serious,” he said. “With COVID-19, I could actually lose my life.”

More than 20,000 inmates have been infected and 295 have died nationwide, at Rikers Island in New York City and at state and federal lockups in cities and towns coast to coast, according to an unofficial tally kept by the COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project run by UCLA Law.

On Wednesday, officials in San Diego announced the first death of a detainee in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center.

When incarceration rates soared to record highs in the 1980s and ’90s, some corporations saw a business opportunity. Promised lower costs and, in many cases, profit sharing agreements, prison and jail administrators started privatizing everything from food and commissary to entire operations of facilities.

By the 2000s, the private sector was embedded in nearly every aspect of the correctional system.

Today, some of corporate America’s biggest 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, according to the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative.

Proponents of for-profit prisons say it’s cheaper for private companies to run them than the government, arguing it’s easier to cancel contracts and there is more incentive to provide better service. That, they say, leads to better living conditions and more effective reintroduction of the incarcerated back into society, with the ultimate goal of reducing recidivism.

The advocacy group Worth Rises disagrees.

The group released a report Thursday detailing some 4,100 corporations that profit from the country’s prisons and jails. For the first time, it identified corporations that support prison labor directly or through their supply chains. The group also recommended divesting from more than 180 publicly traded corporations and investment firms.

“The industry behind mass incarceration is bigger than many appreciate. So is the harm they cause and the power they wield,” said Bianca Tylek, the group’s founder and director.

“They exploit and abuse people with devastating consequences,” Tylek said. “Of course, they aren’t unilaterally responsible for mass incarceration, but they’re part of the ecosystem propping it up.”

The report includes vendors that stock commissaries with Cup Noodles and Tide laundry detergent, along with contracted health care providers that have been sued for providing limited or inadequate coverage to those behind bars.

There are companies like Smith & Wesson that make protective gear for correctional officers, and Attenti that supplies electronic ankle bracelets. Other household names, such as Stanley Black & Decker, have entire units dedicated to manufacturing accessories for prison doors.

Prisoners also work, making everything from license plates to body armor vests and mattresses. In California, some even serve as firefighters. But in some places, incarcerated people are employed by major corporations such as Minnesota-based 3M.

Billed as a cheap alternative to foreign outsourcing, inmates also previously provided goods to Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret and Whole Foods, sparking an uproar that caused many big-name companies to bow out.

Some prisoners leave their lockups to do jobs in the community, such as fast food restaurants. State-owned businesses have also cropped up around the massive prison labor industries, including some with almost comical names, such as Big House products in Pennsylvania and Rough Rider Industries in North Dakota.

While some jobs might pay minimum wage as required by federal law for products that enter interstate commerce, the take-home pay of workers in correctional industries can be as low as just 20% of their stated wage after garnishment for room and board, restitution, and other costs.

Meanwhile, private companies market catalogs full of products to lockups. One website advertises an array of pricey bondage items: Leather bed restraints for $267, ankle hobbles for $144 and a metal waist chain with handcuffs going for $76.95.

An Alabama company markets video visitation systems under a call box with the face of an elderly woman in glasses shown on the monitor inside. Beside it reads the slogan: “Keep Granny’s shank pies away from your facility.”

Bobby Rose, one of the report’s researchers, served 24 years in New York state prisons, where he spent a lot of time thinking about the role money plays in America’s legal system.

But he was shocked to learn just how many big-name companies were involved and how much was being made off not only those behind bars, but also their families — a particularly poignant concept during the pandemic.

He still thinks about friends left in prison — two of whom have succumbed to COVID-19.

“I feel,” he said, “that some of these companies that really profit could have provided … sanitizer or even gave free soap,” he said.

Public health experts are urging jails and prisons to take steps to reduce their incarcerated populations as coronavirus risks continue to grow. (PHOTO: DAVID GOLDMAN / ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Public health experts are urging jails and prisons to take steps to reduce their incarcerated populations as coronavirus risks continue to grow. (PHOTO: DAVID GOLDMAN / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

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