Prison systems in the US and Israel have something in common
Activists say private companies are profiting from the incarceration of racially profiled groups in the US and Israel.
Occupied West Bank – Nidal Abu Aker, a 51-year-old Palestinian living in the Dheisheh refugee camp near the city of Bethlehem, is no stranger to prison.
He has spent 16 years in Israeli prisons throughout his life, often without being formally charged with a crime, he and his lawyers say.
But now that his son Muhammad, age 24, is incarcerated in an Israeli prison, Abu Aker is suffering a new form of hardship as he struggles to support a loved one who is behind bars.
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“We spend 1,200 shekels (around $341) a month so that he can buy everything in prison,” Abu Aker told Al Jazeera. “He buys food, cola to drink, soap, things for shaving, cigarettes. It’s a lot of money for me.”
The burden is a tough one for Abu Aker to shoulder. He is among the 31 percent of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank who are unemployed. But without his financial support, says Abu Aker, his son’s basic needs would not be met.
“In the Israeli prison, you cannot live without this money because they don’t bring you enough food,” he says. “If you are a prisoner, you have to live with your own money.”
The Israeli Prison Service (IPS) did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
Israel often uses what is known as administrative detention to hold incarcerated people for lengthy periods of time without charges. The majority of those held are Palestinians from the occupied West Bank who say they are being targeted because of their ethnicity.
Israeli military courts that rule over the West Bank exclusively try Palestinians. About 40 percent of male Palestinians in the occupied territories have been arrested during their lifetimes, according to prisoner support and human rights organisation Addameer.
Charges of racial profiling are not unique to Israel. In the United States, where the incarceration rate is five to 10 times higher than in other industrialised nations, African-American adults are 5.9 times as likely as white adults to be sent to prison, according to the research and advocacy organisation the Sentencing Project.
Prisoners’ rights advocates have also taken note of another striking similarity between the US and Israel. In both countries, private companies are profiting from incarceration.
paid six million dollars to the courts for paperwork and fines. And that’s not the only place we pay money.”]
‘…it’s expensive to have a prisoner in your family’
Amit Gilutz, spokesman for the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories (also known as B’Tselem), noted that Israel has used administrative detention against several Israeli citizens over the years, but said that it is “a mechanism primarily used against Palestinians”.
The European Parliament’s policy division has also claimed that administrative detention is used “to constrain Palestinian political activism”.
Once a Palestinian is detained, the bills start adding up.
“In 2017, we [Palestinians] paid six million dollars to the courts for paperwork and fines. And that’s not the only place we pay money,” says Lana Ramadan, international advocacy officer for Addameer.
Israeli prisons, like those around the world, provide meals for inmates. But many imprisoned Palestinians supplement their meals with food from the canteens either because they don’t like the meals provided or because they don’t get enough to eat.
In a 2016 report, Ramadan’s organisation, Addameer, noted that Palestinian prisoners began preparing food collectively in their cells because “the quantity and quality of the prison-supplied meals degraded, forcing the prisoners to purchase and prepare their own meals”.
“Of the 17 prisons in the country, each one has a canteen and each canteen has an account for each prisoner,” Ramadan tells Al Jazeera. “Each [Palestinian] prisoner is allowed to pay up to 1,200 shekels ($341) per month. They buy all of their needs from these canteens.”
Ramadan says that while the Palestinian Authority contributes 400 shekels or $113 to each account, the rest must be covered by detainees or their loved ones.
“That’s why it’s expensive to have a prisoner in your family,” she explains.
Miriam Shaheen, a 46-year-old cook from the city of Hebron, has five sons between the ages of 15 and 28, all of whom have spent time in Israeli prisons. Each time one of her sons is put behind bars, she spends around a quarter of her monthly salary to help him pay for food and other essential goods in the canteen.
“We were paying around 400 shekels [around $113] a month,” Shaheen says. “They have to pay when they’re in jail and they pay a fine when they get out.”
Lawyers note that even if people are too poor to send money to imprisoned relatives, they still pay an economic price.
“The families feel the economic impact because their family member is in jail instead of working,” says Afnan Khalifa, a defence lawyer who represents Palestinians. “And military courts can fine you up to 5,000 shekels [around $1,422]. Most people ask to stay in prison instead of paying the fine because they don’t have the money to pay.”
US families similarly face hardship if they lose an income when a relative is behind bars. Around 65 percent of families find themselves unable to pay for basic housing and food, according to a report by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which found that US families often incur large debts – of an average $13,607 – from court-related fines and fees.
The prison-industrial complex
In both the US and Israeli prison systems, commercial interests are laced into the institutional infrastructure, from security and communications to stocking canteens and meal services.
In 2013, research and advocacy centre Who Profits, which tracks Israeli and international corporate involvement in the occupation of Palestinian and Syrian lands, received information on 22 corporations it had identified as profiting from facilities that incarcerate Palestinians inside Israel and the occupied West Bank. Most of the firms provided security systems and services to incarceration facilities.
In the US, roughly 4,000 private corporations are believed to profit from the so-called “prison-industrial complex”, according to the advocacy organisation Worth Rises. The US locks up more people per capita than any other country in the world, and there are currently an estimated 2.3 million people behind bars there.
In the US, as in the occupied West Bank, prison commissaries force inmates to spend their own money on their basic needs. The Prison Policy Initiative issued a report last year on prison commissaries in the US, that highlighted the states of Illinois and Massachusetts, where people were found to spend a little over $1,100 a year in prison commissaries – far more than they could earn working regular prison jobs in these areas. The report noted that these commissaries “present yet another opportunity for prisons to shift the costs of incarceration to incarcerated people and their families”.
In Israel, the private company Dadash Hadarom Distribution has stocked the canteens in all Israeli prisons since at least 2009, providing food and other goods to detainees who can afford to spend their own money there.
A 2013 investigation from Palestinian advocacy organisation Palestine Monitor found that prices charged for goods in Israeli prison canteens were sometimes “radically higher” than those charged for the same goods in the Palestinian territories. Two pounds of chicken sold in the Ofer military prison in the West Bank, for example, cost $17.38. The same amount of chicken cost $5.52 in the city of Ramallah.
Addameer has also found discrepancies in the price of products across correctional facilities.
Dadash does not report how much profit it makes from supplying Israel’s prison canteens, which were estimated to have generated $33.82 million in profits for IPS between 2009 and 2011, according to Addameer.
Numerous calls from Al Jazeera to Dadash seeking comment went unanswered.
Nse Ufot, a US activist and the executive director of the nonprofit organisation the New Georgia Project, noted the similarities between prison systems in the US and Israel during a recent trip to the occupied West Bank.
“The idea that the Israeli private contractor runs the commissary, that is straight out of the US playbook,” Ufot told Al Jazeera. “The criminal justice system here is similar because of the violence – the unaccountable, unchecked violence, the targeting of minorities, and the insane profit motive that powers all of it.”
Corporations profiting from Israeli and US prisoners
Some corporate giants have been profiting from both the Isreali and US incarceration systems.
In 2016, the German industrial engineering company Siemens Corp won a $38.6 million contract with the US Federal Bureau of Prisons to implement energy and water-saving measures at two correctional facilities in eastern Kentucky. In Israel, Seimens worked with the Israeli company Orad Group to provide a security system and fire-detection system for a facility used to hold Palestinian prisoners.
Data and telecommunications provider Motorola Solutions Inc provides jail and corrections management software to the US prison system and also employs prison labour. In 2015 and 2016, the company sold IPS services and systems worth over $108 million, including equipment for the Ofer military prison in the West Bank, according to Who Profits.
Siemens and Motorola did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
British security giant G4S previously operated in both the US and Israeli prison systems, providing electronic surveillance equipment and ankle monitors, among other goods and services. The company still operates in the US and provides consulting in more than 100 countries. But in 2016, the Israeli equity firm FIMI purchased 100 percent of the shares of G4S’s Israeli branch. The new Israeli version of the company, G1 Secure Solutions, continues to provide services – including CCTV monitoring systems – to prisons across Israel and the occupied West Bank.