When Bianca Tylek, founder of nonprofit Worth Rises, talks about tearing down the U.S. prison system, she doesn’t make it sound like a distant dream. Instead, she lays out her strategy like a general plotting a multi-front war.
“I could understand how folks may not know what the vulnerabilities of multi-billion-dollar conglomerates are,” said Tylek, a former Wall Street analyst. “But they have them. What we really do is work to surgically and tactically exploit those vulnerabilities.”
The issue goes far beyond private prisons, which are the “tip of the iceberg,” she says. All told, corporations make more than $80 billion a year from things like building prisons, providing substandard food and healthcare, and charging exorbitant fees for phone calls.
Tylek’s interest in dismantling the prison-industrial complex started when she was young. The 34-year-old, who is the daughter of immigrants from Poland and Ecuador, had much exposure to correctional settings when she was growing up in New York and New Jersey. Some of her friends in high school went to jail, and her boyfriend was a gang member (who was murdered in gun violence).
Despite all that, academically she excelled — earning a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and later a J.D. from Harvard. Before focusing on criminal justice causes, she did stints at Goldman Sachs and Citigroup.
Her combination of smarts and dedication has attracted impressive backers. Worth Rises donors include Galaxy Digital CEO Mike Novogratz, Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey, and the Meadow Fund, a Silicon Valley foundation led by Patty Quillin, wife of Netflix co-founder and chairman Reed Hastings.
“Galaxy Gives and the Novogratz family have proudly supported Worth Rises work for over two years now,” said Billy Watterson, director of the Novogratz's philanthropy. He added that she is also part of the philanthropy’s leadership development program. “It will be hard for us to truly transform our justice system until we can get rid of perverse profit incentives."
We spoke with Tylek to learn more about her work, and how she goes about taking on the prison establishment.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Business of Business: Can you explain what you do and how you came to be doing that?
BT: We're an organization that is dedicated to dismantling the prison industry and ending the exploitation of people who are incarcerated, and their loved ones. And so what we're trying to do is build a society in which no individual, entity, institution or person depends on human caging, incarceration or mass surveillance, for their wealth and livelihood. That means I don't care if you're an officer making $40,000 a year, or if you own private prisons and make $6 million a year. At the end of the day, we need to shift the economy away from incarceration and shut down the industry that has been built around it.
I've seen you have many stunning credentials. How did you get into doing this?
I've wanted to dedicate my life to criminal justice for a very long time. I spent a number of years working in the private sector, specifically on Wall Street in sort of the belly of the beast. I developed a skill set to help build companies. And eventually, you know, when I would transform and shift my career over to criminal justice, when I went to law school, I began to use that same set of skills.
There is a very particular skill set that you learn involving the intricacies of business, and how corporations function and most importantly, what their vulnerabilities are. I have always been interested in who profits off this system. Because there always are windfalls for some. And that's how, unfortunately, our society is set up in many ways. The question was, who was winning?
And every time I sort of asked somebody, “what are we doing about it? Like, what are we doing about this massive industry that has been built around the caging of people?” A lot of folks said, “Well, it's capitalism, what are you gonna do about it?” And I thought about it over the years — it's really not actually just capitalism, like there's more to it than just that. Regardless of what your feelings about capitalism are, within the framework of capitalism, a lot of unethical behavior happens. And within that framework, there's also a lot you can do.
I realized that my comrades, my colleagues, my allies, my partners in the criminal justice space, social workers, lawyers, folks that are coming to this from a different perspective, don’t have [the same skill set] of actually working directly with corporations. I could understand how folks may not know what the vulnerabilities of multi-billion-dollar conglomerates are. But they have them and what we really do is work to surgically and tactically exploit those vulnerabilities
One thing that I think is interesting that you touched on in an article we did previously is private prisons, and how there is actually so much more [to prison industry] than those. Can you kind of explain what all that is?
So private prisons are really the tip of the iceberg and yet collect the most amount of media attention. And they're the simplest to understand, this notion that an entire building is owned by a private corporation, and that they demand a certain number of beds be filled by the government in order to operate. And that feels particularly unethical. What people don't understand is that private prisons only make up 8% of all correctional beds in the nation. Now, it's important to note, they make up a lot more of immigration detention space, over 80% of beds now. But that, you know, the number of immigration detention beds is around 50,000, and obviously a lot less than 2.1 million people who are currently in a correctional institution [in the U.S.]
Their prevalence in the correctional system is much lower than many assume, and that has become a red herring. Even our publicly operated facilities have now nearly outsourced every last function to the prison industry, and at times are now even doing profit sharing agreements or partnering with private industry.
"The prison industry is a much bigger industry than just prisons and private prisons. And I think one of the best ways to understand that is that this is an over $80 billion industry and private prisons make up $5 billion."
Take telecom. Every single facility in the nation has outsourced telecom. Healthcare has now been outsourced at more than 50% of prisons and jails in the nation. Food and commissary services have been outsourced in many, many prisons. So there is an extensive list of specific aspects of prison and jail operations that have been outsourced to specialty corporations.
That’s a large part of where this industry makes money. And those companies which participate in exploitation and predation of people who are incarcerated and their families often fly under the radar, because they're not the private prison corporations that we are all so obsessed with. The prison industry is a much bigger industry than just prisons and private prisons. And I think one of the best ways to understand that is that this is an over $80 billion industry and private prisons make up $5 billion.
That does put it into perspective. What are the attractions for companies to partner and to be part of this industry? I assume margins must be gigantic, right?
So there's a lot of things that contribute to excessive margins in the space. It's a marketplace that the private sector likes to come into, in large part because the margins are so high. Why are the margins high? Because they get to over charge for things and because they don’t have to provide quality products. So it actually means that the margins can extend on both sides.
In society, you have corporations that are competing against each other for our business. In many cases they are both competing on pricing, but also the quality of their service or product. in prisons and jails, it's the complete opposite. Most of these businesses have monopoly contracts over prisons and jails, which means only one telecom provider or one healthcare provider. The people who are both choosing the business, the company that will serve that jail, and negotiating the contract are not the end users of their service or product. The end users, the people who are incarcerated and their families, often never have a say in what that contract looks like. And the government then partners in something like a telecom contract, or a commissary contract, or even healthcare contracts and sometimes takes a portion of the proceeds.
Then on top of that the quality of their services are awful. So not only are they allowed to overcharge, because it's a population that nobody's watching, no one is really extending the same level of sort of care and concern. And so [prisoners and their families are] exploited and underserved at the same time. One thing I like to ask people is “Why does there need to be a telecom company, or food service or health care company that only services prisons?” I promise you those services are not the same.
Can you talk a little bit about the supporters of your organization? Who's behind you?
We’ve been doing this work now a little over four years, and we've had a multitude of different supporters over time. I'd say we have some big foundation supporters that care about and have portfolios in the criminal justice space. We also have some pretty big and major individual donors. Those are folks like Mike Novogratz, Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, and the Meadow Fund, which is backed by Reed Hastings [and led by his wife, Patty Quillin].
"Everyone should be able to get behind the idea that we shouldn't be profiting off of putting people in prison. I like to say there are billionaires on both sides now, which is great."
I think people are starting to realize that everyone should be able to get behind the idea that we shouldn't be profiting off of putting people in prison. I like to say there are billionaires on both sides now, which is great, at least we have some support. But we're coming up against a massive industry. There's one company that recently hired a staff member just to deal with us. There's a lot more resources that can be expended on the other side than what we have. We do operate under a small budget. We're a really small team that punches way above our weight class.
What are some of the actual tactics that you employ that make progress?
One is exposing the industry to increase public awareness, to build public support, and to change the discourse that people have — so they can understand that the prison industry is not just private prisons. So really helping people understand how this impacts communities. What we do is we do research, we create data. And we pair that with storytelling, so that you can understand not just the numbers, not just the villains, but also how this is impacting our communities.
We produce the first, and largest still to date, and most comprehensive data set of corporations operating in the prison industry. There's over 4,000 corporations that operate in the prison industry. And you can download that data set right off the website. And now we started to work with investment firms to actually create screens, really comprehensive screens for client portfolios, who are interested in divesting from the prison industry. We also have a curriculum on the prison industry, for folks who really want to dive in and understand.
Secondly, we have our policy work. And so that might mean legislative advocacy. The thing we're probably best known for is our phone justice. We have led the charge at the state and local level, to make phone calls and other prison communication free. We were able to do that in New York City in 2018. And that saved directly impacted people roughly $10 million a year just in the city of New York, and increased call volume by almost 40% overnight. We were able to then do that in San Francisco. And then most recently, this year, we also saw San Diego and Los Angeles [do the same]. We are working now and you know, in half a dozen other places. We have a few counties and cities that are getting ready to announce that they will also be moving towards going free.
It’s not just legislation. Sometimes we do work directly with government, with administrators, with executives, with even agency officials to try to see what we can do directly. Can we get to less exploitative models within their facilities? Sometimes we can manage that in more direct way. We also help in procurement. We help agencies in cities and states manage their procurement for these services, and actually can at times negotiate on behalf of those agencies with the corporation's themselves — which I will say they do not like because they know we have far more information than the state agencies and their local agencies that they like to negotiate with, who they can bully.
And then lastly is everything from pushing for divestment to demanding changes in business and proper practices, and things of that sort where we can approach the industry and attack the industry for what it's doing. We source class action litigations when we find them doing illegal things, which is all the time.
What can people do to help your cause, apart from donating, of course?
There's many ways to get involved in criminal justice. There are amazing organizations out there doing all sorts of good work that you can obviously donate to, but also volunteer with. I'd say there's a few really key things people can do other than giving to the work and supporting the work. One is learn. I think, foremost is learn, educate yourself and educate others around you. We built the curriculum for a reason. In order to have buy in for the solution, we must all understand the problem. So that's first. Secondly, I would say take action. Get on our newsletter. When we send emails, we often send ways to take action. And what people don't understand is that sometimes signing that petition, that's going to take you 30 seconds, or filling out the quick form to send an email to your legislators, those actions really do work. And they are effective. They are helpful for us, as advocates, as we walk into meetings with legislators or corporate executives, or whatever it might be.
"Educate yourself and educate others around you...in order to have buy in for the solution, we must all understand the problem."
So take five minutes out of your day, take 10 minutes out of your day to do what folks are asking, even if that's amplifying a tweet on Twitter or posting the petition you signed on one of your social media accounts. All of those things are really helpful. Even things like promoting an account so that the account can get followers. I mean, we can only get as many petitions signed as people who know we have a petition.
Thirdly, divest your money, right? [Worth Rises licenses data to Envestnet and OpenInvest to help in that purpose]. And so looking at those platforms, and divesting your assets as much as possible. I will say there's never such a thing as a completely clean portfolio for the prison industry. But those are the most comprehensive screens out there right now.
And you can make a point of screening your investments, and when you do, make it known. Tag the problematic corporations in a social media post. Tell your family. Encourage them to do the same. Encourage your university to divest its endowment. And so I would say those are three right off the bat things that you can do to challenge the industry. And you know, always follow our work on Twitter, on Facebook, on Instagram. We're always offering new things that people can do.