How Jay-Z & other venture capitalists are creating new problems in the name of social justice
All of these tools tout their services for the sake of public safety, but easily become another way to criminalize people and turn a profit
By Alyxandra Goodwin
Rapper and criminal justice reform advocate Jay-Z recently announced that he is investing in a “decarceration start-up” called Promise. The app sets up a “care plan” for individuals that would have alternatively been monitored while housed in a jail facility, instead monitoring them out in the world and providing reminders for court dates and related obligations.
Since the announcement, activists and organizers have expressed frustration with Jay’s lack of analysis around the carceral system itself. An app is cute, but putting money into monitoring is just another form of state control, and doesn’t address the structural issues the prison system sustains.
In actuality, this particular move helps expand the scope of what the Prison Industrial Complex is and will be in the future. The digital sphere and tech world of the 2000’s is the next sector to have a stronghold around incarceration, and will mold what incarceration looks like and determine the terrain on which prison abolitionists have to fight as a result.
Activists in the Movement for Black Lives or doing anti-deportation and sanctuary work have worked to illuminate how the current criminal justice system will leave people sitting in jail simply because they cannot afford to get out, dehumanizing them by holding them in literal cages, implying that their poverty and circumstances remove their rights to freedom. State-sanctioned poverty is a contributor to these circumstances in the first place, and bail operates as a means of sustaining it for generations.
Bail reform, when carried out by radical organizers, is a step towards prison abolition. But there is danger in this type of radical work gaining a large stage, because the co-optation is real.
Bail reform has become a criminal justice issue just safe enough that liberal politicians and entertainers are now standing on the radical work around it to promote their own platforms. Promise does just this by using the issue of bail to propose a remote monitoring alternative as opposed to housing poor folks in jail facilities. This is supposed to save the State money, as it has been studied and publicized just how costly (and morally unjust) it is to incarcerate poor folks who can’t afford bail.
In the last decade, calls for divestment from the prison industry and investment into community and social safety nets have been rallying cries for progressives. Although the long-term impact would actually decrease the need for prisons, this work also creates space and opportunity for private money to step into those areas that would be defunded, and for the state to build relationships with tech to create alternatives. This would ultimately keep the same systems of control and oppression in place, just with a different look.
What we’re seeing now is that profits from the prison industry are diversifying. It’s not just facility services and corporate lobbyists anymore—tech and venture capital firms are ushering in the next iteration of incarceration in the name of social good.
For an example of how this works, just look at how the call for body cameras for cops has been used in recent years. Initially, the call felt like a substantive way to address police brutality and hold police officers accountable, so much that police departments are willing to spend millions on them.
Between 2015 and March 2018, one company, Axon (formerly Taser International), will have profited over $90 million from contracts with Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Baltimore. We are now seeing (and many activists warned beforehand) how these cameras have been rendered ineffective, due to easy workarounds and lack of willingness to hold police accountable even when misdeeds are filmed.
The long-term effect is that more money is thrown at police departments for “reform,” further draining budgets for necessary social and community services.
A recent story in The Atlantic describes how license plate readers, like the ones supplied by ELSAG, were used by Oakland PD more heavily in low income neighborhoods. ELSAG describes itself as providing advanced technology to law enforcement, parking authorities, and toll operators. Relatedly, our socially-good-sharing-economy has brought us neighborhood watch apps such as NextDoor, where the idea is to “stay informed about your neighborhood” but the reality becomes a set of surveillance horror stories like racial profiling and assumed criminality.
In another recent story in the Verge, it was reported that Palantir, “a data-mining firm founded with seed money from the CIA’s venture capital firm,” had partnered with the New Orleans Police Department to test out a predictive policing technology. We can imagine how that will work out.
All of these tools tout their services for the sake of public safety, but easily become another way to criminalize people and turn a profit for the tech sector. Promise, despite being supported by a Black man who’s had his own fights with the criminal justice system, is no different.
The future of physical prison facilities is questionable. The momentum of the Movement for Black Lives has ushered in a support for—and therefore commodification of—social good by way of challenging mass incarceration. Politicians are changing their platforms to call for alternative forms of justice, and companies like Ben & Jerry’s are making their political views against mass incarceration loud and clear.
As social good becomes a thing worth funding, draconian forms of punishment will see a decline in support and use. But “social good” isn’t enough to stand up to the profit of incarceration. Instead, it becomes a new market in which incarceration can take another form that will be shrouded in appearances that only seem less harmful.
This isn’t new; it’s actually a pattern of how racialized capitalism recreates itself. After slavery was abolished and Reconstruction ran its course, Jim Crow laws in the South became a means of social control of Black folks until they became deemed immoral in the public eye and it was quickly followed up by the evolution of mass incarceration as we know it. Each of these phases were driven by racism, and used that racism to also keep wealth in very limited, very white pockets.
In the 21st century, apps and new technology startups (also predominantly white, and male) have positioned themselves as the socially good alternatives, but are businesses at the end of the day, and will continue to turn a profit at the expense of Black folks. As long as capitalism needs oppression to be sustained, incarceration will be profitable regardless of what it looks like.
In 2003, Angela Davis published a book asking the question, “Are Prisons Obsolete?” breaking down our understanding of the necessity of prisons and thinking through the ways the system can be abolished. Almost 15 years later, Appolition was created, bringing Davis’ question into this digital decade by propping up a pillar of prison abolition through contribution toward incarcerated folks’ bail.
This app represents the possibilities there are for marrying tech and digital communication with abolitionist causes. The tagline for Appolition is “Saving for Freedom,” and it allows users to give their leftover change from purchases as contributions to posting bail for those that can’t afford it. One of the aspects of the app that makes it so successful is that it requires a collective effort behind a particular ideology—not simply the idea that bail is bad, but we all should be working together to take down this particular system.
A more radical approach by Jay-Z and other investors would be to support an app like Appolition, that is addressing the ideology behind bail—not just looking for another way for the State to do its “job.” The state has proven time and time again, it doesn’t need help oppressing Black folks.
Displacement through gentrification and the criminalization of poverty will grow the population that capitalism’s elite believes need to be monitored, housed, and controlled. It’s important now that we uplift the organizing for prison abolition, and also broaden the scope of conversation to combat the next phase of social control and how it will be funded before it begins.
Alyxandra Goodwin is a mother, writer, researcher with Action Center on Race and the Economy, and activist/organizer with the Chicago chapter of BYP100.