The Societal Price of the Status-Quo

Meredith Berman

At this moment in time, the corrections industry faces the often un-asked question facing a free market economy: How much is enough? The necessity of this question is illustrated in the prison industrial complex, which asks how it is ethical that one group of businesses benefits from the incarceration of others. While those that lack a sufficient understanding of the corrections system usually ask this question, pieces of its essence are worthy of discussion. As an industry, it’s time to question the acceptability of selling status quo products and services that are socially damaging, but corporately profitable.

When the traditional incarceration practices began to fail because of a lack of funding, our society was forced to look at the structures behind incarceration laws, attitudes on crime, new drug markets and the like. Discovering that the institutionalization of America was not actually correcting people, the frontline initiated a change. This came in the form of better programming and moves towards community corrections. Using evidence-based research, we are moving from highly institutionalized, psychologically damaging stays to sentences that allow for more opportunity in human development. The evidence suggests that much of this has reduced incarceration rates and released inmates back into society with a better chance of economic and social survival.

These facts are largely undisputed and well publicized, and little time will be spent here to detail their effects. The purpose here is to bring to light the business community’s responsibility to the changes being made. This is a responsibility on two accounts — one, where when our customer makes changes we are obliged to change alongside, and two, where when our customers enforce solutions for bettering our society in a channel where we have influence, we have a social responsibility to respond in kind.

We must ask the difficult consequentialist questions. Do the products and services my company provides help or hinder our inmates when they return to our neighborhoods? Does the resistance to change my business propagate a more dangerous society? Are we being held party to a societal degradation-by-greed by resisting our customers’ efforts?

To this effect, Attorney General Eric Holder initiated in 2013 the Smart on Crime campaign, which is reviewing the criminal justice system to “ensure federal laws are enforced more fairly and — in an era of reduced budgets — more efficiently.” Five goals will be met as a result of the review:

  1. To ensure finite resources are devoted to the most important law enforcement priorities
  2. To promote fairer enforcement of the laws and alleviate disparate impacts of the criminal justice system
  3. To ensure just punishments for low-level, nonviolent convictions
  4. To bolster prevention and reentry efforts to deter crime and reduce recidivism
  5. To strengthen protections for vulnerable populations

It is our societal and corporate responsibility as producers to redesign products and services to meet the intent to changes made by our customers. History shows, however, that this industry is particularly slow in dedicating research and development dollars for fear of challenging a profitable status quo. This line of logic is especially detrimental to the long-run health of our society considering the permanence of correctional buildings.

Technology moves through a facility every five to 10 years and can adapt to changing policies; concrete, doors, locks, beds, desks and recreation yards, on the other hand, generally remain in place for 30 to 70 years. The sobering truth is that decisions made today will reflect the condition of our inmate population decades from now. To resist an evolving corrections customer is to decide that, as suppliers and manufacturers, we will prolong the healing of our society until our companies close or until someone else assumes the helm of innovation.

From the perspective of the producer, however, change means investment. It means R&D, new hires and new materials. Ultimately, the fear of higher risk and decreasing profitability deters many businesses from developing solutions that meet our customer’s evolution. Whether intentional or not, the decision to maintain the status quo is both a threat to society and a threat to individual businesses.

Socially responsible enterprises are often forced to make the business case for why ethical business decisions should be made. Explained more practically, companies are unlikely to promote the social good if profits aren’t quickly realized. The case is simple: There are tens of billions of dollars available in this market and the corrections industry continues to garner interest from companies external to the industry. Headlines of overcrowded facilities are tempting reminders to other industries that there is money to be made in this market. A clear-headed group of companies will engage with our customers, determine the essence of their need and produce something that meets it with what we will consider revolutionary. Fresh entrants have an open mind, not burdened with the knowledge of what has worked in the past under old practices.

The current group of correctional producers quite literally built the industry, and it’s easy to understand the resistance to change. These producers responded in real time to the need of jail building in the 1980s.

They didn’t set out to be innovators, they set out to meet a very defined need. Now that the practices and architectures from the 1980s are being questioned, we will begin to see which producers are capable of responding to new needs and which are motivated to keep things as they are.

We must ask the difficult consequentialist questions. Do the products and services my company provides help or hinder our inmates when they return to our neighborhoods? Does the resistance to change my business propagate a more dangerous society? Are we being held party to a societal degradation-by-greed by resisting our customers’ efforts?

We are each responsible for these questions, and it is our society who will pay or prosper from our answers.