This April, Hamza J. Furqaani was released on parole at age 56 after California Senate Bill 260 granted new parole opportunities for youth offenders serving long sentences. In November 2023, Furqaani went viral after working 136 hours in the California Health Care Facility in Stockton, Calif. for $17.74, all of which he donated to Islamic Relief USA’s Palestine Humanitarian Aid. This exploitation of prisoners for profit is one part of an incredibly pervasive prison-industrial complex that even Emory cannot escape. 

At first glance, all of these figures are jaw dropping. At second glance, you would notice how cruel —but not unusual — Furqaani’s case is. Currently, there are 1.9 million people incarcerated in the United States, 65% of which are employed in a vast number of industries that exploit their labor. For industry, prison labor is obscenely profitable. Prisoners make military supplies for the U.S. Department of Defense. Prisoners built the furniture in the U.S. Capitol building. Prisoners in California fight increasingly frequent and intense wildfires despite felons being barred from working as firefighters in the state. For 12 to 40 cents, and in eight states for free, incentivized by a flawed tax credit system and no employment benefits, labor unions or worker safety protections, the abhorrent conditions of prison labor today are almost analogous to slavery

Yet this system of prison labor is enshrined in the language of the U.S. Constitution. In 1865, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery with the explicit exception for those convicted of a crime. This exception has culminated into 150 years of mass incarceration and the proliferation of the prison-industrial complex (PIC), a centuries-long project that has metastasized. Its death, via reform or abolition, should involve all of us.

Social historian Mike Davis first used the term prison-industrial complex to describe his ideas on emerging super-incarceration in the California penal system, exemplified by Calipatria State Prison, a facility 530 miles from Furqaani’s old cell. In this insidious union of business, federal and penal interests, corporations exploit prisoners’ labor for a granule of its worth. These corporations sign lucrative contracts with prisons to sell their products and services to inmates as  Securus Technologies does, privately own prisons as in the case of the GEO group and CoreCivic and provide horrifyingly inadequate healthcare to prisoners for profit as  YesCare and Wellpath do. This system of exploiting prisoners is unconscionable and prioritizes corporate gains at the cost of human rights. 

Razor wire at the top of a prison wall. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/ Bill Nicholls)

In fact, the PIC is so pervasive that Emory University’s own catering partner, Bon Appétit Management, is owned by the parent company Compass Group, whose catering subsidiaries faced several controversies including exposing prisoners to a foodborne bacteria called listeria, several employee abuse allegations and countless labor violations. This is in spite of the fact that Bon Appétit replaced Emory’s previous catering provider, Sodexo, who faced nationwide criticism with several student rallies and boycotts as the previous largest shareholder in CoreCivic, the largest owner of private prisons in the United States. While corporations profit off the exploitation of incarcerated people in this near-comedic hypocrisy, it also implicates our student tuition dollars in funding a multinational conglomerate that has profited immensely from the global PIC and makes us complicit in prisoners’ oppression if we do not demand divestment. While the PIC may seem inescapable, the student dissent efforts against Sodexo at Emory prove that targeted student-led collective action and divestment can lead to substantive progress in combating the PIC. It is important now more than ever to remember this fact as students nationwide organize encampments calling for their universities to divest from Israel. This is, of course, happening at Emory too. 

The PIC is also intricately tied to its namesake, the military-industrial complex — the intersection of corporate, political and military interests. These two systems mutually reinforce one another as both systems have a financial stake in what Angela Davis terms social destruction; it is their raison d’être. In this interplay, defense corporations sell their military-grade equipment to police departments for use against civilians, worsening police brutality. Crucially, the carceral and military sectors exchange information. For instance, university-based programs like the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE) link the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) with local police in Ferguson, Mo., and Atlanta.

Through GILEE, the IDF actively trains and further militarizes Atlanta police in the United States in their distinctly oppressive training policing tactics. Notably, among several of Emory’s corporate donors, University President Gregory Fenves sits on the board of Atlanta Committee for Progress, which actively funds and promotes Cop City — another arm of the PIC in Atlanta as a training site for its militant police to perfect the art of arresting and incarcerating the most vulnerable in the city. The roots of Cop City in settler-colonialism deepen as its authors take literal inspiration from Israel’s own ‘Little Gaza.’ This superposition of the military- and prison-industrial complexes is one tenet in the increasingly fascist police-state.

Furqaani’s donation to Gaza may underline an important truth about the PIC: The prison and military-industrial complex are heavily involved in the dehumanization of both Palestinians and U.S. prisoners like Furqaani. They scaffold on each other’s work and profit from the displacement and complete dehumanization of people. Furqaani stated his donation was motivated by pure empathy rather than sympathy and pity for Palestinians; his donation expressed solidarity with the more than 42,000 Palestinians who were murdered by the same structures that exploited him. His gesture exemplifies that action matters on every scale, and action is amplified when we act collectively.

However, we as a society cannot resort to turning his gesture into mawkish “feel-good” fodder for nightly-news channels. Together, we must demand better conditions for the most exploited, the most fragile and the most alienated. 

To start, Emory and Fenves need to end their support of the military- and prison-industrial complexes, meaning complete disclosure and divestment from its ties with Cop City, the corporations that profit from the PIC and advocating for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. Instead, Emory should meaningfully invest  into expanding prisoner education programs in Georgia to give incarcerated folks the opportunity of higher education and social mobility, following suit of other top institutions like Yale University (Conn.) and Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.). This actionable investment would directly align with the University’s professed mission and principles of creating, teaching and applying knowledge in the service of humanity. 

Finally, we as society need to advocate for meaningful improvements in the condition of incarcerated people today, including, but not limited to, greater access to quality healthcare (including access to harm-reduction based programs and free menstrual products), greater investment in educational-work programs, comprehensive safety regulations for prison labor, prison-labor unionization and the expansion of alternative sentencing options. These improvements should also involve those detained in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement centers, 81% of whom are in facilities owned by the same companies that own private prisons and exploit them as part of the PIC.

In every freedom movement, we must de-center crime and punishment and refocus on the humanity of those on the periphery from Stockton to Gaza. 


Ilka Tona (27C) is from North Potomac, MD.

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