A former inmate explains how the prison system profits off the poor

    Prison, 43-year-old Nikole Sanford says, deprives a person of their humanity.

    “When you are in the prison institution, you are no longer Nikole Sanford, you are R3771,” she said, refering to the number each prisoner is assigned. “You are just a number.”

    Sanford and members of Grace House, a halfway house for women exiting the Illinois prison system, spoke to a small crowd in the basement of Foster-Walker Residential Complex as Unshackle NU attempted to put a face to the mass incarceration system they are demanding the University divest from.

    Standing in a jeans and zip-up gray sweater, hair stretched back in a minute ponytail, Sanford spoke effusively of mistreatment she said bordered on dehumanization. Guards slept with inmates. Women with serious ailments stayed for months on waiting lists to see a doctor. When Sanders, who later found out she suffers from bipolar depression, told a prison doctor she was hearing voices, he prescribed pills and put her on a list for the psychiatrist that was so long, she never saw him before her release. 

    “I could be spitting up feces out of my mouth and they would tell me to fill out a form,” Sanford said. “But you still may not see the doctor for another two or three days.”

    Sanford, who went in and out of prison six times for drug offenses, drew on her experience in both the courts and prisons and testified to the centerpiece of Unshackle NU's mission: that private prisons and the prisons-industrial-complex – which include organizations that invest in private prisons and use inmates for labor, as well as prison companies and the state – use mass incarceration to profit off the backs of poor people of color.

    In prison, Sanders said she worked manual labor for 28 cents an hour, $14 a month. The federal minimum wage for prisoners is 23 cents an hour, or three percent of the $7.25 minimum wage for normal workers. In 2011, Illinois officials attempted to seize this salary to pay for the costs of incarceration, which the Illinois Supreme court overturned. The prison industry profits off of the low-wage labor, Sanford said, as well as the average cost of $38,268 to hold an inmate for one year.

    Often, prisoners are unable to fight this, Sanford said, and she echoed Unshackle NU's claim that the state has an economic incentive to incarcerate the poor. Unable to afford an attorney, she was always left with a public defender, who she says was too overloaded or didn’t care to actually defend her. Another former inmate, 26-year-old Brittany White, relayed a similar experience.

    “No one had any hope for us,” White said. “They don’t. They see us as money, always.”

    After cycling through prison multiple times, Sanford and White said they found their footing when they got into the Grace House. The house provides a home, job training, therapy and classes on everything from computers to nutrition to help reacclimate inmates to society.

    Weinberg senior Thelma Godslaw said she was inspired by the stories, but was still trying to find her role in the fight. A pre-med student, she said she may try to volunteer as a prison doctor, or alternatively try to change the laws.

    “I’m passionate about women’s issues and about destroying this system,” Godslaw said, “but I don’t know where I would be most effective.”

    Sanford said places like the Grace House and advocacy against mass incarceration will be especially important in the coming years, as budget cuts have taken out what few self-improvement programs prisons were giving to inmates, such as college classes.

    “The department of corrections, it doesn’t correct,” Sanford said.


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