Prison “Reform” To Incarcerate The World: “Smart” Justice & Global Finance

Imposition of social control through brutal policing, incarceration, state supervision, exorbitant fines, and forced labor has a long, well-documented history in the United States. The ongoing harm, and devastating legacy of trauma linked to it, disproportionately affects Indigenous and Black communities, the very ones upon whose stolen land and labor this nation’s wealth has been extracted. Dismantling the prison industrial complex MUST be a priority, and yet care should be taken that we do not allow short-term “wins” to inadvertently pave the way for long-term disasters.

For the past month and a half I’ve been attempting to sort out the deep-pocketed interests behind what is being represented as prison “reform.” Many names I encountered were familiar to me from my previous education and impact investing research including the MacArthur, Ford, and Casey Foundations, Arnold Ventures, and Chan Zuckerberg. The same folks aiming to engineer the futures of preschoolers as human capital have their sights on incarcerated populations, too.

There’s actually quite a lot of overlap between communities accepting MacArthur Foundation “Safety + Justice” grants and those involved in “cradle to career” efforts implemented through Strive Together and other “collective impact” organizations. I will discuss this more in future posts, but below is a map to give you a sense of it. Use the link to the interactive version to zoom in and get a closer look.

Strive Together Safety + Justice

Interactive map of MacArthur / Strive Together Communities here.

In the impact investing space, the predator class targets the vulnerable, because that’s where the money is. With well-orchestrated PR they often come out looking like the hero. My intent is to disrupt this narrative while alerting activists to the evolving nature of state control as the grip of the Fourth Industrial Revolution tightens. Transnational global capital’s end game? In my assessment it is to digitally incarcerate the world’s poor, in part by co-opting the language of prison “reform” and data-driven “justice.”

Community As Prison

I fear that given rapid advances in the deployment of 5G and “smart” city Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, in the coming decade the criminal justice reform narrative could become inverted, flipping our present understanding of incarceration inside out. In this new paradigm, “community as prison,” one’s movement would be tied to digital identity systems interacting with sensors that can grant or deny access and privileges. This is happening in China now with social credit scoring.

Blockchain Foshan


Through augmented reality, those in power can geo-fence the world, coding it not just for the purposes of targeted advertising, but to literally engineer social systems at a massive scale. See the feature image and imagine the cattle replaced with people.

Through continued, systematic criminalization of poverty, large segments of the population could be thrust into state oversight, channeled through community courts, mental health courts, addiction courts, and any number of alternative diversion programs. Once caught in this web they become raw material, set up for data-mining by ed-tech, workforce training, tele-medicine, and tele-therapy interventions to profit self-congratulatory “social impact” investors.

Incarceration is an effective, though immoral, means by which the ruling class manages labor. See how the war on drugs and mandatory minimums fostered the development of profit-making enterprises serving prisons even as massive numbers of jobs were lost to off-shoring / globalization over the past three decades. The possibility that vast pools of surplus labor will soon be created through automation, artificial intelligence and robotics is a serious concern.

Inslee 4th Industrial Revolution Center


It’s hard to imagine what it would look like to build and maintain enough prisons and pay security forces to hold the workers made redundant by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. There must be some cost-benefit analysis out there indicating with proper planning it will be cheaper and create more business opportunities to build open-air digital jails: people forced to find their own food and shelter; drones as guards; Blockchain offering a potent behavior chart, leaderboard, debt account, payment system combo.

Historically, violent policing and expansive carceral efforts have paralleled periods of economic unrest. I hope as I connect the dots between Gaza, Chancheng, Cape Town, and Austin, readers will see that international solidarity is crucial as poor and working class people around the world face off against the machine of militarized transnational global capital. We have a lot to learn from one another, especially those experiencing first hand what it’s like to live under state control.

Impact Investing And Weaponized “Reform” 

Austerity has crippled the public sector, allowing it to be commandeered by corporate interests through corrupt partnerships. Esteemed business professors, social policy researchers, foundation program officers, opportunistic government officials, and non-profit CEOs enjoying a “seat at the table” have teamed up to turn poverty into gold under the banner of “social impact.” Investors are scrambling over one another as the last dregs of profit are siphoned from the intense misery created by unbounded capitalist greed.

Philadelphia Poverty Committee Philanthropy


It is that misery that ensnares millions in judicial nightmares. The precarious nature of the gig economy, wage stagnation, impossible costs of living, and untreated trauma are leading more and more people to engage in survival tactics that run afoul of the law.

That mass incarceration is a profit-making enterprise is well known, but few realize the dangerous and exploitative nature of human capital data markets being established within the prison industrial complex. Provisions for “evidence-based” anti-recidivism interventions written into the 2018 First Step Act support these efforts.

The First Step Act Recidivism.jpg

Source: The First Step Act

This new mechanism to turn human lives into debt instruments has been made possible by recent developments in the finance and technology sectors. The pay for success schemes (PFS) linked to justice “reform” that are coming online now are branded as “progressive;” however, if one scratches below the surface, even a bit, it is easy to see they in fact double-down on neoliberal policy and open the doors to widespread data-exploitation.

Social impact bonds (SIBs) and PFS are two important items in technocracy’s poverty-mining tool kit. PFS is the term more commonly used now, though both are essentially government contracts for outsourced public services tied to performance metrics; metrics that will eventually be verified by Internet of Things sensors linked to digital identity systems. If you’re curious about the latter, do a keyword search for Vinay Gupta, Mattereum, and Internet of Agreements. Non-profits that sign on to these contracts secure funding from private investors whose profit varies depending on whether or not those serviced meet the agreed-upon “social impact” measures.

Prisons and diversion programs are easy targets for financiers and their nonprofit and higher-ed enablers. Since incarcerated people are systematically and disproportionately impoverished, traumatized, and inflicted with chronic illness and addiction, they represent a vast, relatively untapped reservoir of human capital to be transformed as financialized assets in the speculative scheme of “social impact” finance. In 2019, Bloomberg Philanthropies awarded a million dollar grant to the Philadelphia police department for a “juvenile justice hub” diversion program. Bloomberg also funded the Riker’s Island social impact bond and has advanced a data-driven “what works” approach to public service delivery.

Bloomberg Hub For Justice


The data-driven framework within which services must be offered poisons the entire enterprise, engendering a culture of scarcity, stress, and perpetual surveillance. Placed on behaviorist pathways, those under state supervision will be expected to conform to the existing broken system, and through their compliance, increase their perceived asset value by delivering the “growth” data technocrats are compelled to present as evidence their interventions “work.” PFS does not offer structural change, but instead allows destructive, privatized systems to continue to wreak havoc on the lives of both service workers and those ostensibly being “served.” The structure of these deals compels individuals to jump through hoop after bureaucratic hoop, their circumstances rarely materially improving, as they generate impact payments for the rich and justify the continued existence of a professional poverty management class.

If you’re new to the blog and want to know more about pay for success finance, I encourage you to read this post that describes a panel presentation I participated in at the Left Forum in July 2019 with the Poor Peoples Economic Human Rights Campaign. Justin Leroy, Tim Scott, and Cameron Graham have done groundbreaking work in this area, and links to their work are available on this post along with a video I made about SIBs for those who may want to take a deeper dive.

Global Finance Calls The Shots

As is often the case, reformist language and policies advanced by think-tanks are fundamentally at odds with demands for true reform put forth by incarcerated people, their loved ones, and their communities. Organizations like the Urban Institute and the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments have been promoting broad use of PFS in the criminal justice system.

Urban Institute Pay For Success


It is my belief that in the face of rising authoritarianism, growing wealth inequality, intensifying racism, and increasing criminalization of poverty, solidifying a grassroots movement that can begin to dismantle systems of domination OUTSIDE the nonprofit industrial complex is vital. Nonprofits have been remade by Hewlett Packard through a decade of strategic grants to serve the data-driven requirements of the social impact investment sector. We must be clear. The revolution will not be funded; and it most certainly will not be funded through the venture philanthropy of the Rockefeller Foundation, Third Sector Capital Partners, or Sir Ronald Cohen.

As Tim Scott notes in his article, Resistance in the 21st Century and the Futility of Reforming Fundamentally Vicious Systems, “the state-finance nexus reaches deeply into the daily lives of billions of people across the globe…” He goes on to describe complex relationships between finance capital and authoritarian state power, a web of socio-technical control that predicts, course-corrects and integrates resistance into its treacherous operating system.

We are living in a society that attempts to normalize brutality and callousness, even as many individuals see the grave harms being done and attempt to ameliorate suffering where they can. We are dealing with a system of supposed “democracy” that rests as Scott notes in his history of common schooling “on the intersecting structures of capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism, and hetero-patriarchy.” That profit-taking investments in subjugated populations should be framed as benevolent undertakings comes as no surprise. And yet it is the imperative of all who strive for justice to look beyond these myths, to see the truth, and to circumvent this grotesque system where possible, finding common cause with like-minded folks who are also working to make a different future. Keeping a narrow view and ignoring the bigger picture will not serve us well in the end.

Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley’s call this November for a “People’s Justice Guarantee,” a Green New Deal for criminal justice reform, motivated me to step up my research. While Pressley’s analysis that our criminal legal system is “racist, xenophobic, rogue, and fundamentally flawed,” is totally on point, I have grave concerns that proposals being advanced around diversion and reentry will likely become opportunities for predatory PFS deals.

IJIS Evidence Based Pay for Success

Source: Corrections Tech 2020, Trend #5 Evidence-Based Population Management, page 33.

Massachusetts, Pressley’s home state, launched a ROCA social impact bond in 2014, to provide services to judicially involved youth. Massachusetts is also home to institutions of higher education that are active players in the space. Harvard’s Kennedy School has created and incubated policies to scale many, many PFS projects within its Government Performance Lab, and MIT has refined much of the fin-tech infrastructure needed to run the predictive analytics and begin automating verification of deals. There is a sizable appetite for PFS among Massachusetts’s venture capital crowd, and there will be a terrible temptation to adopt such deals in order to fund services for those caught in the carceral web. Remember, government operates at the behest of global finance.

Alternative sentencing, diversion courts, reentry, and even restorative justice are already being targeted as profit centers for impact investing.

How to fix cash bail? Pay for success! (here)

How to pay for indigent defense? Pay for success! (here)

How to provide workforce development for ex-offenders? Pay for success! (here)

How to provide shelter for those leaving prison? Pay for success! (here)

How to address mental illness (MRT)? Pay for success! (here)

How to fund restorative community conferencing? Pay for success! (here)

It seems they are willing put a price on anything and use it as a cost-offset to profit financiers.

Pay For Success Restorative Justice 2


PFS fuels dispossession. I believe that the creation of investment markets to manage people taken into custody as “social impact” commodities will ultimately incentivize policing of Black and Brown communities and the poor and unhoused. This is why I believe the conversation around mass incarceration must ultimately turn to the abolition of incarceration and policing as we know it.

Dehumanized Data-Driven Services

I want to make it clear from the outset that I believe the vast majority of individuals on the ground working in this space are doing it for the right reasons. That said, we must acknowledge the global forces working to restructure the vast US prison system to accommodate new forms of profit taking in a world of 5g, digital surveillance, public private partnerships, and innovative finance. What many well-intentioned people may not yet grasp, because PFS programs are still fairly new, is that data-driven “smart” justice demands service providers turn the people they are trying to help into data. Data collection that serves the interests of private investors in carceral systems is fundamentally exploitative.

Thriving In An Outcomes Based Market NY SIB


Influential foundations have been seeding markets in human capital performance data for quite a few years through targeted grants to established non-profits, progressive think tanks, and professional associations. Meanwhile for-profit prison companies like CoreCivic and Geo Group are expanding “continuum of care” and reentry services, swapping guards for “social workers.”

Geo Group Continuum of Care Reentry

Tech companies have carved out new markets for their data-mining products, promising to deliver “solutions” that curb recidivism while generating profits for social impact investors. Telecommunications and cloud-based computing interests are eager to manage the petabytes of data generated by “evidence-based” interventions delivered on devices and tracked on dashboards.

IOT and Community Corrections IJIS 2017

Source: Corrections Tech 2020, Trend #5 Evidence-Based Population Management, page 12.

For a detailed overview of planned developments around prison-based technologies, e-carceration, and data management, I highly recommend devoting time to go through the IJIS Institute’s 2017 report Corrections Tech 2020: Technological Trends In Custodial and Community Corrections.

Eric Schmidt of Google/Alphabet has said data is the new oil so valuable that nation states will fight over it. We must recognize that the digital carceral systems coming online now will be rich nodes of data (profit) extraction. These emergent landscapes of control will arise from diversion, community courts, alternative sentencing, the end of cash bail, and early-release programs. What is troubling is that these reforms, which are unquestionably better than ongoing confinement, could, in a cruel twist of fate, open the door to an almost unimaginable level of community surveillance.

Inside Out Prisons: Digital Identities in Smart Cities

People on parole in the Chinese cities of Zhongshan and Foshan are being tracked for compliance in “smart” cities on Blockchain; their behaviors linked to social credit scoring. And while we may be inclined to think such a thing could never happen here, Chinese interests, including TenCent of WeChat pay that is involved in digital identity verification in China, maintains sizeable investments in US-based companies, including EPIC Games whose Unreal Engine is being set up for education and healthcare service delivery by synthetic (virtual) people.

China Blockchain ID

Interactive version of China Blockchain map here.

Tencent Digital ID Verification


Epic games unreal engine


In the coming decade we will see the rise of augmented reality (AR) worlds with integral coded layers that serve state interests. The major force behind AR is In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the CIA. Pair Blockchain surveillance with social impact investing tied to digital identity, which is already online with the Amply app in Cape Town; throw in conditional public benefit access run through an e-wallet; maybe some social credit scoring and artificial intelligence decision-making; and suddenly we’ve upgraded to automated techno-fascism where whole swaths of impoverished cities are targeted by sweeps into diversion courts to sustain the rapacious demands of global PFS impact markets.

Blockchain Home Visits Boa Vista


In a cloud-based, one-click world controlled by transnational global capital, proofs of concept on one side of the planet can show up on the other side in short order. When the power of empire is threatened, when human beings stand in the way of resource extraction, they will be contained and/or eliminated. They’re putting unhoused people on Blockchain in Austin now. If you’re poor in a “smart” city you’re very likely going to end up being predictively profiled into pre-criminality. Far from the imagined utopias we are being sold, “smart” city futures will be built on the brutal legacies of Indian removal, the re-concentration camps of the Spanish American War, and Internment Camps of WWII.

Universal Risk Assessment Legitimizes Surveillance Culture

Risk-profiling all who come into custody became a central feature of the prison system in December 2018 when the First Step Act was signed into law. Civil rights groups including The Movement for Black Lives and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights opposed the controversial legislation, which was celebrated in other quarters as a “breakthrough” bipartisan victory. Of particular relevance to my research were concerns about the roll out of a national “Risk Assessment System,” a tool whose development was overseen by the conservative Hudson Institute, and the expansion of electronic monitoring. The baselines created by mandatory risk-screening tool will provide crucial infrastructure to inform PFS predictive analytics.

First Step Act Risk And Needs Assessment System


Prisons will look and feel different in the coming years, and we must factor that into resistance strategies. The web of corporate-state control will become less visible as e-carceration moves from clunky ankle monitors to more expansive digital “community correction” networks. While permitting more mobility for participation in assigned “pathway” programs, devices will begin to capture the data not only of those who are judicially involved, but also that of their families, neighbors, and broader social networks. We must always remember that the Internet is, at its core, a military weapon developed to serve the demands of empire (see Yasha Levine’s Surveillance Valley for details).

You get a sense of the expanding nature of data collection from those associated with returning citizens in this short video: “Meet Kathy.” Kathy is a “community care coordinator” whose nonprofit is paid whenever a member of Joe’s family meets a performance target on their assigned pathway. Joe’s family has been identified for pathway intervention because he was formerly incarcerated.

Reentry To What?

The brutality of carceral control will not be addressed through minor adjustments to the machine or even a major overhaul. The prison industry is undergoing a transformation framed by the “impact media” as meaningful reform. Vulture philanthropy-funded policy institutes are advancing the premise that we can use performance-based reentry contracts to right the wrongs of racial capitalism. That by carefully measuring gaps in “justice,” those in power will allow us to engineer an efficient route to a non-racist future of reconciliation. But first we need to establish cost offsets so the rich can continue to extract their PFS profit from the machine. The cost to the criminalized poor? Well that is going to be their data and their right to self-determination. That will be the price many will be compelled to pay in order to maintain an engineered life within the panopticon.

Ruthie Gilmore NY Times


I stand with Dr. Angela Davis and Dr. Ruthie Gilmore in support of prison abolition, with the full awareness that the oligarchs’ plans are to make the world a prison. This is a moment that demands international solidarity. We must stand with Gaza, an early test case for biometric border control and with refugees caught in the global aid systems being used to refine biometric-enabled digital payments. We must stand with the people of Chancheng where those on parole are tracked on Blockchain for social credit scoring purposes. We must stand with the children of Cape Town, South Africa where the social capital of preschool children is being monitored on Blockchain with Amply, and with families in Boa Vista, Brazil where cash transfer recipients, the Bolsa Familia, must agree to home visit data being recorded in “digital ledgers” accompanied by digital photographic documentation for impact purposes. We must stand with unhoused folks in Austin, where presidential candidate Bloomberg’s philanthropic dollars are being used to legitimize Blockchain identity systems.

Austin Blockchain


We are witnessing the ramping up of global techno-fascism, a project the ruling class has attempted to wrap in a cloak of “social justice.” Nothing could be further from the truth. None of this is benevolent. These technologies are being advanced quietly now to suppress anticipated dissent later. Digital prisons are being coded around us. Once the masses are no longer of use as consumers, Gates, Omidyar, Zuckerberg and the rest  will flip the switch and start to farm us like domesticated livestock, as social impact securities.

Our focus now must be collective liberation. We must stand together with incarcerated people and the global poor who are are on the front lines of human capital exploitation. Ultimately, this machine is coming after everyone. We cannot sit back and watch as it unfolds, because then it will be too late. Now is the time to get organized and take stand for justice. It is time to face off against the global capitalist police state.

My dear friend T nailed it when she said to me, “Reentry to what?”

And indeed that is the question in this era of increased labor automation, militarized policing, and debt finance. Incarceration has always been fundamentally about profitably managing surplus labor through state violence. That hasn’t changed. Which is why we must keep our eyes open and be ready for the next wave. Now is the time for clarity. This system will not be reformed. Once people realize this, new doors open and together we can begin to chart a revolutionary course forward, centering community-led restorative practice and right relations among the peoples of the world.

Next Up

Topics I plan to explore in future installments include:

  • UN Sustainability Development Goal 16 and the push to measure “justice
  • How the First Step Act’s risk assessment tool will underpin PFS
  • MacArthur Foundation, Risk Profiling, Smart Cities, and Public Safety
  • How Every Student Succeeds Act and Second Chance Pell Grant Act Enable Tablet-Based Profiling and Profit-Taking
  • PFS Housing for the Formerly Incarcerated
  • Diversion Courts and SIBs in Philadelphia




2 thoughts on “Prison “Reform” To Incarcerate The World: “Smart” Justice & Global Finance


    Thank you Alison for your continued work to bring truth to the people.
    Of all the writings, as I’m going through each, this is, so far, the most disturbing, astounding and terrifying. Again and again, one is left to consider: who or what is beyond the Omidyar/Gates/Zuck et al cabal? It is hard pressed for me to accept that the incredible cruelty of these agendas is coming out of human minds…

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