By David Martoma, Age 11
Today, KidsMates speaks with Bianca Tylek about prison commercialization and the exploitation of incarcerated persons. Bianca founded the national nonprofit Worth Rises in 2017 to dismantle the prison industry and to end the exploitation of those it touches. A self-described “prison abolitionist”, Bianca dreams of “a world built on care not cages.”
Bianca’s well-recognized passion for public service [*see footnote at end of article] stems from her connection to the justice system and her childhood adversities. Bianca used that adversity to fuel her meteoric rise through an education at Columbia University and Harvard Law School, as well as work as an investment analyst at Citigroup and Morgan Stanley. Soon, she realized those same skills could add tremendous value to the nonprofit sector, and Worth Rises was born.
Today, there’s so much going on at Worth Rises. Between slaying prison industry titans and securing free phone calls for incarcerated people, Bianca launched “The Prison Industry: The Curriculum” (“The Curriculum” in short). The Curriculum is a 15-week free, public course providing a deep dive into how America profits from its massive prison industry (#PunishmentProfit).
In full disclosure, I was selected as an inaugural Fellow for The Curriculum. Each week, I find myself immersed in thought-provoking materials that have helped me make sense of my experiences having an incarcerated father for most of my life. I realize there’s still so much that I don’t know about prisons or the many behind-the-scenes actors who profited from my father’s incarceration. I’m looking forward to learning more today! Please welcome my guest, Bianca Tylek.
David: Hello, Bianca. Thank you for joining KidsMates today. I can’t wait to share more about The Curriculum with our readers. But, why don’t we start with your personal story as it relates to the criminal justice system and Worth Rises?
Bianca: That’s a really large question that we could spend over a half-hour on alone (smiling), so where do you want to start?
David: Let’s start with Worth Rises. How did the organization start?
Bianca: Sure, I founded Worth Rises back in 2017 when I realized a gap in the criminal justice movement in challenging the financial interests of both corporations and governments in mass incarceration and mass surveillance. My background meant that I had a very unique set of skills, particularly having come out of finance and as an attorney, to really pinpoint and address some of those abuses by the prison industry. That’s how Worth Rises started.
David: Cool origin story! I’m hearing “Liam Neeson” in your voice - “a very unique set of skills…” What is the most important thing you or Worth Rises has done in the last year to help children or families facing incarceration?
Bianca: There's lots of important work that’s happened, a lot of important projects that touch on really different things and impact people's lives differently, but one thing that I know is very critical in supporting families and children who have loved ones that are incarcerated is our campaign in New York City to make phone calls out of the city jails free. We passed legislation in 2018 that was the first of its kind in the country to make jail phone calls entirely free in New York City jails. We saved directly impacted families almost $10 million dollars a year. Since then we've been able to replicate that win in San Francisco and San Diego, saving millions more for directly impacted families. Now we're working on similar policies and legislation with partners in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Michigan, Philadelphia, and Miami.
David: Wow, that’s a really big deal! Phone calls and general prison expenses cost my family a fortune over the years. My dad worked many jobs in prison, but made less than $.50 an hour! We had to make up the difference. We could have benefited from free phone calls! Stepping back for a second, you have so much going on at Worth Rises, and I wonder if your followers appreciate it all. Is there anything people don’t understand about Worth Rises or your ongoing projects that you would like them to know?
Bianca: I don’t think there’s anything people wouldn’t understand about Worth Rises. It’s not like there’s a misconception [about what we do]... Maybe there are misconceptions about the prison industry (smiling), but not about Worth Rises.
David: Let’s talk about The Curriculum then. What do you hope to accomplish with the course you are teaching?
Bianca: Our hope with The Curriculum is to educate our base. I think that there are a lot of people who don't know anything about the prison industry. It's not just the everyday person who knows almost nothing about the prison industry, but it’s even advocates who may have been doing this work for a really long time, such as sentencing reform or drug policy, but know little about the [prison] industry. You also have directly impacted people -- families, people who were formerly incarcerated, are currently incarcerated -- who deeply know things because they experience them every day, but also may not know where they come from, what the infrastructure is, and how the business model works behind the different sectors of the prison industry. What we really wanted to do with The Curriculum was invite people who’ve never thought about the prison industry to think about it for the first time; learn about it; and become part of the movement. We wanted to make sure that our advocates are aware, so those who are fighting this fight every day can build their skill sets and their tools to fight. Bringing directly impacted communities into that learning [is important], so that they have the language to talk about their experience with oppression in a way that can create change. Our hope with The Curriculum is to educate people so that we can come together and actually fight the system. Before you can fight anything, you have to know. Knowledge is power.
David: Yes, going through the Curriculum as a Youth Fellow has given me a lot of powerful new knowledge to explain how the prison industry manipulates prisoners and their loved ones. I try not to make blanket statements anymore, but to give real examples and facts when I have conversations with people who may have different points of view.
Bianca: Yes, it’s like having an arsenal of tools that you can pull out. You know all the anecdotes; you know all the facts; you know all the numbers. Now, no one can test you because you know what's really happening.
David: Exactly! Bianca, is there anything you want the world to know about children or families dealing with an incarcerated family member?
Bianca: I think this is a tough question for me because I don't want to speak on behalf of families or children of incarcerated people. I think the reality is that the world needs to listen to families and children who have parents who are incarcerated or loved ones who are incarcerated and to hear directly from those who are impacted about their experiences and about what they need … because they know.
David: Yes, give us a voice.
David: Bianca, you’ve faced some adversity in your own life. I know you’ve written about it in the Boston Globe, so I won’t ask you to repeat it here. But are there any tips that you would give to children coping with adversity?
Bianca: Know you're not alone. I think that there are, unfortunately, a lot of children coping with adversity. Children can support each other. There are a lot of support systems that they can lean on to help process any trauma that they've suffered. There are advocates out there, such as children's advocates and advocates for youth who are facing adversity, who want to support you. Then there are mentors in your communities -- whether that be at school, at home, on the playground, at church. Whatever your community might be, hopefully, you can find a mentor in that space.
David: Yes, talking to someone who cares about what you're going through or who might have faced it themselves and has ideas to share is a great way to deal with and overcome adversity.
David: Bianca, what or who has most influenced your thoughts on incarceration and why?
Bianca: Hmmm. I think it’s both. There's a “what” and a “who.” I thought about the world of incarceration from a very young age because I saw it in various different ways. People very close to me had done time when I was young, so I had conceptions of incarceration. I wanted those who had served time to feel loved and to know that they are loved by us and their communities. I saw people treat people who had been formerly incarcerated in really offensive, oppressive, and dismissive ways. That really upset me when I was a young person. As I got older, it was always important to me to just stay really connected to the community. The community includes both those people who are currently incarcerated and the families and people who are supporting them. In the work we do every day, that's really critical to us. Staying really connected means I have people who call me from prison every week… sometimes because we're working on something… sometimes just to catch up. That's important. In the same vein, [I] spend a lot of time with families who are supporting loved ones inside, whether that's working on campaigns or just catching up with folks in my network and in my life.
I think “what” has taught me the most are [the experiences of] those who have been through the system. I think that sparks [my] passion, curiosity, and fight. I spend a tremendous amount of time, as a result, studying the system. That means reading and doing political education about the [prison system’s] origin and about how we got to where we are … [as well as] reading dense contracts about those different systems. We must be educated about the system of oppression that we are talking about, dealing with, and fighting every day.
David: Yes, I have a lot of the same motivations after my father’s incarceration. It’s what motivated me to learn about the carceral system and to share my knowledge with others… I don’t want others to experience what I did. Last question, Bianca, if you were giving one last piece of advice about how to make a difference in the world, what would you say?
Bianca: Don't be scared. That’s my number one piece of advice to people about making a difference. Actually, you know, I'll take that back: Be scared, but do it anyway. It's scary sometimes to come against a really strong and really fortified system that is meant to break us -- our communities and our families -- down. It can be intimidating and can be difficult. It can be taxing. But, importantly, you have to just keep going, and not give up on change. You have to stay hopeful that change is possible. I think that as long as you can do that, then you can create change.
David: I totally agree with you and have really enjoyed talking with you, Bianca. I think everyone's going to love what you have to say. For more information about Bianca, Worth Rises, or The Curriculum, please check out Worth Rises. You can also tune into the Punishment and Profit series on youtube to learn everything you didn’t know about the prison industry. Thank you, again, Bianca.
[*Footnote: Bianca is a Draper Richard Kaplan Entrepreneur, an Art for Justice Fellow, a TED Fellow, an Equal Justice Works Fellow, a Harvard University Presidential Public Service Fellow, a Ford Foundation Public Interest Fellow, a Paul & Daisy Soros New American Fellow, and an Education Pioneers Analyst Fellow.]