Celia Ouellette: The Business of Punishment in America

People sometimes like to quote that Bible passage about “an eye for an eye” when justifying a punitive criminal justice system focused on retribution and vengeance. Others like to repeat a saying often attributed to Ghandi, that “an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.” This week on Sea Change Radio, we get philosophical about crime and punishment. Our guest today is Celia Ouellette, a human rights lawyer and CEO of the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice. Within the scope of her organization’s campaigns, we take a critical look at the American prison industrial complex and private prisons, the ineffectiveness of the death penalty, and the draconian practice of locking juveniles up for life.

Narrator  0:02  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Celia Ouellette  0:17  The death penalty in juvenile life without parole or clearly human rights issues the use of juvenile life without parole. juvenile detention without any possibility prop violates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. America is the only country in the world to continue to use this practice and has not signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child because of it.

Narrator  0:39  People sometimes like to quote that Bible passage about an eye for an eye when justifying a punitive criminal justice system focused on retribution and vengeance. Others like to repeat a saying often attributed to Gandhi that an eye for an eye will lead the whole world blind. This week on Sea Change Radio, we get philosophical about crime and punishment. Our guest today is Celia Ouellette, a human rights lawyer and CEO of the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice. within the scope of our organization’s campaigns, we take a critical look at the American prison industrial complex and private prisons, the ineffectiveness of the death penalty, and the draconian practice of locking juveniles up for life.

Alex Wise  1:45  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Celia Ouellette. She is the CEO of the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice. Celia, welcome to Sea Change Radio. Thanks so much. So the responsible business initiative for justice, you are personally based in the UK, but most of your work revolves around United States, incarceration and justice issues, correct? That’s right. Why don’t you explain the mission of your organization if you can?

Celia Ouellette 2:16  Yeah, it’s a little bit of a long title for an organization. But it kind of does exactly what it sounds like we work with businesses, on criminal justice issues. So the mission of the organization was really designed to kind of meet a need in the criminal justice reform movement in the US, which is where I come from, despite the accent, but my whole career working in the US as a defense attorney, and we really saw this need to have businesses be effective allies. If you are working on a legislative campaign, having a business, really support your issue, and advocate for why what you’re trying to do it makes good sense is very, very helpful. If you’re looking at big narrative campaigns, you know, the platform and reach of companies and business leaders is really, really helpful. And on things like helping to reduce recidivism rates, companies are really essential in their internal policies and practices, for example, whether they’re willing to hire people who have an arrest or conviction record. And so we really saw businesses as part of the solution and fixing the US Justice System in many different ways. And there was actually no organization doing this. So rbj was built in 2017, to do exactly this.

Alex Wise  3:39  And why don’t you give us an example of your work in action?

Celia Ouellette 3:43  One of the pieces of work that I’m very, very proud of is, during the pandemic, last year, we we worked with our colleagues in Ohio and state of Ohio. So this is really typical of how we work is a group of campaign organizations at the grassroots level, who had been working on ending juvenile life without parole in the state of Ohio. And it is exactly what it sounds like it is the practice of sentencing children to life sentences. And when they enter prison as a child, they will never go before parole board. And actually, when those children go to prison, the only way that they could ever end up before parole board is this someone changes the law and makes it retroactive, that they can access the parole board, which is like a complete pigs will fly before that happens to most children in the state of Ohio. And so our local campaign partners in Ohio had been campaigning for several years to try and change the law to end the use of juvenile life without parole in the state. And to retro actively give children the opportunity to argue for that release. This is all we’re asking for. right you know that the kids can go up for parole board and demonstrate that they’ve changed or not right, just literally ask for it. And we we worked with that group campaign colleagues They really wanted businesses to be part of the equation, they felt that businesses would be really, really important allies and advocates, and the RBI j set out to do this. And we had a really clear kind of identity for the businesses that we felt would be helpful. We wanted them to be local to Ohio, we wanted them to be working in certain industries and sectors like restaurants and retail, and manufacturing and construction. And this most wonderful thing happened when we started making phone calls, which as you know, as we all have experienced, a pandemic sucks, it’s so much better to sit sit down with someone and, and have a conversation with them about these things. But we, we started making phone calls to employees that we knew in the region, who cared about justice issues. And first call I made was to the CEO of a manufacturing company in Cincinnati. And I remember like, with my British accent, you know, firing out of the gates kind of giving the spiel about what was happening with juvenile life without parole, and why we thought he would be really helpful in this campaign. And he kind of was texting against a slow down, slow down here telling me that we sentenced children to life without the possibility of parole in the state of Ohio. And I was like, Yes, yeah, that’s exactly what we’re trying to change. So he was like, count me in. So he and a bunch of other businesses came on board, they wrote to legislators, they spoke to the media, they published op eds. And, and the outcome was that they just kind of were this tipping point in this campaign that the local organizations had been pushing for years. And the result was that juvenile life without parole is over in the state of Ohio, and companies played a really pivotal role in making that happen. And for me, that like typifies the work that we try and do we know that businesses can’t do everything. We know that businesses aren’t the be all and end all we know that businesses need those, those grassroots organizers, those people who have direct experience of the justice system to put in the work to that there comes a point in campaigns, where companies and company leaders can be maybe the most important final push the final kind of gallon of gas in the tank. And they were that and and the outcome is that this piece of legislation that had been in place for many, many years, has changed.

Alex Wise  7:10  So Celia, anybody who’s learned about the privatization of America’s prison system, the private prison problem that we have, usually starts to follow the money and looks at it as a problem with capitalism, and then a problem with putting a price tag on lives and people who are, for lack of a better word being thrown away for profit from these companies. Now, why don’t you kind of give us a glimpse into the other side of the capitalist world where there are businesses who are fighting back against the private prison interests? How do you engage them and maybe kind of explain the progress that you and your colleagues have made?

Celia Ouellette 7:57  Yeah, I mean, that’s a really interesting question. So what is wrong with private prisons, not only do we have companies that are profiting from somebody’s lack of freedom, right, we’re creating a financial incentive for an entity to incarcerate as many people as possible as cheaply as possible and that company is profiting from their lack of liberty. And if that sounds like the slave trade to you, it should because I think that these comparisons have been made between private prisons and America’s history of lynching and slavery, and their right to be made. So they’re all companies that are directly involved in the prison industrial complex that fund it, that are financing it. And there are also companies that will, or business membership organizations that will out those companies in order to prevent it. So this, this approach of following the money and turning off the faucet of the source is very good. And it should happen. And people are doing it an amazing organization based in New York as his called Worth Rises. And this is exactly what they do. They you know, they go, they follow the money, they look at shareholders and they really kind of turn off the faucet at the source for mass incarceration. So what is a different approach to the same thing? So I’m not sure if you know about the private prison expansion program that was designed in Alabama recently. So Alabama prisons are some of the West in America in terms of prison conditions and overcrowding. So I actually have personal experience of this. I worked on the Alabama case for very, very many years. My client was in a county jail, and he was sleeping as the seventh man a lot of the time and in a four man cell, so you sleep around the latrine. If you’re the seventh person, so you have bunk bunk, floor bunk, bunk floor and then the seventh person sleeps around the latrine. They ran out of toilet paper, at one point, and you know, the inmates were using their socks and their clothing, like it’s very, very bad the prison conditions in Alabama jails. So the solution Alabama came up with was to build More prison facilities. And part of this was a private contract. So there was a big bank, Barclays, it’s actually a British bank, it’s a high street bank is a consumer bank. So there was considerable reputational damage to be had from doing this, it was actually a bank that had pledged not to invest in prison construction. And when the money was followed, and this bank was recognized as investing in a financial product that was building prisons in Alabama, they were actually outed for doing so. And they pulled out of that commitment. And one of the major contributors to that event taking place as an organization called the American Sustainable Business Council, of which Barclays was a member. And so that’s kind of the other side of this, like, how do you use business membership organizations and companies to kind of prevent poor practices in their peers, and try to get those companies to create change? Like, the final thing I’ll say on this is, the place that we are in America right now is that companies are powerful, that is problematic, in lots of ways. But as somebody that has seen the justice system, very close, I actually created the organization, when one of my clients kind of sat with me and said, like, Why are you coming here to county jails? And helping people one at a time? Like, why are my options as crappy? As you’re telling me, they all you know, it’s kind of laying out the options for him what to do in his case, and he was like, This is crap. This is crap. This is crap. And this is crap. And I find myself would find myself saying, like, I know, it is crap, the kind of universe of, of options you have, they’re all crap, it is a crappy system. And I remember him kind of berating me and being like, well, you have to fix this system. And if you’re not powerful enough to fix this system, you need to help me find out the people who are powerful. And so like, I’m not naive to the fact that companies are valuable in creating change, but they’re not perfect. And they’re not perfect in every aspect of racial and social justice in America.

(Music Break)  12:31

Alex Wise  13:28  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio. And I’m speaking to Celia Ouellette. She’s the CEO of Responsible Business Initiative for Justice. So Celia, we were talking about private prisons in the United States and how that’s not really something that happens at such a rate. In other countries, a similar case could be made for the death penalty. And you your organization has been involved in a campaign, engaging business leaders against the death penalty. I think a lot of Americans would be surprised to learn that the death penalty does not really exist in most European countries, for example.

Celia Ouellette  None. Only Belarus.

Alex Wise Only Belarus. So why don’t you explain this campaign and how you are able to open some eyes to the problem surrounding America’s death penalty policy. Yeah,

Celia Ouellette  14:20  So I mean, so America is the only western country to continue to use the death penalty. You know, if we’re looking at locations where the death penalty has been abolished most recently Kazakhstan you know, has done it and America continues to use it. America. America has execution rates, you know, are its company and executing its nationals at the rate that it does or, you know, Iran, Iraq, China. So it’s pretty bad you know that i mean it when you kind of think about it, like when I think about like, oh, what are the reasons for and against using the death penalty. I feel like sometimes I trot them out and they speak about them. Yes, it’s fundamentally racist we are sending to death row and executing African Americans and people of color at a rate higher than white people. We have if you look at the mapping of lynching in America and overlay it with counties that continue to sentence people to death, it sends a shiver down your spine. Yes, we have, you know, innocence is a major issue. America is exonerating people from death row. But a conservative estimate is that we’re not exonerating everyone who’s actually innocent, we are executing some people who are actually innocent, we just never catch them. And, you know, the cost is, is insane, it’s costing millions of dollars more to state than then a life without parole or a life sentence would be in a state like Wyoming is the governor of Wyoming is considering ending the death penalty or formal moratorium in the state because it is so expensive for the state. And it’s something that could kind of have a line drawn through it. And free up money and its budget for things that are actually useful to most citizens in the state, like schools or hospitals or infrastructure, roads. Um, so all of these things, of course, but like I think for me, and many of us and Richard Branson, the CEO of the Virgin group, you know, he just fundamentally believes that we should not take we should shouldn’t kill people, and that that shouldn’t be a punishment. And I do think that there is this other issue in America, which is where the ceiling where the, where the worst sentence we can give someone is we take the life, merciful sentences life without the possibility of parole, which has an a massive impact on mass incarceration, because we’re essentially putting people in faster than we’re taking people out because sentences are so long, and a long sentences a merciful option. Going back to that client that encouraged me to create RBIJ, he faced a death sentence of being the lookout guy under a felony murder rule. And that plea offer on the table for him it was 20 years, which is kind of crazy.

Alex Wise  17:14  Sure, and a lot of people just assume that the death penalty dissuades criminals from doing crimes. But there’s no data and no credible evidence that shows that the death penalty deters crime more than long terms of imprisonment, let’s say and overwhelming percentage of criminologist don’t believe that the death penalty is an effective deterrent. So we have a democratic system where individual candidates run on being tough on crime. And as far as I can remember, politicians in America have been tethering themselves to this idea of the death penalty being one that shows that they’re tough on crime. This doesn’t happen elsewhere, I imagine. And yet, there are democracies all in Europe that elect individual politicians who want to be viewed as tough on crime. How did the reality gets so distorted through the lens of the American voter base?

Celia Ouellette  18:13  Oh, really good question. I mean, I think because America had the death penalty in the 90s when the kind of tough on crime and a super predator and, you know, three strikes and and the sort of mandatory minimum sentencing rules were ramping up the death penalty became this became this political dog whistle.

Alex Wise  18:34  Yes. And I remembered…sorry to interrupt, but I remember also like these dog whistles during presidential campaigns, where

Celia Ouellette  Bill Clinton flying to Arkansas to execute, right?

Alex Wise And before that, I remember Michael Dukakis being asked by George H.W. Bush, about if somebody had raped his wife, Kitty Dukakis, would he then not be in favor of the death penalty? You know, these are the these kind of gotcha anecdotal questions that try to tug at personal feelings and are removed from evidence based practices.

Celia Ouellette  19:06  Yeah. And we’ve just kind of been peddled this lie, you know, is the worst murder that happens in a county? Bad? Yes, absolutely. Is the community shock, horrified and scared? Absolutely. You know, is a politician standing on the podium saying I’m going to seek the death penalty against this person, actually, like a real helpful solution? No. Why are we Why are we taking this down? Why are we accepting this thing that we keep getting told? Well, don’t worry, you know, I know that this shocking murder has happened, but the prosecution will seek the death penalty and everything will be made right again, and he referred a little bit to, you know, the deterrent factor the evidence, he literally points the other way. states in the US and countries around the world that have ended that penalty have actually seen homicide rates fall in the decades in the years and decades following that decision. So to the extent that there’s any sort of meaningful data that can be drawn between homicide rates and the use of the death penalty, homicide rates are higher in states that use the death penalty. And in the years immediately following leading up to a decade following the decision to end the use of the death penalty. homicide rates have fallen in countries and states that have done that. So we’ve been kind of peddled this lie. But the business voice had been absent in this for a long time. And this goes back to a lot of what you just said, you know about this, like presidential races and gubernatorial races, and it was seen as this like the death penalty was seen as this like, politically controversial thing, and this like very intensely partisan issue. And businesses had steered clear of the death penalty. We’re kind of allergic to it for a very long time. That has changed in recent years, like one of the biggest groups that is really challenging the death penalty in America now is an organization called conservatives concerned against the death penalty. And they’re spearheading legislative abolition attempts in states like Utah and Ohio and Wyoming. And these are republican led efforts, right. And they’re a bipartisan effort now at the at the federal level. And we have had our first president that has run and one on ending the death penalty as one of his pledges. So now we have little bit of permission, a little bit of like less risk for companies to like really enter into the space layer into that the racism of the use of the death penalty. And businesses now are in this position, where they can really pin us in the place that we’re at with talking about the death penalty, shift the narrative around whether it’s helpful or not, and whether we should have that or not. And they waited in we launched this campaign earlier this year we launched in in march along with Richard Branson, and sort of inaugural cohort of 21 business leaders. That number has now grown to 42. We have business leaders like Alan Jope, the CEO of Unilever, Sheryl Sandberg, Marc Benioff, all putting their name to this campaign, calling for a global end to the death penalty, and especially in America.

(Music Break)

Alex Wise  23:58  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Celia Ouellette. She is the CEO of the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice. Now I can understand the appeal to the most base human emotions when it comes to the death penalty that that need for vengeance and revenge. And I think that’s pretty apparent. But I don’t understand how that relates to what you’re speaking about with juvenile incarceration and, and the insanity of it in terms of putting kids in prison for life based on even on crimes like homicide, which show the lowest some of the lowest recidivism rates of any crime. I mean, it feels like yes, those are terrible crimes, but people who kill usually don’t kill again, if you could connect the dots for our listeners in terms of the death penalty fallacy in the US and similar poor policies when it relates to juveniles and their incarceration.

Celia Ouellette  25:00  Yeah, so I mean, there’s several points of contact between these two, between these two things. You know, one of them is that we work a lot with multinational companies. And for them taking a position on human rights is something that is expected of them. And it’s something that they’re really kind of increasingly getting their hands around. And I have the great fortune of being a deal national. And as as you know, with holding my British passport, the death penalty and juvenile life without parole are clearly human rights issues. The use of juvenile life without parole. juvenile detention without any possibility prop violates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, America is the only country in the world to continue to use this practice, and has not signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child because of it. And the death penalty falls in exactly the same category. It’s a human rights violation. under international law, holding my American passport, it’s hard to think of these as human rights issues, because they kind of think of human rights as something that America is good at, and a leader on and human rights violations being something that happened in other countries and not in the US. But that but the reason why a number of other foreign owned companies and particularly European companies are really taking like bold stance against juvenile life without parole on the death penalty is because they squarely fall into a body of work that businesses are increasingly doing in Europe around human rights and the death penalty. And I mean, this goes deep, you know, to go back to our conversation about turning off following the money and turning off the kind of force it at the source. The French State Pension Fund, which is as big as you can imagine. It is you know, it is the it is the body that invests the money for French workers, but their pension funds has blacklisted the US Treasury market on the basis that the US Treasury on the basis of the US uses the death penalty. That is the reason why they blacklisted the US Treasury market. And this is, you know, something that is like not even eyebrow raising in Europe, that a state that sovereign wealth fund or that a that a fund of this nature that invests the money of its citizens would invest in a way that meets the values of that country and the position against these human rights violations in systems of criminal law. It is so clear cut that the death penalty should never be used in any in any circumstance, and that juvenile life without parole violates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Alex Wise 27:56  Celia Ouellette, thank you so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Celia Ouellette  It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Narrator  28:17  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Herbie Mann, Fog Swamp and the Grateful Dead. Check out our website at Sea Change Radio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcasts. Visit our archives there to hear Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.