† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
The Mugshot and the Money
by nancy a heitzeg
There it was – the explosion/exposure of the cultural morass of our collective criminalizing presumptions, assumptions, exploitations, objectifications, commodifications – conjured by the gaze of one Jeremy Meeks*. One picture literally unleashing 10 trillion revelatory words.
Meeks is now an international media sensation, because of his face not his case. His model good looks have made him the object of both desire and derision, the subject now of newscasts “wagging the finger of shame”, sensationalistic headlines and labels such as “hottie thug”, photo shop memes, castigation over his prior criminal history and his (maybe past?) gang affiliations, and gave rise to a troubling Twitter hashtag. #FelonCrushFriday moved beyond Meeks to include the mugshots of nameless others (mostly women of color), every known misconception about the criminal injustice system/”criminals”/”gang members”, the “white gaze”, colorism, rampant misogyny and homophobia, ridicule, scorn, calls for prison rape and impossibly harsh punishments.
In a word – Dehumanization. As Mariame Kaba notes in No, Mugshots Do Not “Humanize” Anyone…:
The mugshot then is a tool used by the state to flatten individuals and turn them into rationalized, bureaucratized ‘things.’ This process is so successful that many observers never consider the pain and suffering (too often) etched on the faces of those being photographed. These images of the accused (usually never convicted) are made public for all to consume as they like. Indeed in the age of the internet, police departments regularly post mugshots on social media. Look at this ‘thing,’ the gatekeepers of the state tell us. And millions of people oblige.
Because we live in the midst of the profit-driven, privatizing epicenter of the now globalizing prison industrial complex, there is another word too. Capitalize. It is no longer enough to dehumanize – to leave stigmatized, banished, branded, marked in a degraded status as “criminal”. Dehumanization is the prerequisite of commodification, and yes that abounded too. Immediately internet entrepreneurs were creating T-shirts and phone cases, while high end coat-tail riders like the Warhol Museum and Orange is the New Black (see The Reign of Whitey Is Never Over by Yasmin Nair) were using the hash tag to pimp art exhibits and television shows.
— Orange Is the New… (@OITNB) June 20, 2014
Par for the course. Profit — that is the often under-estimated essence of the prison industrial complex. We are aware of the pic as a source of cheap labor, private/public supply and construction contracts, job creation, continued media profits from exaggerated crime reporting and crime/punishment as entertainment and of the newly emerging “markets” in privatized community corrections. Even this is the tip of the iceberg as we start to include the immense reliance on privatized background check companies and on-line repositories of criminal records. We are still uncovering the manifold ways – both actualized and imagined — in which there is money to be made.
On Mugshots and More.
Page Clicks, “Monetized Humiliation”, and Profits
There is incalculable $$ made from mainstream and social media’s incestuous feedback loop of reporting on “crime” and “criminals”. Who knows how many page clicks were generated and how much ad revenue accumulated by the Meeks mugshot story alone, via blogging/reblogging, Facebook links and Twitter hashtags and then “news” reporting on the self-perpetuating swirl? Immeasurable.
Far beyond that, on-line sites devoted to featuring mugshots are highly popular and have very recently proliferated (circa 2010). Once published as public records by police and sheriff departments, mugshots are now purchased or otherwise gleaned for publication on more than 80 sites sites such as Mugshots, BustedMugshots, Smoking Gun and JustMugshots. (No, I am not going to link you). From the New York Times, “Mugged by a Mugshot Online”:
The ostensible point of these sites is to give the public a quick way to glean the unsavory history of a neighbor, a potential date or anyone else. That sounds civic-minded, until you consider one way most of these sites make money: by charging a fee to remove the image. That fee can be anywhere from $30 to $400, or even higher. Pay up, in other words, and the picture is deleted, at least from the site that was paid…
It was only a matter of time before the Internet started to monetize humiliation. In this case, the time was early 2011, when mug-shot Web sites started popping up to turn the most embarrassing photograph of anyone’s life into cash. The sites are perfectly legal, and they get financial oxygen the same way as other online businesses — through credit card companies and PayPal…
The drill is obvious. These sites provide endless mugshot photos from around the nation . At one site I visited, there are mugshots dating back ten years and more, many for relatively minor arrests such as traffic offenses. There is no information on the outcome of these cases — these are arrest documents that offer no insight into whether or not charges were dropped or reduced, no findings on innocence/guilt or sentencing. But there is the obligatory buried fine print disclaimer of ” presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.” Well, thanks. While these sites often include a link to click to request removal, that only becomes possible for yes, a fee either paid directly to the site itself, or to an affiliated company that specializes in “online reputation repair”. Again from “Mugged by a Mugshot Online”:
People eager to vanish from mug-shot sites can try a mug-shot removal service, a mini-industry that has sprung up in the last two years and is nearly as opaque as the one it is intended to counter. “I’m not going to go into what we do,” said Tyronne Jacques, founder of RemoveSlander.com (Motto: “Bailout of the Internet for good!”). “Whatever works.”
Removal services aren’t cheap — RemoveMyMug.com charges $899 for its “multiple mug shot package” — and owners of large reputation-management companies, which work with people trying to burnish their online image, contend that they are a waste of money.
There is essentially no over-sight or regulation of these websites. Pressure from Google or credit card companies is an option, as are state-level regulations. But the burden of time, energy and costs still rests with those whose mugshot is gaudily splashed across the endless, eternal web. The stakes here are high. The issue is no longer one of public shaming and stigma alone; it an era of increased reliance on background checks, there are implications for employment, housing, access to education and frankly, just about everything.
Privatized Criminal Background Checks
Criminal background checks are now ubiquitous. About 93% of employers conduct criminal background checks on some applicants, while 73% of employers conduct checks on all applicants, according to a 2010 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Criminal background checks are now a regular for-fee feature of rental applications, and increasingly, are used to screen college admissions.. A recent report from the Center for Community Alternatives found that “two thirds of colleges collect criminal justice information from their applicants, and 20% conducted criminal background checks.”
This practice impacts a huge percentage of the U.S. public – nearly 1 in 4 adults (an estimated 65 million people) in the U.S. have a criminal record, and many additional people without a criminal record are wrongly tagged as having a record. Of course there there is a racial dynamic here as Blacks and Latin@s are 3 – 5 times more likely to be swept in the criminal justice system than whites. As cited in “Criminal Background Checks Criticized for Incorrect Data, Racial Discrimination”, Prison Legal News, 49% of black males, 44% of Hispanic males and 38% of white males are arrested by age 23, which can have a significant impact on their ability to find future employment. And this is complicated further by the fact that whites with felonies were more likely to be called for interviews than Black applicants without criminal records (see The Mark of a Criminal record, Page, 2003).
The prevalence of background checks is additionally problematic due to its increasingly privatized nature. State agencies and governmental keepers of official criminal justice databases are no longer the one stop “go – to” source. Private companies are the “go-to” sources; names like ADP Screening, HireRight, Sterling Information Systems, and LexusNexus dominate the field. This is now a multi-billion dollar per year industry that operates in a unregulated vacuum described as “The Wild West”.
There is no accountability for the private criminal background check profiteers, even as they proliferate at incredible rates with database names in the hundreds of millions. In 2012, one of the first of reports on these practices came from the National Consumer Law Center. From Broken Records: How Errors by Criminal Background Checking Companies Harm Workers and Businesses :
Criminal background screening companies’ reports routinely:
Many errors due to common poor practices, such as:
This is what is what “deregulation” looks like — chaos, cruelty, and corruption. At a time when states are being asked to consider Ban the Box legislation and relaxed rules for expungement of adult and juvenile records, the private sector is under-cutting any possible progress. Again, finding out if records — even post expungement – are accurate is a burden that falls on those often least able to bear it. You pay for their mistakes — even if you’ve don’t have a criminal record at all. Individual citizens are expected to become private eyes on their own behalf, ferreting out misinformation., and then paying either attorneys or those reputation repair vultures to clean up the messes profiteering perpetrators have made.
What Is To Be Done?
Well, we can call for more over-sight via state-level legislation and Federal regulatory agencies. In the case of mugshot websites, there has also been pressure on Google to demote them in searches, and comparable calls for credit card companies to stop doing business with said sites. There have also been class action suits against both mugshot websites and private criminal background check companies, but these remain challenging because of First Amendment concerns, the claim that the records involved are “public”, and the argument made by some that expungements are “rewriting history”. In Broken Records: How Errors by Criminal Background Checking Companies Harm Workers and Businesses, the National Consumer Law Center suggests the following remedies:
Undoubtedly, accountability is required, and these recommendations would provide much needed oversight. But what new yet-to-be-dreamt-of profiteering scheme will emerge from the many-headed capitalist hydra? It has never been clearer than in the writing of this piece, that the prison abolition movement must more vigorously address the economic under -pinning of the prison industrial complex, and the extent to which it is now the center-piece of our economy in late post-industrial capitalism.. It is the raw quest for private profit, and the hegemonic cultural acceptance of this pillar of capitalism that must be confronted, along with all the rest.
There is talk around the edges. The challenges of recognizing the deeply racist dynamic of the pic – out as an extension of slavery – have been clearly confronted, so too the sociocultural demands for discipline and punishment. These are certainly not resolved, but they are front and center in the debate. So too, are discussions about criminalizing the poor and the function of prison as a repository of an economically redundant labor pool in the neo-liberal state.
Our Mugshots and More.
*Note: Jeremy Meek’s mugshot was posted on the Stockton (CA) Police Department’s Facebook page ( yes Facebook page) after his arrest on June 18. According to CNN, a search of the car he was driving ” yielded a 9mm round of ammunition and a small amount of what is believed to be marijuana. A search of the trunk located an unregistered and loaded 45 caliber semiautomatic handgun along with two extended magazines.”
There is probably a story to be written here about police over-kill — 4 arrests, a small amount of marijuana and one unregistered handgun hardly seem worthy of a “multi-agency Operation Ceasefire enforcement mission” that included “the Stockton PD, Stockton PD Gang Violence Suppression Unit, Community Response Team, County Wide Gang Task Force, San Joaquin County Sheriff’s SWAT, Lodi Police Department’s SWAT, Manteca Police Department, Lodi Police Department, County Wide METRO Narcotics Unit, Federal Bureau of Investigation, United States Marshal’s Task Force, Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; and the AB109 Task Force.” – but that is for another day.
Finally, for all the money that has been made off his mugshot, certainly he is at least owed adequate legal representation. And because the internet sometimes giveth – as well as taketh away – if you are so inclined, please contribute at Free Jeremey Meeks .