As you do your holiday shopping this year, chances are you’ll be surrounded by products that were made using prison labor.
Corporations are realizing that they don’t need to send jobs overseas to turn a profit any more. No, they didn’t have a change of heart and a new found willingness to share their hard earned profits with their workers. Instead, they’ve found a class of people that they can basically use for free. Even better, these people have almost no rights. No protections. No voice. They are numerous and growing every year. What corporations have realized is that they are sitting on the largest population of prisoners in the world.
One out of every 100 American adults is behind bars. That’s more than 2.4 million people who have been taken out of the workforce and had their rights legally stripped away. That’s a lot of potential exploitable workers for a corporation to use.
The United States has a long history of forcing its prison population to work as part of their punishment, although by no means is it the only country to do so. The 13th Amendment, passed in 1865, abolished slavery and involuntary servitude for everyone but prisoners. In 1871, Virginia declared prisoners “slaves of the state.” In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that prisoners couldn’t form unions or make work demands . This all led up to the 1980s and 90s where under both a republican president and a democrat, the prison population skyrocketed. Locking up people for lengthy minimum sentences is truly one of the last remaining bipartisan agreements.
That set the stage for 1980s legislation that was passed to encourage workers to work as part of their restitution for court-ordered fines, victim restitution, child support, and other monetary judgments. In 1985, the federal government instituted the Inmate Financial Responsibility Program, meant to insure that victims got their money and the inmates learned financial responsibility. In theory it sounds reasonable. The thinking went that instead of just having prisoners sit around all day while the government picked up their bill, they could work menial jobs in order to earn their keep. In the meantime, they would learn valuable trade skills that would help them when they got out of prison.
But with any easily disenfranchised group (and prisoners might be the most disenfranchised in the country, almost by definition), the opportunity for exploitation and abuse is extremely high. The probability of abuse becomes even higher for a group of people typically perceived as “deserving” of it. Prisoners fit that bill nicely.
Given the substantial profits that could be made by moving your labor away from legally protected workers and over to legally unprotected prisoners, it was only a matter of time before states and corporations got busy hashing out the exact business details:
At least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations that mount their operations inside state prisons. The list of such companies contains the cream of U.S. corporate society: IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and many more.
All of these businesses are excited about the economic boom generation by prison labor. Just between 1980 and 1994, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion. Inmates in state penitentiaries generally receive the minimum wage for their work, but not all; in Colorado, they get about $2 per hour, well under the minimum. And in privately-run prisons, they receive as little as 17 cents per hour for a maximum of six hours a day, the equivalent of $20 per month. The highest-paying private prison is CCA in Tennessee, where prisoners receive 50 cents per hour for what they call “highly skilled positions.” At those rates, it is no surprise that inmates find the pay in federal prisons to be very generous. There, they can earn $1.25 an hour and work eight hours a day, and sometimes overtime. They can send home $200-$300 per month.
Prisoners are making roughly $20 per month. To put that in perspective: Bangladesh – a country that pays its workers some of the worst wages in the world – just raised their minimum wage for workers to $66 per month.
That cheap labor is then used to make an impressive assortment of goods:
According to the Left Business Observer, the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove assembly; 46% of body armor; 36% of home appliances; 30% of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21% of office furniture. Airplane parts, medical supplies, and much more: prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for blind people.
Entire factories can be run by prisoners, and companies would only need to pay them dollars a day. Even better, if you’re a corporation interested in maximizing your profits, your workers can no longer get workers comp, they can’t call off, they are never late, they can’t complain. If one decides he doesn’t like his job he is sent to an isolation unit until he decides that he prefers working for nothing over psychological torture.
Private prisons have taken this idea and ran with it. The idea of a for-profit prison system is already terrible and predictably pockmarked with a steady stream of abuses, but prisoners being farmed out to the highest bidder, with the prison getting paid for their labor is stunningly audacious.
Today’s corporations can lease factories in prisons, as well as lease prisoners out to their factories. In many cases, private corporations are running prisons-for-profit, further incentivizing their stake in locking people up. The government is profiting as well, by running prison factories that operate as “multibillion-dollar industries in every state, and throughout the federal prison system,” where prisoners are contracted out to major corporations by the state.
In the most extreme cases, we are even witnessing the reemergence of the chain gang. In Arizona, the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America,” Joe Arpaio, requires his Maricopa County inmates to enroll in chain gangs to perform various community services or face lockdown with three other inmates in an 8-by-12-foot cell, for 23 hours a day. In June of this year, Arpaio started a female-only chain gang made up of women convicted of driving under the influence.
We are building an unethical and unhealthy economic system that is further destroying our country’s workforce and shifting it over to underpaid, abused prisoners. That system has a strong incentive to keep jails full and criminals locked away for exorbitant sentences. If we continue to do nothing, the problem will only grow. Unfortunately, the stigma that being in prison means you deserve whatever comes your way has supported of this dangerous system and given politicians and businessmen political cover in further enriching corporate interests at the expense of everyone else.