July 2011, Week 4


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Fri, 22 Jul 2011 21:41:50 -0400
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21st-Century Slaves: How Corporations Exploit Prison

By Rania Khalek, AlterNet
Posted on July 21, 2011, Printed on July 22, 2011

There is one group of American workers so
disenfranchised that corporations are able to get away
with paying them wages that rival those of third-world
sweatshops. These laborers have been legally stripped of
their political, economic and social rights and
ultimately relegated to second-class citizens. They are
banned from unionizing, violently silenced from speaking
out and forced to work for little to no wages. This
marginalization renders them practically invisible, as
they are kept hidden from society with no available
recourse to improve their circumstances or change their

They are the 2.3 million American prisoners locked
behind bars where we cannot see or hear them. And they
are modern-day slaves of the 21st century.

Incarceration Nation

It's no secret that America imprisons more of its
citizens than any other nation in history. With just 5
percent of the world's population, the US currently
holds 25 percent of the world's prisoners. In 2008, over
2.3 million Americans were in prison or jail, with one
of every 48 working-age men behind bars. That doesn't
include the tens of thousands of detained undocumented
immigrants facing deportation, prisoners awaiting
sentencing, or juveniles caught up in the school-to-
prison pipeline. Perhaps it's reassuring to some that
the US still holds the number one title in at least one
arena, but needless to say the hyper-incarceration
plaguing America has had a damaging effect on society at

According to a study by the Center for Economic and
Policy Research (CEPR), US prison rates are not just
excessive in comparison to the rest of the world, they
are also substantially higher than our own longstanding
history. The study finds that incarceration rates
between 1880 and 1970 ranged from about 100 to 200
prisoners per 100,000 people. After 1980, the inmate
population began to grow much more rapidly than the
overall population and the rate climbed from about 220
in 1980 to 458 in 1990, 683 in 2000, and 753 in 2008.

The costs of this incarceration industry are far from
evenly distributed, with the impact of excessive
incarceration falling predominantly on African-American
communities. Although black people make up just 13
percent of the overall population, they account for 40
percent of US prisoners. According to the Bureau of
Justice Statistics (BJS), black males are incarcerated
at a rate more than 6.5 times that of white males and
2.5 that of Hispanic males and black females are
incarcerated at approximately three times the rate of
white females and twice that of Hispanic females.

Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim
Crow that more black men are in jail, on probation, or
on parole than were enslaved in 1850. Higher rates of
black drug arrests do not reflect higher rates of black
drug offenses. In fact, whites and blacks engage in drug
offenses, possession and sales at roughly comparable

Incentivizing Incarceration

Clearly, the US prison system is riddled with racism and
classism, but it gets worse. As it turns out, private
companies have a cheap, easy labor market, and it isn't
in China, Indonesia, Haiti, or Mexico. It's right here
in the land of the free, where large corporations
increasingly employ prisoners as a source of cheap and
sometimes free labor.

In the eyes of the corporation, inmate labor is a
brilliant strategy in the eternal quest to maximize
profit. By dipping into the prison labor pool, companies
have their pick of workers who are not only cheap but
easily controlled. Companies are free to avoid providing
benefits like health insurance or sick days, while
simultaneously paying little to no wages. They don't
need to worry about unions or demands for vacation time
or raises. Inmate workers are full-time and never late
or absent because of family problems.

If they refuse to work, they are moved to disciplinary
housing and lose canteen privileges along with "good
time" credit that reduces their sentences. To top it
off, the federal government subsidizes the use of inmate
labor by private companies through lucrative tax write-
offs. Under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC),
private-sector employers earn a tax credit of $2,400 for
every work release inmate they employ as a reward for
hiring "risky target groups" and they can earn back up
to 40 percent of the wages they pay annually to "target
group workers."

Study after study demonstrates the wastefulness of
America's prison-industrial complex, in both taxpayer
dollars and innocent lives, yet rolling back
imprisonment rates is proving to be more challenging
than ever.  Meanwhile, the use of private prisons and
now privately contracted inmate labor has created a
system that does not exactly incentivize leaner

The disturbing implications of such a system mean that
skyrocketing imprisonment for the possession of
miniscule amounts of marijuana and the the expansion of
severe mandatory sentencing laws regardless of the
conviction, are policies that have to potential to
increase corporate profits. As are the"three strikes
laws" that require courts to hand down mandatory and
extended sentences to people who have been convicted of
felonies on three or more separate occasions.  People
have literally been sentenced to life for minor crimes
like shoplifting.

The Reinvention of Slavery

The exploitation of prison labor is by no means a new
phenomenon. Jaron Browne, an organizer with People
Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), maps out how
the exploitation of prison labor in America is rooted in
slavery. The abolition of slavery dealt a devastating
economic blow to the South following the loss of free
labor after the Civil War. So in the late 19th century,
an extensive prison system was created in the South in
order to maintain the racial and economic relationship
of slavery, a mechanism responsible for re-enslaving
black workers. Browne describes Louisiana's famous
Angola Prison to illustrate the intentional
transformation from slave to inmate:

"In 1880, this 8000-acre family plantation was purchased
by the state of Louisiana and converted into a prison.
Slave quarters became cell units. Now expanded to 18,000
acres, the Angola plantation is tilled by prisoners
working the land-a chilling picture of modern day
chattel slavery."

The abolition of slavery quickly gave rise to the Black
Codes and Convict Leasing, which together worked wonders
at perpetuating African American servitude by exploiting
a loophole in the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution,
which reads:

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a
punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been
duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or
any place subject to their jurisdiction."

The Black Codes were a set of laws that criminalized
legal activity for African Americans and provided a
pretext for the arrest and mass imprisonment of newly
freed blacks, which caused the percentage of African
Americans in prison to surpass whites for the first
time. Convict leasing involved leasing out prisoners to
private companies that paid the state a certain fee in
return. Convicts worked for the companies during the day
outside the prison and returned to their cells at night.
The system provided revenue for the state and profits
for plantation owners and wasn't abolished until the

Unfortunately, convict leasing was quickly replaced with
equally despicable state-run chain gangs. Once again,
stories of vicious abuse created enough public anger to
abolish chain gangs by the 1950s. Nevertheless, the
systems of prisoner exploitation never actually

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. In a press
release he boasted that the inmates would be wearing
pink T-shirts emblazoned with messages about drinking
and driving.

The modern-day version of convict leasing was recently
spotted in Georgia, where Governor Nathan Deal proposed
sending unemployed probationers to work in Georgia's
fields as a solution to a perceived labor shortage
following the passage of the country's most draconian
anti-immigrant law. But his plan backfired when some of
the probationers began walking off their jobs because
the fieldwork was too strenuous.

There has also been a disturbing reemergence of the
debtors' prison, which should serve as an ominous sign
of our dangerous reliance on prisons to manage any and
all of society's problems. According to the Wall Street
Journal more than a third of all U.S. states allow
borrowers who can't or won't pay to be jailed. They
found that judges signed off on more than 5,000 such
warrants since the start of 2010 in nine counties. It
appears that any act that can be criminalized in the era
of private prisons and inmate labor will certainly end
in jail time, further increasing the ranks of the
captive workforce.

Who Profits?

Prior to the 1970s, private corporations were prohibited
from using prison labor as a result of the chain gang
and convict leasing scandals. But in 1979, Congress
began a process of deregulation to restore private
sector involvement in prison industries to its former
status, provided certain conditions of the labor market
were met. Over the last 30 years, at least 37 states
have enacted laws permitting the use of convict labor by
private enterprise, with an average pay of $0.93 to
$4.73 per day.

Federal prisoners receive more generous wages that range
from $0.23 to $1.25 per hour, and are employed by
Unicor, a wholly owned government corporation
established by Congress in 1934. Its principal customer
is the Department of Defense, from which Unicor derives
approximately 53 percent of its sales. Some  21,836
inmates work in Unicor programs. Subsequently, the
nation's prison industry - prison labor programs
producing goods or services sold to other government
agencies or to the private sector -- now employs more
people than any Fortune 500 company (besides General
Motors), and generates about $2.4 billion in revenue
annually. Noah Zatz of UCLA law school estimates that:

"Well over 600,000, and probably close to a million,
inmates are working full-time in jails and prisons
throughout the United States. Perhaps some of them built
your desk chair: office furniture, especially in state
universities and the federal government, is a major
prison labor product. Inmates also take hotel
reservations at corporate call centers, make body armor
for the U.S. military, and manufacture prison chic
fashion accessories, in addition to the iconic task of
stamping license plates."

Some of the largest and most powerful corporations have
a stake in the expansion of the prison labor market,
including but not limited to 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. Between 1980 and 1994 alone,
profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion.
Since the prison labor force has likely grown since
then, it is safe to assume that the profits accrued from
the use of prison labor have reached even higher levels.

In an article for Mother Jones, Caroline Winter details
a number of mega-corporations that have profited off of

"In the 1990s, subcontractor Third Generation hired 35
female South Carolina inmates to sew lingerie and
leisure wear for Victoria's Secret and JCPenney. In
1997, a California prison put two men in solitary for
telling journalists they were ordered to replace 'Made
in Honduras' labels on garments with 'Made in the USA.'"

According to Winter, the defense industry is a large
part of the equation as well:

"Unicor, says that in addition to soldiers' uniforms,
bedding, shoes, helmets, and flak vests, inmates have
'produced missile cables (including those used on the
Patriot missiles during the Gulf War)' and 'wiring
harnesses for jets and tanks.' In 1997, according to
Prison Legal News, Boeing subcontractorMicroJet had
prisoners cutting airplane components, paying $7 an hour
for work that paid union wages of $30 on the outside."

Oil companies have been known to exploit prison labor as
well. Following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon
rig that killed 11 workers and irreparably damaged the
Gulf of Mexico for generations to come, BP elected to
hire Louisiana prison inmates to clean up its mess.
Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of any
state in the nation, 70 percent of which are African-
American men. Coastal residents desperate for work,
whose livelihoods had been destroyed by BP's negligence,
were outraged at BP's use of free prison labor.

In the Nation article that exposed BP's hiring of
inmates, Abe Louise Young details how BP tried to cover
up its use of prisoners by changing the inmates'
clothing to give the illusion of civilian workers. But
nine out of 10 residents of Grand Isle, Louisiana are
white, while the cleanup workers were almost exclusively
black, so BP's ruse fooled very few people.

Private companies have long understood that prison labor
can be as profitable as sweatshop workers in third-world
countries with the added benefit of staying closer to
home. Take Escod Industries, which in the 1990s
abandoned plans to open operations in Mexico and instead
moved to South Carolina, because the wages of American
prisoners undercut those of de-unionized Mexican
sweatshop workers. The move was fueled by the state,
which gave a $250,000 "equipment subsidy" to Escod along
with industrial space at below-market rent. Other
examples include Ohio's Honda supplier, which pays its
prison workers $2 an hour for the same work for which
the UAW has fought for decades to be paid $20 to $30 an
hour; Konica, which has hired prisoners to repair its
copiers for less than 50 cents an hour; and Oregon,
where private companies can "lease" prisoners at a
bargain price of $3 a day.

Even politicians have been known to tap into prison
labor for their own personal use. In 1994, a contractor
for GOP congressional candidate Jack Metcalf hired
Washington state prisoners to call and remind voters he
was pro-death penalty. He won his campaign claiming he
had no knowledge of the scandal. Perhaps this is why
Senator John Ensign (R-NV) introduced a bill earlier
this year to require all low-security prisoners to work
50 hours a week. After all, creating a national prison
labor force has been a goal of his since he went to
Congress in 1995.

In an unsettling turn of events lawmakers have begun
ditching public employees in favor of free prison labor.
The New York Times recently reported that states are
enlisting prison labor to close budget gaps to offset
cuts in federal financing and dwindling tax revenue. At
a time of record unemployment, inmates are being hired
to paint vehicles, clean courthouses, sweep campsites
and perform many other services done before the
recession by private contractors or government
employees. In Wisconsin, prisoners are now taking up
jobs that were once held by unionized workers, as a
result of Governor Scott Walker's contentious anti-union

Why You Should Care

Those who argue in favor of prison labor claim it is a
useful tool for rehabilitation and preparation for post-
jail employment. But this has only been shown to be true
in cases where prisoners are exposed to meaningful
employment, where they learn new skills, not the labor-
intensive, menial and often dangerous work they are
being tasked with. While little if any evidence exists
to suggests that the current prison labor system
decreases recidivism or leads to better employment
prospects outside of prison, there are a number of
solutions that have been proven to be useful.

According to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts,
having a history of incarceration itself impedes
subsequent economic success. Pew found that past
incarceration reduced subsequent wages by 11 percent,
cut annual employment by nine weeks and reduced yearly
earnings by 40 percent. The study suggests that the best
approach is for state and federal authorities to invest
in programs that reconnect inmates to the labor market,
as well as provide training and job placement services
around the time of release. Most importantly, Pew says
that in the long term, America must move toward
alternative sentencing programs for low-level and
nonviolent offenders, and issuing penalties that are
actually proportionate with real public safety concerns.

The exploitation of any workforce is detrimental to all
workers. Cheap and free labor pushes down wages for
everyone. Just as American workers cannot compete with
sweatshop labor, the same goes for prison labor. Many
jobs that come into prison are taken from free citizens.
The American labor movement must demand that prison
labor be allowed the right to unionize, the right to a
fair and living wage, and the right to a safe and
healthy work environment. That is what prisoners are
demanding, but they can only do so much from inside a
prison cell.

As unemployment on the outside increases, so too will
crime and incarceration rates, and our 21st-century
version of corporate slavery will continue to expand
unless we do something about it.

Rania Khalek is a progressive activist. Check out her
blog Missing Pieces or follow her on Twitter @Rania_ak.
You can contact her at [log in to unmask]

c 2011 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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