The Next Best Thing to Slaves


Prison Labour - Against:

Made in the USA

We have gone completely overboard on security.
Everything has to be secured, jobs, wages, hours -
although the ultimate in security is jail, the slave labour camp and the salt mine.

- Cola Parker

by Jim Hightower

Psssst.  Hey you, corporate honcho.  Tired of paying American workers five or six bucks an hour, and them still complaining that it's not a living wage?  Well, how would you like to get some of those nice, compliant, super-cheap Third-World workers - without even having to move your factories to some Hell-hole in China or El Salvador?

Let me whisper two little words to you: Prison Labour."

That's right, don't run ads or go to the unemployment agency for workers - go to your state prison!  That's what J C Penney and Eddie Bauer are doing, getting jeans and toys made by Tennessee inmates; Ohio prisoners have produced car parts for Honda; prison labourers in Oregon make uniforms for McDonalds; and TWA even employs convicts to book reservations by phone.

Cheap?  We're talking as little as 20¢ an hour, with no health care to worry about, or any of the other nonsense that workers on the outside always want.  And these guys always show up on time; they can't talk back and they sure won't be joining any of those pesky unions.  Plus, you can put a "Made in the USA" sticker on the products they make for you.

Commercialised prison labour has become big business.  Writing in the Madison, Wisconsin Isthmus, investigative reporter Steven Elbow says convict-made goods will reach nearly $9 billion in sales by the year 2000.  Indeed, Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson is now aggressively marketing his state's prisoners to corporate executives: "Can't find workers?" a recent prison mailing asks them.  No problem, "A willing workforce awaits" - conveniently incarcerated for you in Wisconsin.

Convict labour is not totally free enterprise, but it's as close as it gets.  And remember, 20¢-an-hour labour also helps push down wages for all other American workers.  So here's to you corporate honchos and your politicians for making America even more like a Third World nation.

Source: Anderson Valley Advertiser, Boonville, California

A later version with slightly more detail:

The Next Best Thing to Slaves

by Jim Hightower

At last US industry has figured out how to compete with Third World wages right here at home.  Hire prisoners!  No need to mess with the want ads, employment agencies, or job fairs to find cheap workers, just bustle on down to your state prison and cut a deal for some convicts.  Since 1990, 30 states have contracted out prison labour to private companies.

bulletJCPenney, Kmart, and Eddie Bauer are getting such products as jeans, sweatshirts, and toys made by prisoners in Tennessee and Washington State.
bulletIBM, Texas Instruments, and Dell Computer all get circuit boards made by Texas prisoners.
bulletHonda has had car parts made in Ohio prisons, McDonald's has uniforms made in Oregon prisons, AT&T has hired telemarketers in Colorado prisons, and Spalding gets golf balls packed in Hawaii prisons.
bulletCalifornia's correctional system has become a one-stop-hiring hall for corporations: San Quentin inmates do data entry for Chevron, Macy's and Bank-America; Ventura inmates take telephone reservations for TWA (yes, this does mean callers are unwittingly giving their credit card numbers to criminals, and, yes, there have been "incidents"); Folsum inmates work for both a plastics manufacturer and a brass faucet maker; and Aveala inmates run an ostrich-slaughtering facility for an exporter that ships the meat to Europe.

Who says American industry is losing its ingenuity?  These free enterprisers not only get labour for minimum wage and less from the state, but they also provide no health care, no pensions, no vacations, none of those other frills that pampered softies on the outside are always crying about.  Plus these jailbirds always show up on time for work, they don't call in "sick" to go to a ballgame, if they talk back to you you have 'em thrown in solitary, and they darn sure won't be joining some pesky union.  I tell you, it's the next best thing to having slaves - maybe better, since the company doesn't even have to feed and house them.

Oh, and here's the best part of all: You can slap a Made-in-the-USA label on every product they make for you!

Convict-made goods are expected to reach nearly $9 billion in sales by the end of the decade as the prison population swells; as more companies discover the scam, and as more state politicians learn to cash in on it.  Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, never one to pass up a chance to exploit someone's misery, has been especially adept at huckstering his state's prison force: "Can't find workers?" a state mailing asks corporate executives all across the country.  No problem, proclaims the brochure, "A willing workforce waits" - conveniently incarcerated for you in Wisconsin.

Most companies pay the minimum wage, but many get away with paying far less - AT&T, for example, paid only $2 an hour for its imprisoned telemarketers, and Honda got its convict-made car parts from the Ohio prison at $2.05 an hour.  The prisoners typically get to keep only 20% of the paycheque, with the state government grabbing the rest, which is why the states are all for it.

Participating firms everywhere sing the praises of this locked-up labour.  In an article in Nation magazine, Bob Tessler of DPAS company in San Francisco gushes: "We have a captive labour force, a group of men who are dedicated, who want to work.  That makes the whole business profitable."  That, plus the fact that California taxpayers also give Tessler a 10% tax credit on the first $2000 of each inmate's wages.  Wow, cheap prison labour and a subsidy - if that won't restore your faith in the working of the free market, nothing will!  It is such a steal of a deal that Tessler has shut down his operation in Mexico, moving his data processing work inside San Quentin.  "Here we don't have a problem with the language, we have better control of our work and, because it's local, we have a quicker turnaround time."

Source: Funny Times November 1998 from There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos, by Jim Hightower

A Competing View:

Benefits Seen from Inmate Labour

by Christian Bourge

Washington - Jobs for prison inmates with private sector or state-run employers help reduce recidivism rates and, despite claims of opponents to the contrary, can provide a spur to the economy, according to a recent report from a Washington think tank.

"I think there are several points to be made from a social policy perspective and from a prison reform perspective," Robert D Atkinson, vice president of the center-left Progressive Policy Institute, told United Press International.  "[A program of prisoners working for outside employers] has positives in reducing recidivism, and economically.  [The economic aspect] is really the driving force behind the opposition to prison labour, and is an economic argument that ... doesn't hold any water."  PPI is affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council.

In his recent paper, "Prison Labour: It's More than Breaking Rocks," Atkinson - who is also the director of PPI's Project on Technology and the New Economy - attacks the economic arguments made by labour unions and business interests who fear competition from prisoner labour because they believe that, like free trade, it displaces American workers from jobs.  In addition, Atkinson says there is clear evidence that prisoners working at outside companies can help reduce recidivism rates by providing convicts with marketable skills.  The income from the work can also offset the costs of housing criminals in prisons if they are made to use their wages to pay a portion of the costs.

Industry and labour have long opposed the employment of prisoners for private sector and government production, arguing that it is unfair competition.  These opponents have also been largely successful in keeping outside prison work restricted.  However, this may not in fact have protected any jobs for ordinary citizens, because companies that employ federal and state inmates have sales contracts with state agencies that private competitors cannot bid against.

Under the auspices of the US government's Federal Prison Industries, known as FPI, and several similar state programs - the largest being the California Prison Industry Authority prison work program - prisoners produce furniture and a host of other products that must, by law, be purchased by federal and state agencies.  Under the typical government-run prisoner work program, only after FPI or a similar state prison work program turns away an agency's contract request, can the state or federal agency go to the open market to fulfill its needs.

In addition, labour organisations and private companies argue that some private firms employ inmate workers at salaries far below the minimum wage, providing unfair competition through reduced labour costs.  Labour groups also argue that these workers do not enjoy the same protections as civilian labourers.  The AFL-CIO, for one, says that this amounts to unfair competition with so-called "free labour."  According to the AFL-CIO Web site, federal and state governments should end all programs encouraging the use of prisoners for private sector work and "vigourously enforce laws and regulations designed to prevent prison work programs that unfairly compete with free labour."  The group also argues that the use of inmate labour "appears to violate International Labour Organisation Convention Nunber 102," ratified by the United States in 1991, which "prohibits the use of forced or prison labour for economic development."

Union officials did not return calls for comment for this story.

Atkinson, however, says that arguments of unfair competition and worker displacement are based upon an inaccurate view that prisoner and civilian labour are in competition in a zero sum game, in which one side must lose if the other gains something.  He argues that growth in one area does not come at the expense of the other, because the US economy is not a pie of a set size, but an elastic arena where the levels of goods and services are flexible. Because of this, he believes that the addition of prison labour can actually help the economy, because both prisoners and civilian workers would be contributing to the economy.

"The key to understanding this is to recognise that as new (inmate) workers begin producing output, existing workers are not displaced permanently," said Atkinson.  "They get jobs again and produce goods and services ... In the moderate term, employing prisoners doesn't raise unemployment but adds to the overall GDP."

The economic impact of prison labour remains minimal because such workers - currently 88,000 prisoners in state and federal institutions around the United States - represent less than 1/50th of 1% of the civilian work force, says Atkinson. But they are also only a small portion of the approximately 2 million prison inmates in the United States who could be contributing to the economy while they are incarcerated.

Bob Lerman, director of the Labour and Social Policy Center at the left-leaning Urban Institute, told UPI that Atkinson's analysis regarding of the economic impact of prison labour is on the mark.  "We don't have a fixed amount of work to be done and this can expand our capacity," said Lerman.  "Obviously, if all of the prisoners enter the work force at one time and employers make sudden shifts, there would be some dislocations, but I think if it is done gradually and begun with demonstrations going forward from there, it would be fine."

Marvin H Kosters, director of economic policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, believes that the economic arguments of critics of outside prison work are false, and that prisoner labour can have economic as well as social benefit.  "If we have prisoner workers engaged in some kind of productive activities, this makes a contribution to the output of our society as a whole," said Kosters.  "Working at something constructive can also help develop skills and work habits."  Lerman added that work experience is also an important concept for prisoners, especially given the fact that prisoner education programs have been cut back substantially in recent years.  "I think that providing these people with work could be an extremely significant initiative," he said.

Timothy Lynch, director of the libertarian Cato Institute's project on criminal justice, agrees that prison labour is a worthy idea, but says that such programs often fall short of their goal of helping prisoners gain marketable skills.  This is because while they often put inmates to work producing products that states or federal agencies need - producing machine-made furniture, for example - the work does not provide the workers with skills, such as carpentry and plumbing, that are applicable to widely available jobs.  Such programmes, he says, do not fulfill their primary mission.

Nevertheless, Daniel Mears, a research associate at Urban's Justice Policy Centre, argues that prison labourers could serve in the labour force in blue-collar work and other jobs that traditionally go to immigrants, and for which there is a growing dearth of applicants.  "It seems moronic not to have prisoners involved in productive labour," said Mears.  "These are positions for which there is a demand and which supply cannot meet.  Basically, prisoners could fill a certain niche and do so without affecting non-prison labour."

A 1998 study from the University of California, Berkeley, found that state-run prison factories and farms were responsible for more than $150 million annually in direct sales to the states on a range of products ranging from silk-screened clothing to fine-ground optics.  And, yes, the incarcerated workers also made state license plates.  The researchers found that prisoners lined up for the chance to work at a pay scale ranging from 30¢ - 95¢ per hour.  But critics point to the tax dollars used to prop up such systems as proof that the economic impact of these programs is not what proponents make it out to be.  A 1996 investigation by the California Bureau of State Audits found that over the 13-year history of the state's Prison Industry Authority, the program had lost more than $33 million - money that was made up with infusions from state coffers.

Atkinson agrees that the state-run programs need to be more market-friendly and that they need to be financially self-sustaining.  "The model we have advocated moving toward is not so much where the government runs these enterprises, but where they are essentially in the business of leasing prisoners," said Atkinson.  "If you do that right, you ought to be able to make money, not lose money.  It is the completely wrong thing to do to subsidise the process."

Atkinson also believes that steps need to be taken to address concerns that prisoners are not treated like slave labour and that they receive protection from mistreatment.  He noted that the private sector workplaces for contract prison workers, for instance, are already subject to oversight from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, to protect them from injury. In order to protect those that work for public-sector companies, he advocates making their workplaces subject to OSHA inspections, and the institution of an ombudsman program in the federal prison system to deal with worker complaints.  He does, however, point out that although prisoners have rights, it is important to note that they are also incarcerated for crimes, and should not have privileges such as vacation time.

Atkinson addresses other concerns about prison labour with specific policy recommendations, including one that prison workers receive at least the minimum wage for their work.  He also believes that inmate-produced products should be sold on the open market, not restricted to guaranteed purchase contracts with federal or state agencies.  And he believes that the existing restrictions on the interstate transportation of goods and services produced in state prisons should be lifted, allowing such products to effectively compete in the marketplace.  In order to protect jobs, Atkinson recommends extending Trade Adjustment Assistance - a federal program to train and help workers displaced by free trade find new jobs - to workers displaced by prison labour.  Atkinson also recommends that in order to maximise the economic effectiveness of the federal prison labour force, all those who can work should be working.

Lynch attacked the idea of forcing prisoners to work on the grounds that it breaches their civil liberties, but agrees that an ombudsman program to address the complaints of prison workers is a good step to address abuses.  "The primary problems with these programs are the problems of captive workers and captive markets," said Lynch.  "These are the things that need to be corrected.  Participation should be voluntary and they (companies) should not have a legal advantage with respect to competing for federal contracts."

Lynch cited the prison labour program of the state of New Mexico as a good model of how the issue should be handled: it operates on the open market without a captive market of state agencies, and with a work force of voluntary prisoner recruits.

The political viability of Atkinson's recommendations is unclear, but efforts are under way in the House of Representatives to reform the federal prison labour program.  Representative Peter Hoekstra, Republican-Michigan, has introduced a bill in the House that Atkinson sees as a starting point for reforming the system.  It would require FPI to compete for its federal contracts with private firms, and make other adjustments that would allow it to contract workers to non-profit companies.

"The politics are doable," said Atkinson.  "I think it is possible to pass a bill that would easily let the private sector employ federal prisoners.  The real question is: can you get prisons and businesses to be flexible enough and entrepreneurial enough to let that happen?"

Christian Bourge is a UPI Think Tank correspondent

Source: UPI Think Tanks & Research Desk 24 June 2002 © United Press International all rights reserved

Another Way Prisons Directly Influence the Economy

Full-Employment Prisons

A recent Times article about the economic woes of upstate New York towns dependent on prisons raises a nagging little fear about the future of criminal justice reform.  As crime has been falling and jailhouse populations stabilising, towns that believed a prison was a recession-proof industry are beginning to worry about layoffs.  Advocates who found it difficult enough to convince state legislators that drug treatment is better than incarceration for low-level offenders are wondering if they will also have to fight the perception that a vote for reform is a vote for unemployment.

New York State's Rockefeller drug laws, which mandate long prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders, have persisted since 1973 despite an overwhelming consensus that they are inhumane and expensive, clogging the prison system with people who should be in drug treatment.  They have been hard to overturn mainly because state legislators fear making changes that could tag them as soft on crime.  In addition, prosecutors, who in effect determine a defendant's sentence when they file charges, do not want to turn this influence over to judges, who would have more sentencing discretion if the Rockefeller laws were rescinded.

But economic issues may start looming large, too, particularly for influential upstate Republicans.  Nearly 1/3 of the people in New York's prisons are serving time for Rockefeller drug offenses.  A new prison brings a depressed community hundreds of jobs in the facility and around it.  Prisons, in fact, are the chief employer in many parts of upstate New York, and a position as a guard pays better than many other jobs.

New York's prisons are built almost exclusively upstate in part because land and labour are significantly cheaper than in the New York City area.  But they are also welcomed by upstate areas desperate for jobs.  State Senator Dale Volker, who calls himself "the keeper of the keys" for his control of the process that allocates new prisons, said in an interview that legislators competed to get prisons.  "No one thought it was a panacea, but they know prisons are helpful," he said.

Mr Volker heads the Senate's Codes committee, and Michael Nozzolio, another senator with a prison-heavy upstate district, leads the Crime Committee.  Both men have been influential in quashing challenges to the Rockefeller drug laws.  While senators and their aides deny that fear of losing prison population affects their support for the mandatory sentences, it is appropriate to wonder whether economics plays an indirect role.

The connection between prisons and local economies crops up in other ways.  The government counts inmates as residents of their prison's town, adding clout to upstate communities and taking it away from cities competing for government services.  This is especially important during a redistricting year.

New York's drug-driven prison expansion, while providing jobs to largely white upstate communities, has devastated black and Hispanic neighbourhoods in the cities.  Though most drug users are white, 94% of the people jailed for drug offenses are black or Hispanic.  These inmates, their families and communities suffer when the state chooses long prison terms for these offenders rather than drug treatment.  In addition, inmates serve their sentences in prisons far from their families, weakening ties that help prisoners stay clean after their release.  New York's drug policies are costly, ineffective and unfair.  It would be tragic if reform was postponed further because these policies benefit a few influential communities.

Source: The New York Times National News Thursday 23 August 2001

America's Prison Habit

by Alan Elsner

After 25 years of explosive growth in the US prison system, is this country finally ending its love affair with incarceration? Perhaps, but as in any abusive relationship, breaking up will be hard to do.  Since 1980 the US prison and jail population has quadrupled in size to more than 2 million.  In the process, prisons have embedded themselves into the nation's economic and social fabric.  A powerful lobby has grown up around the prison system that will fight hard to protect the status quo.  There are some positive signs: fiscal pressures may indeed slow the growth of the vast US prison system.  But reversing the trend of the past quarter-century is another matter.

Major companies such as Wackenhut Corrections Corporation and Corrections Corporation of America employ sophisticated lobbyists to protect and expand their market share.  The law enforcement technology industry, which produces high-tech items such as the latest stab-proof vests, helmets, stun guns, shields, batons and chemical agents, does more than a billion dollars a year in business.

With 2.2 million people engaged in catching criminals and putting and keeping them behind bars, "corrections" has become one of the largest sectors of the US economy, employing more people than the combined workforces of General Motors, Ford and Wal-Mart, the three biggest corporate employers in the country.  Correctional officers have developed powerful labour unions.  And most politicians, whether at the local, state or national level, remain acutely aware that allowing themselves to be portrayed as "soft on crime" is the quickest route to electoral defeat.

In the past two decades, hundreds of "prison towns" have multiplied - places that are dependent on prisons for their economic itality.  Take Fremont County, Colorado, where the number 1 employer is the Colorado Department of Corrections, with 9 prisons, and number 2 is the Federal Bureau of Prisons with 4.  Towns that once might have hesitated about bringing a prison to town now rush to put together incentive packages.  Abilene, Texas, offered the state incentives worth more than $4 million to get a prison.  The package included a 316-acre site and 1,100 acres of farmland adjacent to the facility.

Buckeye, 35 miles west of Phoenix, was a sleepy little desert outpost with a population of about 5,000 until it competed successfully for a major state prison.  After that the state upgraded the road leading to the town and the population began to explode.  A new movie theatre and a $2.5 million swimming complex opened.  Because Buckeye was sitting on ample supplies of water, it suddenly became prime real estate.  Mayor Dusty Hull reckons the town will reach 35,000 in five years.

According to the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, 245 prisons sprouted in 212 rural counties during the 1990s.  In West Texas, where oil and farming both collapsed, 11 rural counties acquired prisons in that decade.  The Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest regions in the country, got 7 new prisons.  Appalachian counties of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky built 9, partially replacing the collapsing coal-mining industry.  If the prisons closed, these communities would quickly collapse again.

When states try to cut prison budgets, they quickly come up against powerful interests.  In Mississippi in 2001, Governor Ronnie Musgrove vetoed the state's corrections budget so he could spend more money on schools.  The legislature, lobbied by Wackenhut, overrode the veto.  In fiscally distressed California, about 6% of the state budget goes to corrections.  Yet no senior politician, including Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, has dared challenge the power of the 31,000-member California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which pours 1/3 of the $22 million it collects each year in membership dues into political action committees.

Even efforts by some states to speed up the release of nonviolent offenders are unlikely to reduce the total prison population by much.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that 2/3 of those released from prison on parole are re-arrested within 3 years.  Released prisoners face institutional barriers that make it difficult for them to find a place in society.  Welfare reform legislation in 1996 banned anyone convicted of buying or selling drugs from receiving cash assistance or food stamps for life.  Legislation in 1996 and 1998 also excluded ex-felons and their families from federal housing.

Most inmates leave prison with no money and few prospects.  They may get $25 and a bus ticket home if they are lucky.  Studies have found that within a year of release, 60% of ex-inmates remain unemployed.  Several states have barred parolees from working in various professions, including real estate, medicine, nursing, engineering, education and dentistry.  The Higher Education Act of 1998 bars people convicted of drug offenses from receiving student loans.  Prisoners are told to reform but they are given few tools to do so.  Once they are entangled in the prison system, many belong to it for life.  They may spend stretches of time inside prison and periods outside but they are never truly free.

Last year Robert Presley, secretary of California's correctional agency, noted that after several years of decline, crime rates were rising again and his state's prison population had resumed its growth.  Maximum-security inmates made up the fastest-growing segment.  Despite the building boom of the previous 20 years, prisons were at an average of 191% of capacity.  This hardly sounds like a recipe for a falling prison population.

Alan Elsner is author of the forthcoming book Gates of Injustice: America's Prison Crisis

Source: from The Washington Post Saturday 24 January 2004

For articles on white collar and petty crimes, injustice, capital punishment, race, executioners, freedom of the press, cheating, private prisons, punishment, retribution, prison labour, appeals, instant justice, electronic tags, lepers and second chances click the "Up" button below to take you to the Table of Contents for this Prisons section.

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