Prison labor is poised to become one of America's most important growth industries. Over 3/4 of a million incarcerated are currently employed, more than any Fortune 500 business. Is this a benefit to the imprisoned, or just another opportunity for greed?
If you still believe that prisoners are only in the business of producing license plates, guess again. Private corporations are making a killing employing prisoners across the US. They are hiring the incarcerated to manufacture everything from designer jeans to computer circuit boards.
Inmate Ayana Cole always dreamed of being a fashion designer. Now imprisoned in Oregon, she is paid .45 cents an hour to turn out "prison blues" jeans. The designer denims are sold in high end Beverly Hills boutiques, carrying price tags upwards of $350.00. Demand for the bead encrusted jeans is so high, the company can barely keep up with the demand.
Donovan Thomas earns .21 cents per hour manufacturing high end office equipment which can be found in some of Los Angeles most plush office suites. For the tycoons who have invested in the prison industry, it has been like finding a pot of gold. They don't have to worry about strikes or paying unemployment, health or worker's comp insurance, vacation or comp time. All of their workers are full time, and never arrive late or are absent because of family problems; moreover, if prisoners refuse to work, they are moved to disciplinary housing and lose canteen privileges. Most importantly, they lose "good time" credit that reduces their sentence. Honda has paid inmates $2.00 per hour to do the same work they would have been required to pay auto workers $20 to $30 per hour to complete. Konica has used prisoners to repair copy machines at less that .50 cents per hour. Toys R Us has used prisoners in the past to restock shelves, and Microsoft has employed them to pack and ship software. Lockhart Technologies recently closed its Austin plant and fired some 150 workers. It realized it could relocate those jobs manufacturing circuit boards to a Wackenhut-run prison where detainees did the work for minimum wage.
Supporters of the private sector using the incarcerated in the production of various goods and services indicate that are assisting the inmates in leading more productive lives.
"The main goal of prison work programs is to provide "a positive outlet to help inmates productively use their time and energies. Another goal is to instill good work habits, including appropriate job behavior and time management, according to the Joint Venture Program of the California Department of Corrections. The program is responsible for contracting out convict labor to governments, businesses and non-profit organizations. Experts believe that the number of persons incarcerated in the US could double in the next 10 years. There are currently over 2 million people in prison, more that any industrialized nation. Those incarcerated are disproportionately African-American and Latino. With the use of tough-on-crime mandatory sentencing in effect today, US prisons are already bursting at the seams. Proponents indicate these labor programs are necessary to fund the cost of incarceration, as well as increasing the availability of reliable labor to public and private corporations.
Critics of the programs take a totally different stance, citing the potential for abuse, as well as the impact such programs will have on the workers outside these prison facilities. They point out the fact that inmates have no voice in when they work or what they are paid, and are thus easily exploited. They voice a strong concern that increasing this trend is going to open the doors to human rights abuse if not closely monitored.
Federal law prohibits domestic commerce in prison-made goods unless inmates are paid "prevailing wages". The law doesn't apply to exports, however, so prison officials routinely market to foreign customers. Clothing manufactured in prisons in California and Oregon competes strongly with that manufactured in Latin America.
Critics concerns are not unfounded. Prison labor has it's roots in slavery. Following reconstruction, former Confederate Democrats instituted "convict leasing." Black inmates, mostly freed slaves convicted of petty theft, were rented out to do everything from picking cotton to building railroads. In Mississippi, a huge farm, resembling a slave plantation replaced convict leasing. The infamous Parchman Farm was not closed until 1972, when inmates brought suit against the abusive conditions in federal court.
The inmates themselves have varying attitudes towards the prison labor employment programs. Two inmates in a California facility have recently filed suit against their employer and the prison, stating they were placed in solitary confinement after refusing to work in what they deemed "unsafe" working conditions.
45 year old Tony Matos, imprisoned for robbing a liquor store, sees it differently. "When we step through the gates and into the shop, it's another world. This is a company. This isn't prison. Guards still keep watch, the capitalists still profit -- the critics and supporters still debate. But in the end, I get a skill, a few coins and a ray of hope and dignity."
So where do you stand on this important issue? Should corporations be allowed to freely access the incarcerated and hire them at minimum wage to do the jobs currently being done by outside workers, many of whom belong to unions that have negotiated wage and healthcare programs which cost the corporations upwards of $15 to $20 dollars, or more, per hour?
Or, should the use of prison labor be prohibited, or at the least, be very limited in its scope, due to the risk of it becoming a haven for "sweat shops" and human rights abuse in these government run prison facilities? Not to mention the potential of denying those people living in freedom the inability to obtain employment which pays over the minimum wage.
If corporations have full access to millions of workers at minimum wage, and have no responsibility for providing healthcare benefits, overtime or worker's compensation, how long before the good, decent and hardworking members of our "free" society are forced further into poverty themselves, unable to compete for the jobs now being given to those incarcerated?