PRISONS AND THE RISE OF CORPORATE SLAVE LABOR
By Charles Overbeck

The Justice Department reported recently that there are nearly 2.3 million men and women incarcerated in the United States -- currently the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. This startling figure tops off a decade of rapid expansion of America's prison population, fueled by a "war on drugs" that is steadily undermining the rights so succinctly expressed in the Bill of Rights more than 200 years ago.

As 2009 drew to a close, one out of every 100 Americans was in prison or jail, compared to one out of 320 in 1985, when the crack cocaine trade began to proliferate. The total number of inmates has more than tripled since then, and we just can't seem to build enough prisons to keep them all in.

Add the trend towards private prison facility management and corporate use of prison labor, and you have an extremely unsettling social situation. Are we witnessing the creation of a corporate slave labor force?

Quite possibly, if the Oakhill Correctional Institute in Dane County, Wisconsin serves as a model. Seventeen inmates crowded in a makeshift basement factory in that facility crank out over a million dollars' worth of office chairs per year, in exchange for wages ranging from twenty cents to $1.50 per hour.

The operation is run by Badger State Industries, the Wisconsin prison industries program, which employs 600 inmates and which raked in a $2 million profit in 2009. In the past, to protect manufacturers from unfair competition, Wisconsin allowed sale of prison-made goods only to state and local government agencies. But Governor Tommy Thompson's new state budget allows commercial entities to use prison facilities and labor for manufacturing purposes. The money will be used to pay for the costs of incarcerating the prisoners -- including the ones who work in the factories.

Wisconsin is following the lead of other states, such as California, Tennessee, Kansas, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Nevada and Iowa, which have incorporated prisoners into the labor force, placing artificial downward pressure on wages. Thousands of state and federal prisoners are currently generating more than $1 billion per year in sales for private businesses, often competing directly with the private sector labor force. The Correctional Industries Association predicts that by the year 2000, 30 percent of America's inmate population will labor to create nearly $9 billion in sales for private business interests.

Oregon has even started advertising its prison labor force and factories, claiming that businesses who utilize incarcerated workers would otherwise go overseas for cheap labor (thanks, GATT and NAFTA!). In 1995, an overwhelming majority of Oregon voters passed a constitutional amendment that will put 100 percent of its state inmates to work.

And they'll be making a lot more than license plates and road signs. One product of Oregon's inmate factories are uniforms for McDonald's. Tennessee inmates stitch together jeans for Kmart and JC Penney, as well as $80 wooden rocking ponies for Eddie Bauer. Mattresses and furniture are perennial favorites in prison factories, and Ohio inmates even produced car parts for Honda, until the United Auto Workers intervened. Prisoners have been employed doing data entry, assembling computer circuit boards and even taking credit card ticket orders for TWA.

But private industry isn't the only sector eager to exploit cheap prison labor. On June 14, 1995, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly rejected an amendment to the 1996 Defense Authorization bill which would have permitted the Defense Department to use nonviolent offender inmates provided by state or local corrections facilities to do construction and maintenance services at military installations.

Although prison manufacturing facilities do offer short-term benefits at a time when budgets are strained to the breaking point, the system is ripe for exploitation and abuse by government and corporate entities seeking to cut financial corners. Proponents of prison labor say it is "good" for inmates, providing income and on-the-job training they would have never received otherwise.

But due to a lack of restrictions to prevent abuse of the prison labor force, many inmates view the situation very differently. At Soledad near Monterey, California, prisoners earn 45 cents per hour making blue work shirts, which, once deductions are taken out, adds up to $60 for a month of 40-hour work weeks. "They put you on a machine and expect you to put out for them," Soledad inmate Dino Navarrete told Arm the Spirit. "Nobody wants to do that. These jobs are jokes to most inmates here."

So why do they do it? In California, prisoners who refuse to work are moved to disciplinary housing and lose canteen privileges, as well as "good time" credit that slices hard time off their sentences. Corporatization of prison labor abuses inmates, exploits their labor and inevitably reduces the value of the private sector work force. What is a troubling trend today may become a social and economic disaster in the future.

For more information, consult the Prison Activist Resource Center.

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