More than two million people in state, federal and privately-owned prisons are subjected to a working situation that mirrors involuntary servitude.
By John Arvanitis
Activists, business executives and politicians alike acknowledge the United States incarcerates more people per-capita than any other nation in the world.
What is lesser known and discussed about our prison system is that more than two million people in state, federal and privately-owned prisons are subjected to a working situation that mirrors involuntary servitude. With numerous multinational corporations utilizing prison labor as a part of their supply chain, taking advantage of desperate prisoners who are willing to work in poor conditions for extremely low wages is easy and widely implemented.
In fact, companies who utilize prison labor are being afforded an unfair advantage while facilitating the violation of these people’s basic human rights.
But it wasn’t always like this.
A Brief Look Back
Prison labor in the United States began with the abolition of slavery.
The 13th amendment banned involuntary servitude except, “…as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been dully convicted…” Since 1865, this section of the 13th amendment and other legislation established prison labor as a legal means of economic activity in federal, state, and private prisons across the United States.
In the 20th century, this form of labor moved from a prisoner leasing system to a more diversified service and industrial paradigm that closely mirrors the larger United States economy. Incarcerated workers manufacture license plates and road signs, sew clothes, construct office furniture, assemble complex components for the United States military and even help maintain fish farms.
Historically, private companies weren’t legally permitted to utilize prison labor since it was seen as an unfair advantage. This changed thanks to the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Prison Industries Act of 1995 and the federal program known as the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program or PIE.
The Prison Industries Act was designed to “provid[e] for the employment of inmate labour in [state’s] correctional institutions and in the private manufacturing of certain products under specific conditions.” The act also stipulated that “…inmates must be paid at the prevailing wage rate,” and “…any room and board deductions…are reasonable and are used to defray the costs of inmate incarceration.”
This law may seem reasonable, but its basis only worked to further exploit prisoners by deducting their wages to pay for room and board expenses, even while companies utilizing inmate labor received tax breaks from the federal government. In addition, the specifics of this act vary from state to state. For example, incarcerated people in Racine, Wisconsin have replaced workers at public institutions and aren’t paid for their work; instead they receive time off their sentences as compensation.
According to Mike Elk and Bob Sloan at The Nation, “The same is occurring in Virginia, Ohio, New Jersey, Florida and Georgia, all states with GOP Assembly majorities and Republican governors.”
The Reality of Prison Labor
In many ways, an incarcerated person represents the ideal worker:
- The prisoner is an individual among a workforce that is massive and growing.
- They have little to no union representation.
- They are desperate for work and willing to accept low wages and less-than-ideal working conditions.
- The contractor is not obligated to offer any benefits to the incarcerated person in regards to health care, sick time, worker’s compensation, paid time off, vacations, overtime, etc.
While some of these characteristics apply to workers outside the prison system, companies who choose to utilize prison labor have an unfair advantage over others. Moreover, access to prison labor is not a readily accessible to all organizations since companies must bid for contracts and maintain relationships with private federal and state prisons. Consequently, manufactures in economically depressed parts of the country are losing contracts to privately owned prison labor organizations like Unicor to produce goods for the federal government.
Today, most prisons require 100 percent of able-bodied incarcerated people to work. Physically forcing prisoners to work would not be legal; instead, prisons indirectly coerce inmates into working. For example, if prisoners refuse to work, institutions can send inmates to solitary confinement or take away basic privileges ranging from television time to visitation rights. Prisons can also add 30 days to individuals’ sentences if they refuse to work since refusal is a violation of certain “good behavior” standards.
And, it doesn’t stop there.
Prisoners who want to work also experience exploitation and must constantly negotiate the violation of their basic rights as workers.
For instance, if there is a lull in demand for specific products or services, companies can deny prisoners the right to work even if they were promised working hours in advance. Incarcerated people have little control over what kind of work they do and how often they do it since few prisons have collective bargaining agreements leading to dissatisfaction, confusion and conflict in the workplace.
The Main Culprits?
According to The Center for Global Research,
Major corporations profiting from [prison labor] include Motorola, Compaq, Honeywell, Microsoft, Boeing, Revlon, Chevron, TWA, Victoria’s Secret and Eddie Bauer.
IBM, Texas Instruments and Dell get circuit boards made by Texas prisoners. Tennessee inmates sew jeans for Kmart and JCPenney. Tens of thousands of youth flipping hamburgers for minimum wages at McDonald’s wear uniforms sewn by prison workers, who are forced to work for much less.
Here is a more exhaustive list of companies who currently utilize prison labor in some part of their supply chain.
In addition to the private sector partnerships though, federal, state and local governments also establish contracts with private prisons for various kinds of labor. In a strange tone, the Washington State Department of Corrections Private Sector Partnership asks potential clients,
“Are you experiencing high employee turnover? Worried about the costs of employee benefits? Unhappy with out-of-state or offshore suppliers? Getting hit by overseas competition? Having trouble motivating your workforce? Thinking about expansion space? Then Washington State Department of Corrections Private Sector Partnerships is for you.”
By now, you should be able to piece together the vicious circle occurring between labor, politics and the private sector. While prison labor can teach inmates valuable skills, prepare some for a life after incarceration and even bring dignity to them, it is not an excuse for exploitation.
There may come a time when prison labor is mutually beneficial but for now our current prison labor system works only to marginalize people’s basic human rights and exploit the unfortunate circumstances of incarcerated individuals while increasing the profits for a small part of the private sector.
About the Author:
John Arvanitis is a blogger, media relations newcomer, social justice advocate and student of sustainability. He’s a Western New England University graduate in Sustainability with a focus in Marketing and Management. John believes that we can build more sustainable communities through environmentally, economically and socially responsible business practices.
As an intern for nonprofit organization GreenWork, John managed social media accounts, publicized events, spearheaded community outreach and worked with the board of directors to create and execute a marketing plan geared towards increasing membership. Currently, John is working as an outreach intern for Co-op Power, working toward securing a sustainable energy future for communities across New England.
Much of John’s academic time is spent theorizing what a more sustainable global community would look like. According to John, sustainability is the simultaneous intersection of meaningful social progress, economic development and environmental protection. He hopes to work with more nonprofits, cooperatives, government agencies, for-profit institutions and other NGOs to foster sustainability and grow professionally.