The Outrage of Prison Labor

Steve Fraser and Joshua Freeman have an article on about the return of the chain gangs and how private prison companies sell inmate labor for next to nothing to major corporations. Prepare to be appalled.

Prisoners, whose ranks increasingly consist of those for whom the legitimate economy has found no use, now make up a virtual brigade within the reserve army of the unemployed whose ranks have ballooned along with the U.S. incarceration rate.  The Corrections Corporation of America and G4S (formerly Wackenhut), two prison privatizers, sell inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T and IBM.

These companies can, in most states, lease factories in prisons or prisoners to work on the outside.  All told, nearly a million prisoners are now making office furniture, working in call centers, fabricating body armor, taking hotel reservations, working in slaughterhouses or manufacturing textiles, shoes and clothing, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day.

Rarely can you find workers so pliable, easy to control, stripped of political rights and subject to martial discipline at the first sign of recalcitrance — unless, that is, you traveled back to the 19th century when convict labor was commonplace nationwide.  Indeed, a sentence of “confinement at hard labor” was then the essence of the American penal system.

This should be outlawed and replaced with a practical and just program for inmates. It would absolutely make sense to have various forms of work programs in prison, from apprenticeship programs to work study programs to qualify for professional certifications. But if they’re doing work, they should get paid a reasonable wage for it. That would allow them to save money to get themselves back on their feet when they’re released. And it would undoubtedly reduce recidivism rates for inmates to have a marketable skill when they get out.

But the current system is not set up to help the inmates improve themselves or leave a criminal life upon release; it’s designed to make a buck for corporations through virtual slave labor and to build a permanent criminal underclass to provide a never ending supply of bodies for that unjust machine.

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  • anandine

    I remember the US goverment’s annual report of human rights abuses a few years ago singling out China’s use of prison labor as cheap commercial labor was one of the things that we said made them uncivilized.

  • dingojack


    Isn’t this the libertarian/capitalist dream that made/makes American great?


  • Didaktylos

    All those prisoners taking decent honest folks’ jobs – they should chuck them out to starve …

  • It would absolutely make sense to have various forms of work programs in prison, from apprenticeship programs to work study programs to qualify for professional certifications.

    The current political climate is hostile to education even of the law abiding masses.

    Also, this does not fit in with the prevalent PUNISH CRIMINALS attitude of the so-called corrections policy.

  • A word comes to mind: Gulag.

  • Brownian


    Isn’t this the libertarian/capitalist dream that made/makes American great?


    If the employees don’t like it, they’re free to…uh…I mean, they can always quit…er…I suppose they could always reoffend and hope they get placed with a new ’employer’.

  • I was going to say that this should be illegal, but it already is by any reasonable interpretation of the law. We just let it go.

  • cynix

    Not sure how this is “astonishing”. Seems pretty much in character to me.

    “Obama as liberal” always seemed to me to be a comforting fantasy of far too many on the left looking for/needing a safe harbor. I still have friends who think my refusal to vote for Obama was some sort of treasonous action.

    As I live in a swing state, I may have to swallow my pride and principles and actually vote for him. Etch-a-Sketch isn’t that much worse but I’m afraid the GOP might take congress and maybe Obama might actually get the more egregious of their ideas toned down. Or actually veto something rather than keep making threats of same.

  • How is this not defacto slavery?

  • blindrobin

    In Texas the euphemism for having been in the state penal system (the prison farms especially) is still ‘I worked for the state for a while…’, at least among people of my advanced age.

  • AsqJames

    Apparently it’s illegal to bring into the United States anything made by forced labour or in prisons. According to the lovely Stephen Fry anyway. This is obviously a good thing, but one can’t help suspecting that the motive for this rule is less than wholesome.

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  • Pinky

    Bronze Dog said:


    It reminded me of a Russian joke I think I remember from Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn’s book: “The Gulag Archipelago”

    From memory:

    A soldier is walking through a train car hauling convicts to the gulag archipelago when he stops and asks a prisoner what his crime is. “Crimes against the state” the prisoner cries out adding “But I’m innocent.” “How many years did you get” the soldier asked. “Ten years” answers the convict. The soldier unslings his rifle and drives the butt of it into the convict’s head, “Liar” he shouts, “The innocent only get five years!”

    I was a teenager when I read the book, secure in my ‘knowledge’ that it could never happen in the US. That was a long time ago and my certainty such bad things could not happen in the US has eroded tremendously.

  • Rick Pikul

    I’d say that this is worse than what was going on in the 19th century: Back then there was a belief that making prisoners do hard labour was a good way to reform them.

    This is why you not only found convicts doing various kinds of useful work, but also being tasked with make-work like carrying rocks from one side of the prison yard to the other.