The Outrage of Prison Labor

The Outrage of Prison Labor April 27, 2012

Steve Fraser and Joshua Freeman have an article on Salon.com 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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