December 3, 2023



Prison Labor – How it is used to eliminate the Middle Class and provide Slave Labor for Corporations

Video tease for upcoming CNBC special: “Billions Behind Bars | Inside America’s Prison Industry” which will air on CNBC Tuesday, October 18th at 9 pm.

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I worked with the CNBC producers as they prepared this documentary earlier this year.  It will hopefully dispel the notion held by average American’s that prison industry and privatization are not harmful to either their jobs or our economy as a nation.

Today state by state…job by job, American’s are seeing their jobs disappear behind prison walls and fences.  Oh they’re not leaving the job markets in bulk, just a few jobs here, another industry there, public jobs and private sector jobs in about equal numbers.  Those responsible for this erosion of U.S. jobs deflect criticism by claiming the products made are merely a small portion of our GDP.  2% of the call center market, another 3% of manufacturing, 5% of other markets.  They advise that involving inmates in such industry labor helps train them and instills a work ethic that can be used upon release to ensure employment and thus reduce recidivism.

Proponents also downplay the number of inmates involved in this work, officially claiming that under 100,000 inmates are being worked in any form of actual industry.  However, as Noah Zatz reports, that number is seriously under-reported.

“According to Noah Zatz at UCLA Law , “well over 600,000, and probably close to a million, inmates are working full time in jails and prisons throughout the United States. Perhaps some of them built your desk chair: office furniture, especially in state universities and the federal government, is a major prison labor product. Inmates also take hotel reservations at corporate call centers, make body armor for the U.S. military, and manufacture prison chic fashion accessories, in addition to the iconic
task of stamping license plates.” We have a word for work without pay—slavery—and we know of a work of fiction that depicts a large powerful nation that used large pools of unpaid labor to produce things: The Gulag Archipelago. Think that’s hyperbole? Perhaps you should consider visiting your local state prison.”Of course, it is not in this writer’s expertise nor interest to judge on the conditions of the New York State Correctional System and its comparison to other states’ or federal facilities. However, as Noam Chomsky has said of intellectuals, this writer at times feels the same of some librarians: those librarians who do little in the public interest, are blind to social injustice, and adamantly pretend economic disparities do not exist or are ‘natural’ to society. This assessment utterly and of the utmost cannot be said of the dedicated, earnest and humanistic work done by New York Public correctional librarians
Nicholas Higgins and Luis Torres.”

Recently we learned that in Wisconsin authorities have used the collective bargaining legislation just passed to replace union and public sector workers with prison labor:

In New Jersey, Virginia, Georgia, Connecticut, Oregon and Pennsylvania inmates are being substituted for civilian private and public sector workers.  Now over the past couple of months we also see where Alabama and Georgia initiated and passed harsh immigration laws similar to Arizona’s SB 1070.  Immediately upon Governors of these two states signing the legislation into law, tens of thousands of immigrants left both states.  Immediately afterward farmers and growers in AL. and GA. realized the impact of that legislation upon their ability to employ farm workers – who are/were predominantly immigrants working as seasonal workers.  Crops started to rot in the fields and the solution to the lack of farm workers in GA. was for Governor Deal to use probationers to fill the need.  That solution was doomed from the start, as probationers could not be “forced” to accept those jobs and because field work is demanding and requires not only experience in that kind of work, but physical conditioning and the probationers lacked both.

Now that it Alabama is experiencing the same situation with their agribusiness, they are considering using incarcerated prisoners to replace the missing immigrants.Governor Deal has decided the same thing over in Georgia with prisoners who can be “assigned” to perform field work, regardless of experience, knowledge or physical ability. Obviously Georgia authorities have the ability to “force” prisoners into this work.

Another article informs that though many other states have cut back inmate work programs that benefit local communities due to budget cuts, Mississippi is/has not suffered the same fate.

“While the loss of free labor has caused counties and municipalities in other states to rework their budgets, the millions of hours in labor Mississippi communities don’t have to pay for is here to stay.”Documents provided by Booth total the number of inmate labor hours from July 2009 to June 2010 at slightly more than 3 million – which adds up to $21.9 million in labor costs – when multiplied by the minimum wage.

“Booth said state inmate work crews provide labor for cities, counties, state agencies and nonprofit organizations.”

In addition Georgia is now planning to put prisoners to work as firefighters in that state.  Camden County in Georgia is considering tasking prisoners to take on one of the most dangerous jobs there is: fighting fires. Using prisoners as firefighters is a cost-cutting measure that’s expected to save the county a bundle:

“A select group of inmates may be exchanging their prison jumpsuits for firefighting gear in Camden County.”The inmates-to-firefighters program is one of several money-saving options the Board of County Commissioners is looking into to stop residents’ fire insurance costs from more than doubling. […] The inmate firefighter program would be the most cost-effective choice, saving the county more than $500,000 a year by some estimates. But that option is already controversial, drawing criticism from the firefighters who would have to work alongside – and supervise – the prisoners.

“The Camden program would put two inmates in each of three existing firehouses, and they would respond to all emergencies – including residential – alongside traditional firefighters. The inmates would have no guard, but would be monitored by a surveillance system and by the traditional firefighters, who would undergo training to guard the inmates.”

“The inmates would not be paid for their work, but upon release they would be eligible to work as firefighters five years after their conviction dates instead of the normal 10.”  Of important note at the beginning of the article is this statement:

“Forcing prison inmates to work as unpaid laborers is not a new practice, but GOP-controlled states are increasing taking the idea to extremes as they face budget shortfalls and refuse to raise taxes.”

I think that statement tells us all we need to know about “why” these mostly southern Conservative Republican controlled states are resorting to slave labor – keep the tax rates on corporations and the rich as low as possible  Each of the states turning to this practice or even giving it consideration – are Republican controlled.  Now when we look at the Republican strategies of attacking Unions, private and public sector workers, abolishing minimum wage – or proposing not increasing it in the future – and not increasing taxes on the rich or closing loopholes allowing them subsidies and tax breaks, an obvious pattern emerges: they are seeking cheap or slave labor to replace hard working Americans.Prisoners work for “free” for the municipalities and for “free” for the state as laborers for the Departments Of Transportation as in this Florida agreement.  If you read this agreement, you’ll see the DOT is paying the FDOC $10.45 per hour worked per inmate. The job descriptions include operation of heavy equipment, bridge building and repairs, road repairs and construction.  Where inmates used to work picking up trash and keeping the highways clean, today they are used to replace union and public sector workers in all phases and job descriptions in Florida and most other states.  In Florida this one year contract for 2011-2012 calls for the DOT to pay the FDOC over $19 million in labor costs at the $10.45 per hour rate.  The inmate workers get none of this pay.  ALL of it goes to the FDOC. When we multiply this single contract by the number of states with the same or similar programs, one begins to realize just how many good paying jobs have been lost to American workers through this type of DOC/DOT arrangement.

Anybody in Georgia, Alabama, Florida or Mississippi missing out on jobs due to these programs?  I know thousands of migrant workers – legal and illegal – are impacted, but I’m sure other-non-migrants – would be interested in being hired to perform public service jobs, but that won’t happen as long as prisoners can be used for free. The DOT jobs are gone as well.  With prisoners taking the place of civilian workers along our state and federal highway systems, one has to question President Obama’s Jobs Bill that includes infrastructure work to employ “millions” of Americans.   Oh, I’m not implying that the President is fully aware of the use of inmates in infrastructure work on our highways and is intentionally plotting to put more of them to work in place of civilians.  No, I’m saying that every time he comes up with something to put American’s to work, government and corporate interests take advantage in such a way that prisoners are put to work and not the unemployed.  Take the “green” jobs the President announced would come from solar, wind and clean energy.  As soon as he announced it, the federal prison industries (UNICOR) announced they were beginning manufacturing of solar and wind equipment.……
/……… (Oregon company partnering with FPI to produce and install solar with inmate labor)……… (Expanding their factory production)…… (Pricing of UNICOR Solar products)

Looking at the foregoing we see that the federal prison industries were ready in 2009 to jump right on the President’s call for “Green Energy” and were ready to provide just that with inmate labor.  Today we read about Solyndra failing and the “scandal” of our government loaning them over a half billion in loans.Now how in the hell was this company supposed to compete on the open market against prison labor and cheap manufacturing being done by UNICOR?  They couldn’t.  An interesting facet of this entire Solyndra case is shown by this quote from recent news:

“The Justice Department last month asked the court to wrest control from the company’s management and appoint a trustee, an unusual move that signaled a lack of confidence in its leadership. Mr. Harrison and others had refused to answer questions about the company’s finances, the department said at the time.”Solyndra received government-guaranteed loans worth about $527 million but filed for bankruptcy protection last month amid financial troubles. The deal to provide the loans is the subject of investigations by several federal agencies and Congress.”

So the DOJ is going after Solyndra for squandering so much money, huh?  Has anyone thought about who is running UNICOR?  Who has total control over the Federal Bureau of Prisons?  How many are aware that UNICOR is a wholly owned U.S. Government “corporation”?  How many are aware that UNICOR has contracted with state and federal agencies to install “their” prison made “Green” energy equipment and components upon their buildings, grounds or properties (like the U.S. State Department)?Think AG Holder and the DOJ have any interest in putting more of the inmates in their custody to work?  Read this memo issued last October by AG Holder.  Several things are immediately important: Holder refers to prosecutions and arrests as “Outstanding” and several “successful cases each year, resulting in continued growth of the federal prison population,” and urges every U.S. department to buy as many products as possible from  UNICOR so they can put all those “successfully” prosecuted inmates to work in more factories.  Finally, notice where I found this document…at the National Correctional Industries Association (NCIA).  This is the “oversight” agency chosen by the DOJ to operate the federal Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP).  UNICOR holds a seat upon the NCIA’s Board.

Here you’ll see that at the NCIA “Buyer’s Guide” page, under solar panels, the first listing is for UNICOR.  Check out the American Correctional Association’s buyer’s guide and see all the products and companies involved with them.  Of course UNICOR is listed.

Obviously Mr. Holder and his federal prison industries are making a killing off the manufacture, sales and installation of solar and wind energy equipment.  Between the DOJ and China manufacturing all this solar and other energy materials, a private U.S. company has little chance to succeed.  I don’t care how much money is “loaned” to them through other government funding sources, the outcome is set and should have been foreseen.

Solyndra appears to be an expensive scapegoat offered up to demonstrate that the U.S. efforts toward Green Energy cannot compete with China and when we do attempt to compete, the government is bilked out of huge amounts of money like in the case of Solyndra.  This helps big oil and natural gas proponents stay in the lead energy position of providing energy through petroleum products.

Now I know some are surprised that inmate or slave labor would have anything whatsoever to do with the Solyndra scandal.  I hope I have shown how the two are connected in a similar manner to how slave labor is also connected to the immigration laws, prison industry competing against private industry and being used to replace American’s jobs.  This shit is all interconnected, all has a connection to labor and wages in the U.S. and most of it has come about due to the pursuit of cheap labor being sought by corporations and that pursuit being facilitated by the likes of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), their corporate members, Legislative members and the legislation disseminated by them.  The harsh immigration legislation tracks back to ALEC, written by their corporate membership, spread by their Conservative state lawmakers, passed in Republican held state assemblies and passed into law by Republican Governors.  The legislation to abolish Unions and collective bargains comes from the same source, through the same procedures and enacted similarly.

So as I wrote above, the jobs once held by Americans are being slowly but surely taken from the job markets and transferred to prisoners.  Both public and private sectors are impacted.  Now with AL. and Ga. we can clearly see an immediate problem due to the immigration pushed by ALEC and their supporters loss of migrant workers in the fields – and the equally immediate “Solution” to that problem – prison labor.  Governor Walker started this in Wisconsin, Governor Christie followed in NJ and now we have numerous other states following suit.

If this continues without abatement, it truly will be the 99% of America’s population who will be settling in to occupy statehouses, Wall Street and municipal locations.  They won’t have anything else to do.  I have written for several years about this shift in labor to prison inmates.  The profits generated from slave labor, the jobs lost, the technology impacted and the wage reductions.  If we don’t include this as one of the keys to taking back American jobs and wresting democracy back from the corporations and the top 1%, we leave these mechanisms in place that will continue to fund the Conservative led cabal.  This money stream has to be cut – and quick.  If we do this, manufacturing will immediately have to replace these inmates with civilian workers…public sector needs will again be filled with American non-inmate workers and we’ll start to turn the page and create jobs.  As Noah Zatz reported in his research, there are between 600,000 and one million inmates working in manufacturing and other labor today.  Just think what those jobs would do for American labor if they were returned to our job markets.

We have already been hurt and if we look forward we can clearly see that once farm labor is turned over to prison labor, the median wage will be reduced to minimum wage or less.  All of the effort put into securing benefits and wage rates for migrant and farm workers will be set back decades by this.  Non-inmate workers wanting to take those jobs in the future will have to accept the wages paid to inmate workers or they won’t be hired.  Similarly, manufacturing jobs that once paid so much to labor in the past, will be reset, wages will start at the bottom once inmates are removed from the equation.  Labor will have to start the long and arduous climb back to where we were pre 2008 after this shift to prison labor.

Our work is cut out for us.  I hope many will help us fight to regain our place in the world, our democracy and our to get our jobs back.  Before we take them back from China, Taiwan and India, we must begin here at home by taking the jobs back from the prisoners.