Given the substantial profits that could be made by moving your labor away from legally protected workers and over to legally unprotected prisoners, it was only a matter of time before states and corporations got busy hashing out the exact business details:
At least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations that mount their operations inside state prisons. The list of such companies contains the cream of U.S. corporate society: IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and many more.
All of these businesses are excited about the economic boom generation by prison labor. Just between 1980 and 1994, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion. Inmates in state penitentiaries generally receive the minimum wage for their work, but not all; in Colorado, they get about $2 per hour, well under the minimum. And in privately-run prisons, they receive as little as 17 cents per hour for a maximum of six hours a day, the equivalent of $20 per month. The highest-paying private prison is CCA in Tennessee, where prisoners receive 50 cents per hour for what they call “highly skilled positions.” At those rates, it is no surprise that inmates find the pay in federal prisons to be very generous. There, they can earn $1.25 an hour and work eight hours a day, and sometimes overtime. They can send home $200-$300 per month. [source]
Prisoners are making roughly $20 per month. To put that in perspective: Bangladesh – a country that pays its workers some of the worst wages in the world – just raised their minimum wage for workers to $66 per month.
That cheap labor is then used to make an impressive assortment of goods:
According to the Left Business Observer, the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove assembly; 46% of body armor; 36% of home appliances; 30% of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21% of office furniture. Airplane parts, medical supplies, and much more: prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for blind people. [source]
Entire factories can be run by prisoners, and companies would only need to pay them dollars a day. Even better, if you’re a corporation interested in maximizing your profits, your workers can no longer get workers comp, they can’t call off, they are never late, they can’t complain. If one decides he doesn’t like his job he is sent to an isolation unit until he decides that he prefers working for nothing over psychological torture.
Private prisons have taken this idea and ran with it. The idea of a for-profit prison system is already terrible and predictably pockmarked with a steady stream of abuses, but prisoners being farmed out to the highest bidder, with the prison getting paid for their labor is stunningly audacious.
Today’s corporations can lease factories in prisons, as well as lease prisoners out to their factories. In many cases, private corporations are running prisons-for-profit, further incentivizing their stake in locking people up. The government is profiting as well, by running prison factories that operate as “multibillion-dollar industries in every state, and throughout the federal prison system,” where prisoners are contracted out to major corporations by the state.
In the most extreme cases, we are even witnessing the reemergence of the chain gang. In Arizona, the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America,” Joe Arpaio, requires his Maricopa County inmates to enroll in chain gangs to perform various community services or face lockdown with three other inmates in an 8-by-12-foot cell, for 23 hours a day. In June of this year, Arpaio started a female-only chain gang made up of women convicted of driving under the influence. [source]
We are building an unethical and unhealthy economic system that is further destroying our country’s workforce and shifting it over to underpaid, abused prisoners. That system has a strong incentive to keep jails full and criminals locked away for exorbitant sentences. If we continue to do nothing, the problem will only grow. Unfortunately, the stigma that being in prison means you deserve whatever comes your way has supported of this dangerous system and given politicians and businessmen political cover in further enriching corporate interests at the expense of everyone else.
Damn. It’s like a living nightmare, and all I’m doing is reading about it.
As citizens I hope we can finally begin to combat this level of greed, and dehumanization, that is so pervasive in this society. Hopefully keeping good people in office will make a difference, but I’m beginning to wonder if that will be enough at this point.