The U.S. Civil War, which was fought to abolish slavery, was not really that long ago. My father tells the story of visiting the Higginsville home for Civil War veterans near his childhood home in Missouri. The Missouri River was a dividing line between North and South, and so when the war was finally over, many families had veterans — and casualties — on both sides. My father remembers watching two old soldiers, one Union, one Confederate, each dressed up in the remnants of their uniforms, having an argument that ended up with one attacking the other with a pair of crutches. Hearing this as a little girl was the first time the Civil War seemed real to me. It is a vivid reminder of the close links that bind this country to its history of slavery, which still haunts our national conscience.
Higginsville Confederates Veterans Home, courtesy of Missouri State Parks
As I recently discovered, we maintain what can be only be called legalized slavery today — the utilization of prison labour for public and private profit. Many, if not most, of these inmates are themselves the descendants of slaves. And they are making fewer license plates and more defense electronics and oil spill cleanups. Today prison labor is a multibillion-dollar business in the U.S. We also have the highest prison population in the world. Are economic incentives at the heart of our sky-high incarceration rates?
History can offer us a guide to answer this question. In Britain, slavery was abolished in 1833, earlier than in the U.S. In spite of its economic lure, it was outlawed, at least in part, because of the persuasive voices of inspired political leaders and artists. The painting The Slave Ship, a J.M.W. Turner masterpiece, depicts the famous episode of the British ship the Zong in 1781. One hundred thirty-two African slaves headed for sale in the United States were deliberately thrown overboard and perished mid-sea, due to a lack of drinking water on board. In his new book, The Zong: A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery, Professor James Walvin concludes that this event, and the public outcry against it, was the turning point that resulted in the end of the slave trade in Britain. The U.S. was not so lucky, or perhaps, the entrenched interests were too deep, and so a much bloodier battle that ended 600,000 lives ensued, and it took an additional 30 years to abolish slavery.
It is worthwhile to study this history, and to hold its lessons close, because slavery remains in other forms, if not by name, in the 21st century. Mauritania still has a slave population that is some 18 percent of its population, about a half a million people — although it is technically illegal. The poverty and harshness of the Western Sahara and lack of economic alternatives make it a difficult practice to eradicate. We might expect this in the Third World, but we have versions of it in the U.S. Beyond the plight of the working poor, in the U.S. the practice of involuntary labor continues in our prisons, without much public scrutiny. This practice has evolved since the Civil War, particularly in the South, for historical reasons. Former slaves were incarcerated on minor or fabricated charges for extended periods of time so they could work as inmate labourers for the profit of the state and its contractors.
“In the nineteenth century, Texas leased its penitentiary (which survives today as the Huntsville “Walls” unit) to private contractors. For a few dollars per month per convict, the contractors were allowed to sublease their charges to farmers, tanners, and other businessmen. It was not long before the inmates began to appear in poor clothing and without shoes. Worked mercilessly, most convicts died within seven years of their incarceration. Escapes and escape attempts were frequent. Conditions were so horrid that some inmates were driven to suicide while other maimed themselves to get out of work or as a pathetic form of protest.”
– John DiIulio, Jr. The Duty to Govern, 1990
Eventually, the prisoner-for-lease system became such a scandal that it was outlawed 100 years ago. But in the 1980s, conditions were ripe for reversion. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that abolished slavery contains a loophole that allows the exploitation of prison labor:
Section 1: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Today, the U.S. prison system delivers profits to both government corporations and private enterprises in several ways: 1) Through the use of inmate labor to produce goods and services in federal and state prisons 2) Through the contracting of this labor to private companies at below-market wages and 3) By privatization of the prisons and detainment centers themselves. Given these perverse incentives to maintain a high inmate population, is it any wonder that the number of prisoners and the length of their sentences — Americans comprise 5 percent of the world’s total population but 25 percent of the world’s prison population — have skyrocketed since privatization began in 1984?
Number of inmates. 1920 to 2006. (absolute numbers) General U.S. population grew only 2.8 times in the same period, but the number of inmates increased more than 20 times.
One might ask if this population surge could be due to a sudden increase in violent crime in America. A much smaller percentage of prisoners than one would imagine have histories of violence. Just 3 percent of those in Federal prisons, and a third of those in state prisons, have been convicted of violent crimes. A majority of those in city and county prisons are merely awaiting trial and cannot make bail. As any policeman will tell you, much criminality would be eliminated if drug laws were changed. Moreover, of the total prison population, it is estimated that 16 percent are suffering from mental illness, according to Vicky Pelaez in Global Research in Canada. And did I mention, the vast majority are black males?
What is the failure of our society that has led to the forced segregation from society of so many of our citizens, many of whom the descendants of slaves, on this scale? In 1860, the U.S. had 4 million slaves. Now, according to Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker (Jan. 30, 2012):
Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today — perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system — in prison, on probation, or on parole — than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America — more than six million — than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.
America has now created its own Gulag and it makes much more than just license plates. Of the 2.3 million prisoners now being held, more than 100,000 work in federal and state prison industry programs. This doesn’t mean the usual cooking, cleaning and peeling potatoes, but work that produces products for sale — about $2.4 billion dollars annually and has its own trade shows. UNICOR, the trade name of the government-owned Federal Prison Industries, cites the following products on its website:
The government, particularly the Department of Defense, is the biggest customer for the federal prison labor. Most military clothing, furniture, and helmets are made by Federal inmates. It is very likely that they made the furniture at your local post office. Calling directory assistance? You might well be talking to a felon. Clearly, UNICOR has expanded beyond clothing and furniture. Look at just one category, electro-optical assemblies:
Our electro-optical and circuit board assemblies, and electrical connectors are used around the world and have broad applications in missile guidance, tactical combat and emergency communications, radar, and avionic and submarine control systems. UNICOR/FPI is highly proficient in electrical and fiber optic cable convergence technology, which is used in applications requiring faster transmission of signals over longer distance and with less weight. Our electro-optical cable assemblies are used in avionic and missile controls, submarine navigation, and tactical observation and targeting systems in fighter jets, helicopters, tanks and other armored vehicles.
Our expertise in manufacturing electro-optical assemblies is proven in numerous programs, such as the Bradley eye-safe laser rangefinder and the Patriot missile guidance system.
We are talking guided missile components here! UNICOR had revenues of about $900 million in fiscal year 2011, of which 7 percent went to pay inmates. According to my estimates based on their annual report, this averages $3,000 per inmate, at least half of which must be used for fines, victim restitution and family support. Assuming a 40-hour work week, 52 weeks a year (there are no holidays in prison) that would amount to pay of about 75 cents per hour, which “may be spent in the prison commissaries,” according to the UNICOR annual report. This puts the federal prison worker on par with his Chinese counterpart. No wonder this labor group is attractive to industry: no unions, OHSA, health care or retirement funds to fret about. As UNICOR boasts on its website: “All the benefits of domestic outsourcing at offshore prices. It’s the best kept secret in outsourcing!” Actually, it is even better — although we will not accept imports from Chinese laogai, or prison factories, there is no U.S. law that prevents export of our prison labor products.
Federal prison workers, however, are the envy of state inmates, some of whom earn nothing for 60-plus-hour weeks. Texas and Georgia offer no compensation at all. (It is no surprise that these states have highly privatized prison industries as well.) In The Nation, Abe Louise Young writes about the use of Louisiana state prison labor to clean up the toxic waste that resulted from the BP oil spill:
Work release inmates are required to work for up to twelve hours a day, six days a week, sometimes averaging seventy-two hours per week. These are long hours for performing what may arguably be the most toxic job in America. Although the dangers of mixed oil and dispersant exposure are largely unknown, the chemicals in crude oil can damage every system in the body, as well as cell structures and DNA.
Inmates can’t pick and choose their work assignments and they face considerable repercussions for rejecting any job, including loss of earned “good time.” The warden of the Terrebonne Parish Work Release Center in Houma explains: “If they say no to a job, they get that time that was taken off their sentence put right back on, and get sent right back to the lockup they came out of.” This means that work release inmates who would rather protect their health than participate in the non-stop toxic cleanup run the risk of staying in prison longer.
This kind of cooperation is enabled by PIE (Prison Industry Enhancement), a program run by the Department of Justice, which allows both UNICOR at the Federal level and state prisons to partner with private enterprise.
It is not just the government prisons that have perverse incentives for maintaining high prison populations. It is the very business of warehousing human beings which was privatized in the mid-80s that is to me the most disturbing. Here is a map of private prisons in Texas created by the website Texas Prison Bid’ness:
It just seems to me that judicial punishment is one of those functions that is uniquely the business of the state, and that somehow it is immoral for anyone to profit from this. In fact, two big players, CCA and GEO, weren’t doing all that well until 9/11. Since that time, they have also been building immigration detention centers at a very fast pace. No secret that privatization has therefore had the greatest momentum in the border states, including Vermont. It is hard to forget the awful “Cash for Kids” debacle in which two judges (now themselves recently sentenced to prison) took kickbacks for sending children to for-profit juvenile detention centers. Dave Reutter in Prison Legal News quotes Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research: “Privatization just doesn’t work” he stated. “It’s a way for politicians to throw business to their friends. “
A compelling economic argument against prison labor is that it competes unfairly with free labor. Diane Cardwell writes in the New York Times that UNICOR is now getting into production of solar panels and other forms of alternative energy.
“This is a threat to not just established industries; it’s a threat to emerging industries,” said Representative Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican who is the lead sponsor of the proposed overhaul legislation. “If China did this — having their prisoners work at subpar wages in prisons — we would be screaming bloody murder.”
There is now pending legislation to create a wage floor for prison inmates, as well as require basic safety standards. The discussion is not just about protecting inmates. In an era of high unemployment, jobs matter. Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina has said, “It is simply wrong for the U.S. government to administer a military procurement policy that favors giving jobs to felons over law-abiding Americans. That is especially true during these difficult economic times.” There is also concern about quality control for defense-related production. Reportedly, 42 percent of UNICOR’s orders overall were delivered late.
What are the benefits to society of prison labor? I have read articles that it helps and doesn’t help recidivism. That there are better ways to prepare inmates for life after jail, such as education, training, and addiction counseling. What is the overall impact on the economy? According to Jeffrey Kling and Alan Krueger of Princeton University and NBER, 100 percent utilization of prison inmate labor would result in a rather small economic benefit — 0.2 percent of GDP at most. Because this is mostly unskilled labor it could, in fact, reduce the wages of high school dropouts in the private workforce by 5 percent — which would increase the overall rate of poverty. (Note, however, that some estimates suggest that people with wages under $13,000 spend 9 percent of their income on buying lottery tickets.)
Kling and Krueger conclude:
In concert with privatization, we suggest that inmate workers be covered by all relevant labor legislation that applies to private sector firms: including the right to form a union, fair labor standards, and workplace safety regulations.
That is the very minimum that must be done. We need to do some national soul-searching about all of the reasons we have so many people in jail. But it is an election year — and felons don’t vote — so the probability is high that nothing will be done. But let’s begin the discussion. As I finish this article, by weird coincidence, police cars are flashing their lights outside my house. A young man, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, crashed into the gate of our driveway as he was pursued by an unmarked car for speeding. I saw him as he was led away in handcuffs, in tears. I hope his parents have a very good lawyer.
As Adam Gopkin reminds us, “mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850.” The racialization of this process, popularized by author Michelle Alexander as The New Jim Crow, has meant that African Americans in the U.S. now have more than triple the incarceration rate of Blacks in South Africa at the peak of apartheid.
In the haste to impart some rationality to all this, many activists and analysts have been quick to point to corporations as the sole culprits behind the prison-industrial- complex (PIC). An important component of this perspective is the notion of prisons as “slave labor camps”. In this scenario a sea of multinational corporations super-exploit hundreds of thousands of contract prison laborers to heartlessly augment their bottom lines. Late last year researchers Steven Fraser and Joshua Freeman took up this point in a study which they presented in a CounterPunch article, arguing that “penitentiaries have become a niche market for such work. The privatization of prisons in recent years has meant the creation of a small army of workers too coerced and right-less to complain.”
Their perspective has resonated with a number of news services, anti-mass incarceration blogsters and activists. For example, a recent report from Russian news service RT claimed that prisons are “becoming America’s own Chinese style manufacturing line”. Huffington Post picked up the story, quoting Fraser and Freeman:
“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.”
The HuffPost went on to name Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, Starbucks and Walmart as major participants in what they called a “competitive spiral” to capture prison labor at the lowest possible wage levels. Vicky Pelaez, writing for Global Research earlier this year called prison industry a “new form of slavery” identifying more than twenty corporations involved in contract arrangements. Her list included IBM, Pierre Cardin, Target and Hewlett Packard. She concluded that, “thanks to prison labor, the United States is once again an attractive location for investment in work that was designed for Third World labor markets.”
As appealing as these scenarios are to our sense of moral outrage and the role of multinational corporations as the villains of our era, such assertions about prison labor are off the mark. I spent six and a half years in Federal and state prisons at high, medium and low security levels. In all these institutions, very few people, if any, were under contract to private corporations. My memories of prison yards feature hundreds and hundreds of men trying to pump some meaning into their life with exercise routines, academic study, compulsive sports betting, religious devotion, and a number of creative and entrepreneurial “hustles.” But being under the thumb of Bill Gates or entering a Nike sweatshop was just about the farthest thing from our warehoused reality.
Statistics bear my memories out. Virtually all private sector prison labor is regulated under the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP). Any prison wanting to publicly markets goods worth more than $10,000 must register with PIECP. The PIECP statistical report for the first quarter of 2012 showed 4,675 incarcerated people employed in prison or jail PIECP programs, a miniscule portion of the nation’s more than two million behind bars.
Likely the largest single user of contract prison labor is Federal Prison Industries, which handles such arrangements for the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Of the nearly 220,000 people housed in BOP facilities, just 13,369, representing approximately 8% of the work eligible “inmates” were employed as of September 30, 2012. However, the overwhelming majority of this production was for government departments like Defense and Homeland Security, rather than private corporations.
There is an economic rationality to why prison labor is so infrequently used. While incarcerated people may constitute a captive workforce, in the era of mass incarceration security trumps all other institutional needs, including production deadlines. A fight on the yard, a surprise cell search, even a missing tool can occasion a lockdown where all activities, including work assignments come to a halt for hour, days, or, in some cases even weeks or months. Multinational corporations accustomed to just in time production systems and flexible working hours don’t respond well to this type of rigidity.
Portraying our prisons as slave labor camps satisfies a certain emotional appeal, but hunting down multinationals that are extracting superprofits from the incarcerated diverts us from the crucial labor issues at the heart of mass incarceration. Those behind bars constitute a displaced and discarded labor force, marginalized from mainstream employment on the streets by deindustrialization in their communities and the gutting of urban education in poor communities of color. More than half of all Black men without a high-school diploma will go to prison at some time in their lives. The school to prison pipeline is far more of a reality than slave labor camps.
Plus, the shift of the prison system’s emphasis from rehabilitation to punishment in the last three decades has blocked opportunities for people to upgrade skills and education while incarcerated. As the nuns used to tell me in grade school: “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop and idle hands are the devil’s tools.” The brains behind our prison system clearly had the devil’s welfare in mind when they reoriented our institutions away from rehabilitation into warehousing millions of people while stripping away their opportunities for personal and collective development. As a result purposelessness and excruciating boredom, not overwork, are the dominant features of most prison yards.
For those trying to put an end to mass incarceration, framing the labor issues of the prison industrial complex in this way takes us down a very different road than upgrading the conditions of the minute numbers behind bars who are under corporate contracts (or as some unions are want to do-portraying prison laborers as scabs who undermine hard won working class gains). The chief labor concerns about mass incarceration are linked to broader inequalities in the economy as a whole, particularly the lack of employment for poor youth of color and the proliferation of low wage jobs with no benefits. Employment creation and the restoration of much needed state provided social services like substance abuse or mental health treatment are the measures that will keep people on the streets. Forget about minimum wages for the mythical millions working for Microsoft in Leavenworth and Attica.
But the labor aspect of mass incarceration doesn’t end there. People with a felony conviction carry a stigma, a brand often accompanied by exclusion from the labor market. Michelle Alexander calls “felon” the new “N” word. Indeed in the job world, those of us with felony convictions face a number of unique barriers. The most well-known is “the box”-that question on employment applications which asks about criminal background. Eleven states and more than 40 cities and counties have outlawed the box on employment applications. Supporters of “ban the box” argue that questions about previous convictions amount to a form of racial discrimination since such a disproportionate number of those with felony convictions are African-American and Latino. Advancing these Ban the Box campaigns will have a far more important impact on incarcerated people as workers than pressing for higher wages for those under contract to big companies inside.
However, even without the box, the rights of the formerly incarcerated in the labor market remain heavily restricted. Many professions, trades and service occupations which require certification, bar or limit the accreditation of people with felony convictions. For example, a study by the Mayor of Chicago’s office found that of 98 Illinois state statutes regarding professional licensing, 57 contained restrictions for applicants with a criminal history, impacting over 65 professions and occupations. In some instances, even people applying for licenses to become barbers or cosmetologists face legal impediments.
Those with felony convictions face further hurdles when trying to access state assistance to tide them over during times of unemployment. In most states, those with drug convictions are banned from access to SNAP (food stamps) for life. Many local public housing authorities bar people with felony convictions even if their parents or partners already reside there.
Lastly, the very conditions of parole often create obstacles to employment. Many states require that an employer of a person on parole agree that the workplace premises can be searched at any time without prior warning-hardly an attractive proposition for any business. In addition, tens of thousands of people on parole are subject to house arrest with electronic monitors. All movement outside the house must be pre-approved by their parole agent. This makes changes in work schedule or jobs that involve travel an enormous challenge. Some basic changes to the conditions of parole could constitute an important step to easing the labor market conditions for people coming home from prison trying to secure and keep a job.
All of this is not to deny that many corporations have made huge amounts of money from mass incarceration. Firms like Arizona’s Kitchell Construction, which has built more than 40 state prisons and 30 adult jails have made millions. The Tennessee-based Bob Barker Enterprises is a “household” name among the incarcerated. With a corporate vision of “transforming criminal justice by honoring God in all we do,“ Barker has reaped massive profits from producing the poorest quality consumer goods, including two inch toothbrushes, for people behind bars. Then, of course, we have private prison operators like CCA and the GEO Group. Although the privates control only 8% of prison beds nationally these two firms managed to bring in over 3 billion in revenue last year.
While such profiteering continues, the prison-industrial complex remains driven by an agenda that is more about politics than profits. State-owned prisons and political agendas continue to lie at the center of mass incarceration. The combined revenue of CCA and the GEO Group for 2012 was less than half of the California state corrections budget. Politicians, with important influence from pro-corporate organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have made the PIC possible by passing harsh sentencing laws, funding the War on Drugs, tightening immigration legislation, and creating isolation units like Pelican Bay, Corcoran, Tamms and Angola. They have built a base of popular support for the “colorblind” approach of “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.” So while we need to curb the opportunities for corporate profit from putting people in cages, the main target of any campaign against the PIC must be to counter the racist ideology of “punitive populism” and reverse the political processes which perpetuate mass incarceration and the criminalization of the poor.
James Kilgore is a research scholar at the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). He writes on issues of mass incarceration with a focus on electronic monitoring and labor. He is also the author of three novels, all of which he drafted during his six and a half years in prison, 2002-09. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
James Kilgore is a writer and activist based in Urbana, Illinois. He spent six and a half years in prison. During those years, he drafted three novels which have been published since his release in 2009. His latest book, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Era will be published by The New Press in September. He can be contacted at email@example.com