First, two facts:
- My 20 year young cousin is currently a proud Marine serving in Afghanistan.
- The United States imprisons more people per capita than any other country.
What’s the connection? Prisoners. Not prisoners of war but the people locked up in our domestic prisons and jails—and, more specifically, their labor.
Surprised? I sure was.
Whenever I think of prison labor, the first thing in my head is license plates. Turns out, prison labor has come a long way from its humble roots of license plates and linen. While these industries are still prevalent, they are not big breadwinners.
The industry that takes the cake when it comes to prison labor is military supplies.
It is estimated that the federal prison industry produces 100 percent of all military helmets, ID tags, bullet proof vests, canteens, night-vision goggles, ammunition belts, tents, shirts, bags and pants.
And what company is there to oversee production of all these items? UNICOR.
UNICOR was previously known as Federal Prison Industries, which is a for-profit organization, and the 39th largest U.S. contractor. It operates 110 factories at 79 federal penitentiaries and the Department of Defense is one of their largest contracts. In 2001, UNICOR sales were $583.5 million — about $388 million of which was to DOD or 66.5 percent of all business.
With wages as low as $0.23 per hour and no unions, safety regulations, pension, social security, sick leave nor overtime, prison labor is a growing and economically competitive sector. Prison labor is competitive with sweatshop labor prices and, since production is domestic, incurs lower shipping costs. Plus, overhead is pretty much paid for by U.S. taxpayers. With all these economic incentives, it’s no surprise that 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations who bring their operations inside prison walls.
While UNICOR is among the leaders in using prison labor, other companies are taking advantage of the contract opportunities, including Nordstrom, Eddie Bauer, Motorola, Microsoft, Victoria’s Secret, Compaq, IBM, Boeing, AT&T, Texas Instrument, Revlon, Macy’s, Target Stores, Nortel, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Honeywell, Pierre Cardin, 3com, and Lucent Technologies, among others.
If all a business is looking at is cutting costs and maximizing profit, prison labor is a smart investment. But at the Ella Baker Center, we like to ask what is the human cost of this so-called “smart investment?”
In this case, the situation is clear: Prison labor is the new slave labor.
This is especially true considering that under the 13th Amendment, slavery is still legal — in prisons.
There are clear parallels between the new and the old:
- Atrocious working conditions: As mentioned above, there are no workers rights/protection. Many prisoners work with toxic materials and are not given the proper protective clothing. Workdays often run past eight hours, with no breaks.
- Coercion: Prisoners frequently lose “good-time” and canteen privileges if they refuse to work. Georgia had one of the largest inmate protests in U.S. history after prisoners were forced to work seven days in a row without pay and were beaten if they did not comply.
- Exporting of inmates: With the high incarceration rate in the U.S. and over-crowding considered cruel and unusual punishment, the private prison industry has flourished, offering states and counties “rent-a-cell” services, in which the county makes $1.50 per bed.
- Racial inequality: The U.S. has more than 2.3 million prisoners. People of color make up just 30 percent of the total U.S. population, but account for 60 percent of those locked up. There are now more Black men in prison, parole or probation than were enslaved in the 1850s.
The reality in the U.S. today is that prison is not for rehabilitation, it is for profit. With that kind of mentality we are living up to our nickname of the United States of Incarceration. The idea of working while in prison could be a tool for rehabilitation and, ultimately, greater public safety, but as usua,l the execution of the idea is most important. Humans have rights and prisoners are human, therefore prisoners have rights and those rights need to implemented and protected.
Working for the rights of prisoners is an uphill battle and educating yourself is the first step. Here are some links:
- "The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery?" by Vicky Pelaez
- "Prison Labor: Workin' For The Man" by Reese Erlich
- "The Pentagon and Slave Labor in U.S. Prisons" by Sara Flounders
- UNICOR’s menu of products and services available through prison labor