The Coastal Post - July 1999

Prison Labor: Crime Still Doesn't Pay

By Brian Boldt

The phrase "prison labor" usually invokes images of chain gangs supervised by armed men on horseback or operations churning out license plates. Yet few customers of Starbucks, Eddie Bauer or Microsoft are likely to realize the products they purchase are supporting the growing participation of convict labor in private industry. With growing incarceration rates in this country, joint ventures between prisons and the private sector are becoming an increasingly common, though underreported, phenomenon throughout the country. While inmate labor in private industry initially seems to offer benefits to both the general and prison population, close examination of these claims and of the context of prison growth reveal substantial weakness in this practice. Ultimately, the prison labor in the private sector points to the need for a substantial rethinking of the role of prison and punishment in our society.

The current resurgence of prison labor for profit has its roots in slavery. Following the civil war, large numbers of newly freed slaves found themselves in prison where 13th amendment protections against involuntary servitude didn't apply. Borrowing language from recent history, the courts declared that prisoners were "slaves of the state." In this climate, state prisons would regularly contract prison labor to private firms. By 1885, nearly three-fourths of prisoners labored, mostly to private industry.

Opposition to prison labor for profit began mounting in the late 1800s. While allegations of prisoner abuse were noted, pressure from labor unions and competing businesses was instrumental in forcing some states to outlaw such practices. It would take the realities of the Great Depression to motivate action at the national level. The Hawes-Cooper Act of 1921 authorized states to prohibit entry of prison-made goods. Other restrictions followed, gradually reducing the attractiveness of prison labor. Finally in 1941, the Sumners-Ashurst Act effectively ended privately contracted prison labor by making it a felony to transport prison goods across state lines. For the next four decades, inmates would produce goods for government agencies or nonprofits only.

This began to change with the massive prison building and incarceration binge of the Reagan years. Former Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger called for transforming prisons into "factories with fences" as part of a 1986 study designed to reduce costs of the government's prison policies. During this time, various legislation at the state and congressional level eased restrictions on prison labor in the private sector.

The most vocal proponents for prison labor generally include business leaders and corrections administrators. It is claimed that "Such work benefits everyone. It enables prisoners to earn wages and acquire marketable skills while learning individual responsibility and the value of productive labor." Correctional administrators "report that joint ventures provide meaningful, productive employment that helps to reduce inmate idleness, considered to be a common cause of prisoner disruptions." The general public is said to benefit through offset incarceration costs, taxes paid by inmates and mandatory contributions to victim compensation funds.

Such claims, if true, would indeed be persuasive arguments. However, it is instructive to note that analysis of inmate labor presented to the business community offers primarily economic motivations. "Domestic content is an important benefit of using a prison-based work force compared with using an offshore labor market. We can put a Made-in-the-USA label on our product." Other documents can offer a somewhat less subtle description. A brochure for a conference on private prisons and prison labor claims "arrests and convictions are steadily on the rise, profits are to be made, profits from crime."

"Can't Find Workers? A Willing Workforce Waits," reads a flyer distributed by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

Although proponents of prison labor often tout the economic benefits to the general public, that taxes paid from prisoner wages offset incarceration costs, these claims inevitably leave out substantial costs that are covered by the state. In many cases of prison labor, subsidies are provided to businesses entering into such ventures. In the Lockhart prison in Texas, the prison bore the cost of constructing a factory and charged Lockhart Technologies, Inc. (LTI) $1.00 annual rent. LTI also receives tax breaks from the city of Lockhart. A 56,000 sq. ft industrial building next to the Washington State Reformatory brings in more money - $1.00 per month. The organizational structures of these ventures vary, but there are always administrative costs and these are carried by the prison. Companies have come to expect such subsidy and it is questionable as to whether there is any net revenue to the state.

Some prison reformers favor prison labor in the belief that such programs teach inmates marketable skills. Linda Marin, executive director of Texas-CURE (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants), says such programs are an improvement over the state's tradition of forcing prisoners to work without pay. According to Marin, "If there's a means for them to earn money and get benefits-getting to work on time, having their work valued-that's a good thing." At Lockhart prison in Texas, prisoner Rickey Davis says he likes being employed by LTI as it lets him "better himself. You can pretty much get yourself established for your release [and] you get a chance to send your kids some money out of your check." Not all prisoners have this view. "I'm not going to work to pay the state to send me to prison," says prisoner Howard Zephur.

Does inmate labor for private industry provide the rehabilitative effect claimed? A 1991 study by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons found that only 6.6 % of federal inmates who had been employed in prison industries violated their parole or were rearrested within a year of their release vs. 20 % for non-employed prisoners. Such figures are frequently cited as support for prison labor programs. Some suggest that gainful employment be used as a benchmark for success rather than simply recidivism rates. Regardless of how success is evaluated, many factors correlate with positive effects of inmate labor, most importantly how the employment skills needs of the convicts are met by any program offered in prison. While private sector employment can provide positive benefits, studies note such programs often do not identify the needs of inmate, lessening benefits of such employment. Unfortunately, in an era of shrinking budgets for true rehabilitation programs, prison labor for the private sector is increasingly the only option available to inmates.

Beyond statistical manipulation, the "marketable skills" learned by inmate on the job are often of questionable value. Nearly all jobs in prison industries are labor intensive, low skill work. Advice from garment manufacturer Third Generation highlights this: "Keep it simple, put the least complex sewing jobs you have inside the prison." Escod Industries, which manufactures electronic cables inside South Carolina Evans Correctional Facility, offers similar recommendations, "Now we concentrate in the prison our simpler, labor-intensive products." Following the logic of such "vocational training" would require released convicts to seek employment in Third-World sweatshops, producing goods for the U.S. market for a pittance. Or perhaps return to prison, as the example of LTI provides. In 1995, the company closed a circuit board assembly plant in Austin, Texas and moved it into a privately operated prison 30 miles away. Prisoners replaced the laid-off workers.

Other companies claim to bring jobs to the U.S. through prison labor. In search of lower wages, Data Processing Accounting Services moved U.S. jobs to Mexico. But increased competition sent DPAS back to the U.S. in 1992 to San Quentin State Prison. "Some of the work went to China and some of the work we sent to San Quentin," DPAS owner Bob Tessler says. "Our objective is to find low-cost labor. We have a captive labor force, a group of men who are dedicated. And the whole thing is very profitable." Such views indicate the superficial analysis of prison labor often presented by those profiting from it. As many of this country's underclass can attest to, a job does not automatically mean a meaningful job or one with a livable wage. Importation of Third World economics, with its attendant human suffering, should not be a policy goal.

Some critics of prison labor are concerned that prison industries' ability to undercut prevailing wages could be used as a union-busting tool. In fact, Trans-Continental World Airlines has used inmate labor to break strikes. During a flight-attendant strike in 1986, TWA turned its reservation clerks into flight attendants and put inmates to work taking reservations. TWA still pays $5 an hour to its inmate clerks at a juvenile facility in Ventura, California. That same work, when unionized, pays $18 an hour. Despite language in federal regulations designed to mandate consultations with local unions on the possibility of prison labor, companies can exploit loopholes to keep their prison labor force a secret. According to Joe Gunn, president of the Texas AFL-CIO, consultations never occurred when LTI moved its plant to Lockhart prison. The company claimed as there are no unions in the county where the prison is located, no consultations were necessary, neatly avoiding the fact that there were concerned unions in the county where the original factory was located. Similarly, the United Auto Workers union was surprised to find prisoners from Ohio prisons assembling Honda parts at Weastec Corporation. With prisoners being paid only $2.05 per hour (net wage is actually only 35 cents per hour). "No smaller employer could compete for that contract with Honda," claims UAW director Warren Davis.

Other concerns are that health and safety standards in prison workplaces are not adequately enforced. Moreover, they argue, inmates can't organize, collectively bargain or obtain concessions from their employer.

"I think it's a disgusting economic development model," says Rick Levey, legal director for the Texas AFL-CIO. "When you have the social cost of maintaining such a massive criminal-justice system and you pay for that through super-exploitation of workers, that's a bad situation for the rest of society."

DPAS abandoned its San Quentin operation in 1996 because of high prisoner turnover. DPAS' problems might be addressed by following the lead of the Chesapeake Cap Company, which operates in the Connecticut Correctional Institution. By narrowing its inmate workforce to those with lengthy sentences, typical turnover rates have been greatly reduced. This particular example points to the conflict of interest prison labor ventures present. Escod Industries' efforts to address high turnover rates have led them to negotiate for a second plant at a minimum-security facility. Correctional officials have placed some offices directly inside Escod's own buildings, so that they may better "serve the needs of the company." In this respect, a fundamental concern over prison labor is the diffusion of the "prison lobby" throughout the economy. As more and more enterprises become dependent on their prison labor pools, prison industries will have a vested interest in criminal legislation and could influence policy decisions.

Even before legislative changes reintroduced inmate labor, there was already significant private sector involvement in the prison system. Construction firms, foods service contractors, surveillance and communications companies contribute to a powerful array of organized special interests. Prison labor is then not a fundamental shift in policy but simply an extension of what some view as a new version of the military-industrial complex. "These mutually reinforcing interests are forging a formidable new iron triangle similar to the triangle that arms makers, military services and lawmakers formed [in the Cold War]."

America's incarcerated population skyrocketed in the 1980s and continues to rise. The U.S. is currently a world leader when it comes to jailing its own. That huge numbers of these prisoners are non-violent offenders as well as the fact that serious crimes have been decreasing over this period points the reality that broad economic and social policies have scapegoated large segments of our society ("Prisons in the USA"). The huge costs associated with the choice to deal with social problems by mass imprisonment are a fundamental part of the drift toward privatization of prisons and prison industries.

One role that imprisonment clearly fulfills is that of taking symbolic action against socially defined deviants. It seems to matter less that prisons stop crime than that they give the appearance of doing so--or of doing something. In this respect, the growing popularity of prison labor is understandable. In a society unable or unwilling to address the fundamental social and economic causes of criminality, this symbolic action substitutes for substantive reform. Whether one perceives prison labor as simply "millions of available hours of healthy, prime-age labor" is dependent on what we perceive the role of prisons to be. In turn, our perspectives about prison will be shaped by influences of media, political rhetoric, and other special interests. At the heart of this introspection is essentially the issue of state-sponsored slavery. As the justice system tends to disproportionately incarcerate minorities generally and African American men in particular ("Prisons in the USA"), these disenfranchised groups become the defacto slaves of our growing market-driven prison policies.

If prison labor is a repeat of a previously failed experiment, then alternative methods in coping with our nation's incarcerated population require more fundamental action. The relevant question is not to ask what are the alternatives to prison labor, but what are its root causes. Misguided approaches to social issues favor harsher criminal laws as a knee-jerk response to crisis. Politicians score public approval points by taking a "get tough on crime" stance. The bloated prison populations need to be reduced by eliminating mandatory sentence laws, particularly for nonviolent drug offenses and other so called "victim-less crimes." Meaningful vocational training programs need to be supported, such as AFL-CIO apprenticeship programs. A return of pre-Reagan legislation, where private industry did not employ inmates, needs to occur. An interesting note is that such changes might give the U.S. some credibility as it publicly denounces China for its own prison labor policies.

Political prisoner Ray Luc Levasseur writes, "Society reflects itself in the microcosm of prison. From a class-based, economically driven, racially motivated construct devolves life as a series of Chinese boxes, a set of boxes, decreasing in size so that each box fits inside the next larger one. I am in the smallest box." Such perceptions are quite appropriate in this question. When certain populations are seen as expendable, policies to exploit them will inevitably occur. Allowing prison labor to benefit private enterprise is just such an expression.

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