U.S. companies make a killing off prison labor

In 1865, the 13th amendment abolished slavery, but there was a loophole. Prisoners were exempt. Since the passage of the amendment, prisons and businesses have been forcing inmates to work for slave wages, or sometimes no wages.

Capital thrives on squeezing as much profit and productivity as possible out of workers. In the eyes of the corporation, inmate labor is a brilliant strategy for maximizing profit.

In an article at U.S. Uncut, Kelly Davidson reports that corporations, in partnership with the United States government, are forcing prisoners to work for wages as low as .25 and $1.15 per hour. It’s called “insourcing.” If you are a CEO or a stockholder in one of these companies it’s great! You get your products made by prison slaves for practically nothing, or you get your products made in third world countries for practically nothing—either way, you reap the profits.

Which companies make use of prison labor?

I’ve annotated Davidson’s list:

Lets start with Whole Foods. This high-end grocery chain purchases artisan cheese and fish prepared by prison inmates who work for private companies. The inmates are paid .74 cents a day to raise tilapia that Whole Paycheck sells for $11.99 a pound.

Then we have McDonald’s. It buys tons of prison-manufactured items including plastic cutlery, food containers, and uniforms. As Davidson notes, the inmates who sew the uniforms make even less money per hour than the people who wear them.

And, of course, there’s Wal-Mart. The official company policy is: “no forced or prison labor will be tolerated.” But Wal-Mart gets around this by buying from independent prison labor factories. Same thing Whole Foods is doing. According to Davidson: “Wal-Mart purchases its produce from prison farms where laborers are often subjected to long, arduous hours in the blazing heat without adequate sunscreen, water, or food.”

If you like sexy lingerie, you may enjoy buying from Victoria’s Secret. Know that female inmates in South Carolina, forced to work for slave wages, make a lot of the company’s garments, as well as J.C. Penny’s women’s underwear.

In 1993, AT&T laid off thousands of union telephone operators in a move to smash unions and increase profits. It has a prison labor policy similar to Wal-Mart’s. Yet, since 1993, AT&T has used inmates, managed by third party companies, to work their call centers, paying them $2 a day.

It turns out BP used African-American inmates to clean up the 4.2 million barrels of oil it spilled into the Gulf coast after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster. The right thing was for BP to hire Coastal residents whose livelihoods it had just destroyed, but the company opted for cheap prison labor. Then its PR department put out ads touting the company’s dedication to the Gulf and the people who live there.

Davidson sums up:

From dentures to shower curtains to pill bottles, almost everything you can imagine is being made in American prisons. Also implicit in the past and present use of prison labor are Microsoft, Nike, Nintendo, Honda, Pfizer, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, Starbucks, and more.

The “more” includes, among others, Nordstrom, Eddie Bauer, Motorola, Compaq, IBM, Boeing, Texas Instrument, Revlon, Macy’s, Target Stores, Nortel, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Honeywell, Pierre Cardin, 3com, and Lucent Technologies.

The Prison-Industrial-Complex and UNICOR

Davidson fingers the U.S. government as the guilty party in this modern day reincarnation of slavery. UNICOR, a corporation created in 1934 and owned by the federal government, oversees penal labor, and sets the condition and wage standards for working inmates.  UNICOR’s official line is that in exchange for their slave labor, prisoners are given “vocational training.” Yet the workplace conditions are often appalling, and the transfer of skills to the private sector is dubious.

For example, at one UNICOR operation at a California prison, inmates “de-manufactured” computer cathode-type monitors. According to industry safety practices, a mechanical crushing machine is supposed to be used to minimize danger from flying glass, with an isolated air system to avoid releasing lead, and other toxic substances into the workplace atmosphere. At the UNICOR facility, prisoners were required to smash CRTs with hammers without any protection.

The United States of Incarceration

We have a huge per capita prison population—the second highest in the world. Although we have only 5 percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Racism, drug laws, mandatory sentencing, and of course, privatization of prisons all play a part. The partnership of the U.S. government with big business allows prisoners to be used as slave labor, another great incentive for filling prisons. Prison overcrowding is common. Instead of helping and rehabilitating people, we use them for profit—another grotesque feature of a capitalist system fixated on making money over everything else.

Overcrowding in a California state prison
Overcrowding in a California state prison

I’m afraid the answer is not prison reform, because that simply won’t happen in our current political and economic environment. Also, the use of prisoners for profit has been going on for 150 years. Instead, we have to examine and question the overriding system that created prison slave labor in the first place. We have to break the taboo on talking about capitalism. We have to question capitalism’s ruthless, limited way of thinking, and its distorted, often inhumane values. We have to step back and ask ourselves: Is this how we want to treat people? Is this really how we want to live? Is capitalism a system that works for most Americans, or most inhabitants of the Earth, or just a lucky few? How can we transition to a better, more humane system, a new democratic socialism for the 21st century?

Michael Liebowitz writes about the nature of capitalism in his book The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development:

. . .no one could say that capitalism is a good society. Capitalism is certainly not oriented toward solidarity, respect, social responsibility, or caring: it is not about creating the conditions for protagonism in the workplace and society—that necessary way by which people can achieve “their complete development, both individual and collective.” On the contrary, capitalism is not about human development at all.

The logic of capital generates a society in which all human values are subordinated to the search for profits. . . .Rather than building a cohesive and caring society, capital tears society apart. It divides workers and pits them against one another as competitors to reduce any challenge to its rule and its bottom line. Precisely because human beings and nature are mere means to capital’s goal, it destroys what Marx called the original sources of wealth—human beings and nature.