LEGISLATING a PRISON WORKFORCE,_Prisons,_Crime,_and_Immigration
by John Nichols / July 12, 2011

“Never has the time been so right,” Louisiana State Representative Noble Ellington told conservative legislators gathered in Washington to plan the radical remaking of policies in the states. It was one month after the 2010 midterm elections. Republicans had grabbed 680 legislative seats and secured a power trifecta—control of both legislative chambers and the governorship—in twenty-one states. Ellington was speaking for hundreds of attendees at a “States and Nation Policy Summit,” featuring GOP stars like Texas Governor Rick Perry, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Convened by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—“the nation’s largest, non-partisan, individual public-private membership association of state legislators,” as the spin-savvy group describes itself—the meeting did not intend to draw up an agenda for the upcoming legislative session. That had already been done by ALEC’s elite task forces of lawmakers and corporate representatives. The new legislators were there to grab their weapons: carefully crafted model bills seeking to impose a one-size-fits-all agenda on the states.

Founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich and other conservative activists frustrated by recent electoral setbacks, ALEC is a critical arm of the right-wing network of policy shops that, with infusions of corporate cash, has evolved to shape American politics. Inspired by Milton Friedman’s call for conservatives to “develop alternatives to existing policies [and] keep them alive and available,” ALEC’s model legislation reflects long-term goals: downsizing government, removing regulations on corporations and making it harder to hold the economically and politically powerful to account. Corporate donors retain veto power over the language, which is developed by the secretive task forces. The task forces cover issues from education to health policy. ALEC’s priorities for the 2011 session included bills to privatize education, break unions, deregulate major industries, pass voter ID laws and more. In states across the country they succeeded, with stacks of new laws signed by GOP governors like Ohio’s John Kasich and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, both ALEC alums.


The details of ALEC’s model bills have been available only to the group’s 2,000 legislative and 300 corporate members. But thanks to a leak to Aliya Rahman, an Ohio-based activist who helped organize protests at ALEC’s Spring Task Force meeting in Cincinnati, The Nation has obtained more than 800 documents representing decades of model legislation. Teaming up with the Center for Media and Democracy, The Nation asked policy experts to analyze this never-before-seen archive. The articles that follow are the first products of that examination. They provide an inside view of the priorities of ALEC’s corporate board and billionaire benefactors (including Tea Party funders Charles and David Koch). “Dozens of corporations are investing millions of dollars a year to write business-friendly legislation that is being made into law in statehouses coast to coast, with no regard for the public interest,” says Bob Edgar of Common Cause. “This is proof positive of the depth and scope of the corporate reach into our democratic processes.” The full archive of ALEC documents is available at a new website,, thanks to the Center for Media and Democracy, which has provided powerful tools for progressives to turn this knowledge into power. The data tell us that the time has come to refocus on the battle to loosen the grip of corporate America and renew democracy in the states.

Business Domination Inc.,” by Joel Rogers and Laura Dresser
Sabotaging Healthcare,” by Wendell Potter
The Koch Connection,” by Lisa Graves
Starving Public Schools,” by Julie Underwood
Rigging Elections,” by John Nichols

by Mike Elk and Bob Sloan  /  August 1, 2011

The breaded chicken patty your child bites into at school may have been made by a worker earning twenty cents an hour, not in a faraway country, but by a member of an invisible American workforce: prisoners. At the Union Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Florida, inmates from a nearby lower-security prison manufacture tons of processed beef, chicken and pork for Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises (PRIDE), a privately held non-profit corporation that operates the state’s forty-one work programs. In addition to processed food, PRIDE’s website reveals an array of products for sale through contracts with private companies, from eyeglasses to office furniture, to be shipped from a distribution center in Florida to businesses across the US. PRIDE boasts that its work programs are “designed to provide vocational training, to improve prison security, to reduce the cost of state government, and to promote the rehabilitation of the state inmates.”

Although a wide variety of goods have long been produced by state and federal prisoners for the US government—license plates are the classic example, with more recent contracts including everything from guided missile parts to the solar panels powering government buildings—prison labor for the private sector was legally barred for years, to avoid unfair competition with private companies. But this has changed thanks to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), its Prison Industries Act, and a little-known federal program known as PIE (the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program). While much has been written about prison labor in the past several years, these forces, which have driven its expansion, remain largely unknown.

Somewhat more familiar is ALEC’s instrumental role in the explosion of the US prison population in the past few decades. ALEC helped pioneer some of the toughest sentencing laws on the books today, like mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders, “three strikes” laws, and “truth in sentencing” laws. In 1995 alone, ALEC’s Truth in Sentencing Actwas signed into law in twenty-five states. (Then State Rep. Scott Walker was an ALEC member when he sponsored Wisconsin’s truth-in-sentencing laws and, according to PR Watch, used its statistics to make the case for the law.) More recently, ALEC has proposed innovative “solutions” to the overcrowding it helped create, such as privatizing the parole process through “the proven success of the private bail bond industry,” as it recommended in 2007. (The American Bail Coalition is an executive member of ALEC’s Public Safety and Elections Task Force.) ALEC has also worked to pass state laws to create private for-profit prisons, a boon to two of its major corporate sponsors: Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections), the largest private prison firms in the country. An In These Times investigation last summer revealed that ALEC arranged secret meetings between Arizona’s state legislators and CCA to draft what became SB 1070, Arizona’s notorious immigration law, to keep CCA prisons flush with immigrant detainees. ALEC has proven expertly capable of devising endless ways to help private corporations benefit from the country’s massive prison population.

That mass incarceration would create a huge captive workforce was anticipated long before the US prison population reached its peak—and at a time when the concept of “rehabilitation” was still considered part of the mission of prisons. First created by Congress in 1979, the PIE program was designed “to encourage states and units of local government to establish employment opportunities for prisoners that approximate private sector work opportunities,” according to PRIDE’s website. The benefits to big corporations were clear—a “readily available workforce” for the private sector and “a cost-effective way to occupy a portion of the ever-growing offender/inmate population” for prison officials—yet from its founding until the mid-1990s, few states participated in the program.

This started to change in 1993, when Texas State Representative and ALEC member Ray Allen crafted the Texas Prison Industries Act, which aimed to expand the PIE program. After it passed in Texas, Allen advocated that it be duplicated across the country. In 1995, ALEC’s Prison Industries Act was born. This Prison Industries Act as printed in ALEC’s 1995 state legislation sourcebook, “provides for the employment of inmate labor in state correctional institutions and in the private manufacturing of certain products under specific conditions.” These conditions, defined by the PIE program, are supposed to include requirements that “inmates must be paid at the prevailing wage rate” and that the “any room and board deductions…are reasonable and are used to defray the costs of inmate incarceration.” (Some states charge prisoners for room and board, ostensibly to offset the cost of prisons for taxpayers. In Florida, for example, prisoners are paid minimum wage for PIE-certified labor, but 40 percent is taken out of their accounts for this purpose.)

The Prison Industries Act sought to change this, inventing the “private sector prison industry expansion account,” to absorb such deductions, and stipulating that the money should be used to, among other things: “construct work facilities, recruit corporations to participate as private sector industries programs, and pay costs of the authority and department in implementing [these programs].” Thus, money that was taken from inmate wages to offset the costs of incarceration would increasingly go to expanding prison industries. In 2000, Florida passed a law that mirrored the Prison Industries Act and created the Prison Industries Trust Fund, its own version of the private sector prison industry expansion account, deliberately designed to help expand prison labor for private industries.

The Prison Industries Act was also written to exploit a critical PIE loophole that seemed to suggest that its rules did not apply to prisoner-made goods that were not shipped across state lines. It allowed a third-party company to set up a local address in a state that makes prison goods, buy goods from a prison factory, sell those products locally or surreptitiously ship them across state borders. It helped that by 1995 oversight of the PIE program had been effectively squashed, transferred from the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance to theNational Correctional Industries Association (NCIA), a private trade organization that happened to be represented by Allen’s lobbying firm, Service House, Inc. In 2003, Allen became the Texas House Chairman of the Corrections Committee and began peddling the Prison Industries Act and other legislation beneficial to CCA and Geo Group, like the Private Correctional Facilities Act. Soon thereafter he became Chairman of ALEC’s Criminal Justice (now Public Safety and Elections) Task Force. He resigned from the state legislature in 2006 while under investigation for his unethical lobbying practices. He was hired soon after as a lobbyist for Geo Group.

Today’s chair of ALEC’s Public Safety and Elections Task force is state Representative Jerry Madden of Texas, where the Prison Industries Act originated eighteen years ago. According to a 2010 report from NCIA, as of last summer there were “thirty jurisdictions with active [PIE] operations.” These included such states as Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and twelve more. Four more states are now looking to get involved as well; Kentucky, Michigan and Pennsylvania have introduced legislation and New Hampshire is in the process of applying for PIE certification. Today these state’s legislation are based upon an updated version of the Prison Industries Act, which ALEC amended in 2004.

Prison labor has already started to undercut the business of corporations that don’t use it. In Florida, PRIDE has become one of the largest printing corporations in the state, its cheap labor having a significant impact upon smaller local printers. This scenario is playing out in states across the country. In addition to Florida’s forty-one prison industries, California alone has sixty. Another 100 or so are scattered throughout other states. What’s more, several states are looking to replace public sector workers with prison labor. In Wisconsin Governor Walker’s recent assault on collective bargaining opened the door to the use of prisoners in public sector jobs in Racine, where inmates are now doing landscaping, painting, and other maintenance work. According to theCapitol Times, “inmates are not paid for their work, but receive time off their sentences.” The same is occurring in Virginia, Ohio, New Jersey, Florida and Georgia, all states with GOP Assembly majorities and Republican governors. Much of ALEC’s proposed labor legislation, implemented state by state is allowing replacement of public workers with prisoners.

“It’s bad enough that our companies have to compete with exploited and forced labor in China,” says Scott Paul Executive Director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a coalition of business and unions. “They shouldn’t have to compete against prison labor here at home. The goal should be for other nations to aspire to the quality of life that Americans enjoy, not to discard our efforts through a downward competitive spiral.” Alex Friedmann, associate editor of Prison Legal News, says prison labor is part of a “confluence of similar interests” among politicians and corporations, long referred to as the “prison industrial complex.” As decades of model legislation reveals, ALEC has been at the center of this confluence. “This has been ongoing for decades, with prison privatization contributing to the escalation of incarceration rates in the US,” Friedmann says. Just as mass incarceration has burdened American taxpayers in major prison states, so is the use of inmate labor contributing to lost jobs, unemployment and decreased wages among workers—while corporate profits soar.

by Stephanie Overby / May 27, 2010

When word spread earlier this month that an Indian IT services company planned to set up a 200-person business process outsourcing unit in an Andhra Pradesh jail , it wasn’t long before the snark began flying. Are captive centers on the rebound? Imagine the low attrition rates! Inmates working for banks—what could possibly go wrong? When Phil Fersht, founder of outsourcing analyst firm Horses for Sources, first heard about it, he says, “I thought it was a joke.” Meanwhile, in the U.S., prisoners have been handling a variety of business services for private corporations since 1999. In 2002, they began taking on call center work. Nearly 1,100 inmates locked up in eight federal prisons from Dublin, Calif. to Morgantown, West Va. man tier-one help desks, handle outbound business-to-business calls, and provide directory assistance for Federal Prison Industries (FPI).

For private sector customers outsourcing their call centers to FPI, which operates under the trade name UNICOR, the price is right. Employees behind bars earn an average of 92 cents an hour to man the phones. UNICOR says prison labor is a low-cost alternative to offshore outsourcing. Its customers either want to repatriate work previously done in India or another low-cost locale, or contract with UNICOR in lieu of an offshore provider, says UNICOR Public Information Officer Julie Rozier. Callers are unaware that the person on the other end of the line is in jail, says Rozier. And the call center workers, nearly 90 percent of whom are female (male prisoners tend not to volunteer for phone work, according to Rozier), do not deal with any personal identifying information or classified data about the customers they’re servicing. UNICOR bills its services business group, which also provides distribution and order fulfillment, document conversion, and printing and design services, as “the best kept secret in outsourcing.” It’s no wonder: Few non-government customers go public about outsourcing to prison inmates. Moreover, contracts with UNICOR for call center work today include non-disclosure clauses to protect clients’ identities, says Rozier.

From Chain Gangs to Call Centers
Call centers are a far cry from chain gangs, but putting prisoners to work is not a new practice. In fact, FPI was established in 1934 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt to manufacture goods for the government. But it was only in 1999 that it was given the authority to sell services to private corporations. The program has riled some labor unions and industry groups over the years. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, has complained that UNICOR has an unfair competitive advantage over its private sector members in winning government contracts. The AFL-CIO has argued against the widespread use of prison labor because, the union says, it takes jobs away from Americans on the outside. In 2003, Dell (DELL) ended its contract with UNICOR for hardware recycling services amidst an onslaught of objections to the contract. Some critics expressed concerns that convicts handling toxic waste were not protected by OSHA and EPA safety standards. Others complained that employing prisoners hurt the private recycling industry. The PC maker said it transferred the work to private vendors for business reasons and not in response to protests from special interest groups. Rozier says “great care is taken to ensure private sector jobs in the U.S. are not impacted or displaced” by UNICOR’s call centers or other inmate work programs. Defenders of the program also note that its limited scope—FPI employs 17,000 convicts in all—has little negative impact on non-convict professionals or private sector competitors. UNICOR’s call centers currently serve less than ten customers, most of them small to mid-size enterprises, says Rozier.

Interestingly, it’s UNICOR’s size that ultimately means outsourcing to federal prisons won’t make much of a dent in corporate offshoring of similar work. “The idea seems good for rehabilitating offenders,” says Horses for Sources’ Fersht, but the limited scale presents little competition for offshore call center or business process outsourcing providers. Fersht doesn’t think running a call center from a prison makes much sense. He says the cost to effectively train and manage prisoners is likely to be higher than it is to train staff at, say, a “rural shore” call center in Nebraska. Moreover, finding call center supervisors to manage the inmate call center staff would probably pose a challenge. “Why would quality call center managers want to work in a prison,” he asks. Finally, adds Fersht, deploying quality call-center software applications and monitoring equipment in a jail is not going to be as easy as it would be in a secure facility. Fersht thinks it would make more sense for inmates with specific skills to tackle ad hoc projects in the areas of application development, internet-based research, or data entry, but UNICOR has not revealed any plans to move beyond its current suite of business services.

Prisoners of the World, Unite!
Inmates in B.C. are working to establish Canada’s first-ever prisoners’ union
by Stephanie Findlay / July 4, 2011

In January 2010, a 50-something inmate serving a life sentence at Mountain Institution, a medium-security prison in Agassiz, British Columbia, polled his fellow prisoners to see if they were in favour of starting a labour union. Over 76 per cent of the inmates said yes. By March, he and a core group of 14 inmates at Mountain had drafted a constitution for the union and have been working towards certification ever since. If the inmates are successful, the union will be the first of its kind in the country. It’s not surprising the movement is happening at Mountain, given its unique status as a work-focused prison where inmates must have steady jobs. As of 2007, there were 449 inmates at Mountain–the majority of whom work in one of four industries: textiles, manufacturing, construction, and prison services, such as printing and laundry. They’ve only recently met their first hurdle: getting 51 per cent of the prisoners to sign up. This is usually a routine affair, but represents a problem inside a prison, where inmates have been denied the right to assemble. In a press release, the prisoners said their proposed union would raise issues that “plague the prison population as a workforce,” including workplace safety, access to vocational training, and pay, which hasn’t been adjusted to inflation since 1986. The union tactic comes in response to a dysfunctional inmate grievance system that is overloaded, understaffed, and inefficient. According to the Correctional Investigator’s office the volume of complaints has grown from around 20,000 in 2005-06 to over 28,000 in 2009-2010. A 2010 review of the complaints and grievance process by David Mullan, a constitutional lawyer and professor emeritus at Queen’s University, found “serious problems” with the current system. A routine grievance can take over 150 days from its initial filing to be resolved, in part because of improperly trained staff. (Mullan says staff do “little more than [process] paper.”) And the system is tied up by “frequent users”–serial grievers, determined to bog down the process. In 2008-09, Mullan found that in some institutions, just a dozen offenders accounted for 11.3 per cent of all submissions.

Canada’s prisoners’ rights movement dates back to the 70s, when a series of brutal uprisings and violent deaths spurred an overhaul of prison legislation, including extending the vote behind prison walls. Since then, a series of legal reforms that have guaranteed rights to prisoners, notably the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 and the adoption of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act in 1992, which includes the inmate grievance policy. In many respects, Canada’s commitment to prisoner’s rights is admirable. But just because something is written, doesn’t mean it’s enforced, cautions Allan Manson, a criminal law professor at Queen’s University. “The problem,” says Manson, “is enforcing compliance with the act and that continues to be a problem today.” There are statutory standards, he says, “but prisoners have to be able to force compliance. And given the obstacles to judicial remedies and cost of litigation, there hasn’t been a crucial mass of judicial scrutiny that will keep penitentiary officials in line.”

The Correctional Service of Canada wouldn’t speculate on the impact a union might have on the federal prison system and pointed out that inmates already have a say in their treatment. “Each institution has an inmate committee which is formed to allow inmates to identify issues, including work-related issues, affecting them and to raise them with wardens and institutional staff,” CSC spokesperson Jean-Paul Lorieau wrote in an email to Maclean’s. “So far no union has been formed, and we do not have any further comments on this issue.” In the meantime, Mountain inmates and Natalie Dunbar, a Vancouver-based criminal lawyer who’s been serving as a liaison between the prison and the outside world, continue to organize. While the process is slow, Dunbar is optimistic. She says a prisoners’ union could “change the dynamic” between guards and prisoners for the better. “Prison staff are unionized and they have issues they have to deal with and believe it or not some of the issues intersect with prisoners issues.” Ideally, Dunbar says prison labour unions will propagate across the country: “Mountain would be local 001 and hopefully Kent would be unionized, then places throughout BC and then Canada.” Though, until then, “it’s baby steps,” she says. “We just want to get the application in at Mountain.”

How Corporations Exploit Prison Labor
by Rania Khalek / July 21, 2011

There is one group of American workers so disenfranchised that corporations are able to get away with paying them wages that rival those of third-world sweatshops. These laborers have been legally stripped of their political, economic and social rights and ultimately relegated to second-class citizens. They are banned from unionizing, violently silenced from speaking out and forced to work for little to no wages. This marginalization renders them practically invisible, as they are kept hidden from society with no available recourse to improve their circumstances or change their plight. They are the 2.3 million American prisoners locked behind bars where we cannot see or hear them. And they are modern-day slaves of the 21st century.

Incarceration Nation
It’s no secret that America imprisons more of its citizens than any other nation in history. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, the US currently holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. In 2008, over 2.3 million Americans were in prison or jail, with one of every 48 working-age men behind bars. That doesn’t include the tens of thousands of detained undocumented immigrants facing deportation, prisoners awaiting sentencing, or juveniles caught up in the school-to-prison pipeline. Perhaps it’s reassuring to some that the US still holds the number one title in at least one arena, but needless to say the hyper-incarceration plaguing America has had a damaging effect on society at large. According to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), US prison rates are not just excessive in comparison to the rest of the world, they are also substantially higher than our own longstanding history. The study finds that incarceration rates between 1880 and 1970 ranged from about 100 to 200 prisoners per 100,000 people. After 1980, the inmate population began to grow much more rapidly than the overall population and the rate climbed from about 220 in 1980 to 458 in 1990, 683 in 2000, and 753 in 2008.

The costs of this incarceration industry are far from evenly distributed, with the impact of excessive incarceration falling predominantly on African-American communities. Although black people make up just 13 percent of the overall population, they account for 40 percent of US prisoners. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), black males are incarcerated at a rate more than 6.5 times that of white males and 2.5 that of Hispanic males and black females are incarcerated at approximately three times the rate of white females and twice that of Hispanic females. Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow that more black men are in jail, on probation, or on parole than were enslaved in 1850. Higher rates of black drug arrests do not reflect higher rates of black drug offenses. In fact, whites and blacks engage in drug offenses, possession and sales at roughly comparable rates.

Incentivizing Incarceration
Clearly, the US prison system is riddled with racism and classism, but it gets worse. As it turns out, private companies have a cheap, easy labor market, and it isn’t in China, Indonesia, Haiti, or Mexico. It’s right here in the land of the free, where large corporations increasingly employ prisoners as a source of cheap and sometimes free labor. In the eyes of the corporation, inmate labor is a brilliant strategy in the eternal quest to maximize profit. By dipping into the prison labor pool, companies have their pick of workers who are not only cheap but easily controlled. Companies are free to avoid providing benefits like health insurance or sick days, while simultaneously paying little to no wages. They don’t need to worry about unions or demands for vacation time or raises. Inmate workers are full-time and never late or absent because of family problems. If they refuse to work, they are moved to disciplinary housing and lose canteen privileges along with “good time” credit that reduces their sentences. To top it off, the federal government subsidizes the use of inmate labor by private companies through lucrative tax write-offs. Under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), private-sector employers earn a tax credit of $2,400 for every work release inmate they employ as a reward for hiring “risky target groups” and they can earn back up to 40 percent of the wages they pay annually to “target group workers.” Study after study demonstrates the wastefulness of America’s prison-industrial complex, in both taxpayer dollars and innocent lives, yet rolling back imprisonment rates is proving to be more challenging than ever.  Meanwhile, the use of private prisons and now privately contracted inmate labor has created a system that does not exactly incentivize leaner sentencing. The disturbing implications of such a system mean that skyrocketing imprisonment for the possession of miniscule amounts of marijuana and the the expansion of severe mandatory sentencing laws regardless of the conviction, are policies that have to potential to increase corporate profits. As are the“three strikes laws” that require courts to hand down mandatory and extended sentences to people who have been convicted of felonies on three or more separate occasions.  People have literally been sentenced to life for minor crimes like shoplifting.

The Reinvention of Slavery
The exploitation of prison labor is by no means a new phenomenon. Jaron Browne, an organizer with People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), maps out how the exploitation of prison labor in America is rooted in slavery. The abolition of slavery dealt a devastating economic blow to the South following the loss of free labor after the Civil War. So in the late 19th century, an extensive prison system was created in the South in order to maintain the racial and economic relationship of slavery, a mechanism responsible for re-enslaving black workers. Browne describes Louisiana’s famous Angola Prison to illustrate the intentional transformation from slave to inmate:

“In 1880, this 8000-acre family plantation was purchased by the state of Louisiana and converted into a prison. Slave quarters became cell units. Now expanded to 18,000 acres, the Angola plantation is tilled by prisoners working the land—a chilling picture of modern day chattel slavery.”

The abolition of slavery quickly gave rise to the Black Codes and Convict Leasing, which together worked wonders at perpetuating African American servitude by exploiting a loophole in the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which reads:

“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.”

The Black Codes were a set of laws that criminalized legal activity for African Americans and provided a pretext for the arrest and mass imprisonment of newly freed blacks, which caused the percentage of African Americans in prison to surpass whites for the first time. Convict leasing involved leasing out prisoners to private companies that paid the state a certain fee in return. Convicts worked for the companies during the day outside the prison and returned to their cells at night. The system provided revenue for the state and profits for plantation owners and wasn’t abolished until the 1930s.

Unfortunately, convict leasing was quickly replaced with equally despicable state-run chain gangs. Once again, stories of vicious abuse created enough public anger to abolish chain gangs by the 1950s. Nevertheless, the systems of prisoner exploitation never actually disappeared. 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. In a press release he boasted that the inmates would be wearing pink T-shirts emblazoned with messages about drinking and driving. The modern-day version of convict leasing was recently spotted in Georgia, where Governor Nathan Deal proposed sending unemployed probationers to work in Georgia’s fields as a solution to a perceived labor shortage following the passage of the country’s most draconian anti-immigrant law. But his plan backfired when some of the probationers began walking off their jobs because the fieldwork was too strenuous.

There has also been a disturbing reemergence of the debtors’ prison, which should serve as an ominous sign of our dangerous reliance on prisons to manage any and all of society’s problems. According to the Wall Street Journal more than a third of all U.S. states allow borrowers who can’t or won’t pay to be jailed. They found that judges signed off on more than 5,000 such warrants since the start of 2010 in nine counties. It appears that any act that can be criminalized in the era of private prisons and inmate labor will certainly end in jail time, further increasing the ranks of the captive workforce.

Who Profits?
Prior to the 1970s, private corporations were prohibited from using prison labor as a result of the chain gang and convict leasing scandals. But in 1979, Congress began a process of deregulation to restore private sector involvement in prison industries to its former status, provided certain conditions of the labor market were met. Over the last 30 years, at least 37 states have enacted laws permitting the use of convict labor by private enterprise, with an average pay of $0.93 to $4.73 per day. Federal prisoners receive more generous wages that range from $0.23 to $1.25 per hour, and are employed by Unicor, a wholly owned government corporation established by Congress in 1934. Its principal customer is the Department of Defense, from which Unicor derives approximately 53 percent of its sales. Some  21,836 inmates work in Unicor programs. Subsequently, the nation’s prison industry – prison labor programs producing goods or services sold to other government agencies or to the private sector — now employs more people than any Fortune 500 company (besides General Motors), and generates about $2.4 billion in revenue annually. Noah Zatz of UCLA law school estimates that:

“Well over 600,000, and probably close to a million, inmates are working full-time in jails and prisons throughout the United States. Perhaps some of them built your desk chair: office furniture, especially in state universities and the federal government, is a major prison labor product. Inmates also take hotel reservations at corporate call centers, make body armor for the U.S. military, and manufacture prison chic fashion accessories, in addition to the iconic task of stamping license plates.”

Some of the largest and most powerful corporations have a stake in the expansion of the prison labor market, including but not limited to 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. Between 1980 and 1994 alone, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion. Since the prison labor force has likely grown since then, it is safe to assume that the profits accrued from the use of prison labor have reached even higher levels.

In an article for Mother Jones, Caroline Winter details a number of mega-corporations that have profited off of inmates:

“In the 1990s, subcontractor Third Generation hired 35 female South Carolina inmates to sew lingerie and leisure wear for Victoria’s Secret and JCPenney. In 1997, a California prison put two men in solitary for telling journalists they were ordered to replace ‘Made in Honduras’ labels on garments with ‘Made in the USA.'”

According to Winter, the defense industry is a large part of the equation as well:

“Unicor, says that in addition to soldiers’ uniforms, bedding, shoes, helmets, and flak vests, inmates have ‘produced missile cables (including those used on the Patriot missiles during the Gulf War)’ and ‘wiring harnesses for jets and tanks.’ In 1997, according to Prison Legal News, Boeing subcontractorMicroJet had prisoners cutting airplane components, paying $7 an hour for work that paid union wages of $30 on the outside.”

Oil companies have been known to exploit prison labor as well. Following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers and irreparably damaged the Gulf of Mexico for generations to come, BP elected to hire Louisiana prison inmates to clean up its mess. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of any state in the nation, 70 percent of which are African-American men. Coastal residents desperate for work, whose livelihoods had been destroyed by BP’s negligence, were outraged at BP’s use of free prison labor. In the Nation article that exposed BP’s hiring of inmates, Abe Louise Young details how BP tried to cover up its use of prisoners by changing the inmates’ clothing to give the illusion of civilian workers. But nine out of 10 residents of Grand Isle, Louisiana are white, while the cleanup workers were almost exclusively black, so BP’s ruse fooled very few people.

Private companies have long understood that prison labor can be as profitable as sweatshop workers in third-world countries with the added benefit of staying closer to home. Take Escod Industries, which in the 1990s abandoned plans to open operations in Mexico and instead moved to South Carolina, because the wages of American prisoners undercut those of de-unionized Mexican sweatshop workers. The move was fueled by the state, which gave a $250,000 “equipment subsidy” to Escod along with industrial space at below-market rent. Other examples include Ohio’s Honda supplier, which pays its prison workers $2 an hour for the same work for which the UAW has fought for decades to be paid $20 to $30 an hour; Konica, which has hired prisoners to repair its copiers for less than 50 cents an hour; and Oregon, where private companies can “lease” prisoners at a bargain price of $3 a day.

Even politicians have been known to tap into prison labor for their own personal use. In 1994, a contractor for GOP congressional candidate Jack Metcalf hired Washington state prisoners to call and remind voters he was pro-death penalty. He won his campaign claiming he had no knowledge of the scandal. Perhaps this is why Senator John Ensign (R-NV) introduced a bill earlier this year to require all low-security prisoners to work 50 hours a week. After all, creating a national prison labor force has been a goal of his since he went to Congress in 1995. In an unsettling turn of events lawmakers have begun ditching public employees in favor of free prison labor. The New York Times recently reported that states are enlisting prison labor to close budget gaps to offset cuts in federal financing and dwindling tax revenue. At a time of record unemployment, inmates are being hired to paint vehicles, clean courthouses, sweep campsites and perform many other services done before the recession by private contractors or government employees. In Wisconsin, prisoners are now taking up jobs that were once held by unionized workers, as a result of Governor Scott Walker’s contentious anti-union law.

Why You Should Care
Those who argue in favor of prison labor claim it is a useful tool for rehabilitation and preparation for post-jail employment. But this has only been shown to be true in cases where prisoners are exposed to meaningful employment, where they learn new skills, not the labor-intensive, menial and often dangerous work they are being tasked with. While little if any evidence exists to suggests that the current prison labor system decreases recidivism or leads to better employment prospects outside of prison, there are a number of solutions that have been proven to be useful. According to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, having a history of incarceration itself impedes subsequent economic success. Pew found that past incarceration reduced subsequent wages by 11 percent, cut annual employment by nine weeks and reduced yearly earnings by 40 percent. The study suggests that the best approach is for state and federal authorities to invest in programs that reconnect inmates to the labor market, as well as provide training and job placement services around the time of release. Most importantly, Pew says that in the long term, America must move toward alternative sentencing programs for low-level and nonviolent offenders, and issuing penalties that are actually proportionate with real public safety concerns. The exploitation of any workforce is detrimental to all workers. Cheap and free labor pushes down wages for everyone. Just as American workers cannot compete with sweatshop labor, the same goes for prison labor. Many jobs that come into prison are taken from free citizens. The American labor movement must demand that prison labor be allowed the right to unionize, the right to a fair and living wage, and the right to a safe and healthy work environment. That is what prisoners are demanding, but they can only do so much from inside a prison cell. As unemployment on the outside increases, so too will crime and incarceration rates, and our 21st-century version of corporate slavery will continue to expand unless we do something about it.

Jailing Undocumented Immigrants Is Big Business
by Gabriel Lerner / 8/15/11

At dawn on July 19, nearly 40 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Homeland Security Immigration (HSI) agents burst into the home home of Carmen Bonilla, 44. The agents were searching for “Robert” an alleged drug dealer, but ended up terrifying Bonilla and her son Michael, 16, daughter Josefina, 23, daughter-in-law Leticia, 28, and two of her granddaughters. According to Jessica Dominguez, the family’s lawyer, and Jorge Mario Cabrera, spokesperson of the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), the family was subjected to “different levels of physical and verbal abuse,” including screaming, “kicking, beating and aggression.” Their treatment was documented last week by HuffPost LatinoVoices’ Jorge Luis Macías.

What happened to the Bonillas has happened to thousands of immigrant families. Immigration authorities — both local police and federal ICE agents — have embarked on a program to seek out “criminal illegal aliens” and, whether they find them or not, have often rounded up entire families for deportation. Even though the Bonilla family members do not have criminal records, they face removal proceedings before an immigration judge. The family was able to find legal representation and general public support, enabling their release from ICE custody, but undocumented immigrants who are less lucky are routinely sent to prisons and detention centers where ICE will process their paperwork and decide whether they may be released. “If they have a criminal record, particularly a drug or security-related conviction, or a felony or violent crime, or crime of moral turpitude, they will likely have to remain in custody until their trial before the [immigration judge],” explained Aggie R. Hoffman, an immigration attorney.

The Department of Homeland Security pays between $50 to $200 per day per person to local, county and state prisons to house apprehended aliens. A few years ago, a series I wrote for La Opinión showed how prisons in general, and California’s prisons in particular, benefit from the largesse of the federal government and vie for a piece of this lucrative business. At that time, I visited a detention center in Lancaster, Calif., run by the Sheriff of Los Angeles, where immigrants rounded up in raids were housed until their deportation or legal proceedings. The process is supposed to take just a few days, but some of the detainees rushed to tell me that they had been kept there for more than two years. “This happens frequently because the courts are so backlogged; not enough judges to hear the cases of those being held”, explained Hoffman.

But the incarceration trend is not limited to public prisons. Thanks to a concerted lobbying push from the corrections industry, growing numbers of undocumented immigrants could end up in private detention facilities. Over the past three years, immigration politics has seen more restrictive legislation at the state level and the unprecedented enforcement of current laws by the Obama administration. Together, the laws and the stepped up enforcement have the potential to bring tens of thousands of individuals into for-profit jails.

The recent animated video “Immigrants for Sale” by the activist group Cuéntame illustrates some facts behind the connection between the ongoing crackdown on illegal immigration and the for-profit corrections industry. The video follows the trail of money and political power behind this piece of the national immigration debate. Its creators say it’s an attempt to uncover what lies behind the positions and ideologies in a discussion in which statements and accusations made at maximum volume have long replaced the open exchange of ideas and opinions. “Cuéntame means ‘tell me your story,'” said the group’s founder, producer/director Axel Woolfolk Caballero. He said the organization works to make an impact through short videos, docu-series, media campaigns and “interviews from the street or in our studio or sent to us by others.” Cuéntame is part of the Brave New Foundation, which focuses on social justice media. The video states that behind the words and laws, there is an alliance of businesses and politicians called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. Some of ALEC’s members are both the most ardent proponents of anti-immigration laws and representatives of the industries that will benefit directly from having more people behind bars. At least 12 companies involved in the corrections industry are members of the alliance.

ALEC was created in 1978 and is headquartered in Washington, D.C. According to the group’smission statement, it is “a non-profit, private organization dedicated to principles of free markets, limited government, federalism (the proper balance of federal and state government), and individual liberty.” ALEC achieves these aims through a exchange of ideas between state politicians and business leaders, facilitating the legislative process around certain causes dear to the latter. Through one of ALEC’s eight committees, lawyers and business experts actually write laws that are later enacted almost verbatim.

Each year, ALEC produces approximately 1000 legislative proposals, 20 percent of which eventually become laws, according to the group. The Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watchreports: “98% of ALEC’s funding comes from corporations like Exxon Mobil, corporate ‘foundations’ like the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, or trade associations like the pharmaceutical industry’s PhRMA.” Cuéntame focuses on ALEC members’ use of political pressure to achieve more restrictive immigration laws, which require longer detentions and a larger number of detainees. Some of ALEC’s model bills include the “three Strikes” law, changes in mandatory minimum sentences and “truth-in-sentencing,” which would further eliminate the possibility of parole for many inmates. Yet ALEC rejects the idea that it promotes increased construction of private prisons. In a statement last October, the group said, “ALEC’s position on prison overcrowding … is to reduce the non-violent prison population in order to save taxpayer costs.”

One of the best known legislative members of ALEC is State Senator Russell Pearce, a proponent of Arizona’s very restrictive immigration law, SB 1070. According to an investigation by NPR, Pearce took his version of the legislation to an ALEC meeting, where it was then revised and adapted by members of the corrections industry, obtaining their unqualified support. SB 1070 has been imitated by similar laws — some even stricter and more encompassing — in at least five other states. These include HB 56 in AlabamaUtah’s Compact / HB 497Indiana’s SB 590Georgia’s HB 87 and South Carolina’s S 20.

ALEC is now working on a series of laws concerning prisons, including The Housing Out-of-State Prisoners in a Private Prison Act; The Prison Industries Act; The Inmate Labor Disclosure Act; A Resolution on Prison Expenditures; a Model State Bill Prohibiting Wireless Handsets in Prisons; the Targeted Contracting for Certain Correctional Facilities and Services Act; and the Prevention of Illegal Payments to Inmates Incentives Act, details of which are restricted to ALEC members only.

One of ALEC’s members is Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s largest for-profit prison company, founded in 1983. CCA designs, builds, manages and operates correctional facilities and detention centers on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the United States Marshal Service in nearly half of all states, according to the company’s website. According to Cuéntame, CCA houses about 60 percent of the almost 100,000 — up from 14,000 in 2006 — immigrant detainees at any given time.

In 2008, the New Yorker published an expose drawing attention businesses involved in the imprisonment of families with children in the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Texas, a CCA facility. CCA, together with other prison companies GEO Group and Management and Training Corporation, owns more than 200 private prisons with 150,000 beds and makes an annual profit of $5 billion, Cuéntame found. “Private prisons profit like a hotel,” the video states. “The more occupants they can throw in, the more money comes out.”

Leave a Reply