Friday, November 30, 2007

Freedom Is Slavery

Tucson, Arizona. Using prison inmates as a source of labor dates back forever. In the 1800s the US had profit making prisons that made good money literally working their prisoners to death. As society progressed, the practice transformed into government run systems designed to accomplish several desirable outcomes at once. First, research has shown that giving inmates jobs reduces their problems while inside and enhances chances of success after release. At the Federal level, we have the US Government program, Federal Prison Industries, FPI, now called UNICOR.

A perusal of their 2006 Annual Report shows they are a $700 million dollar business serving the US government. Inmates at UNICOR make between twenty-one cents and $1.15 an hour. The company employs over 20,000 prisoners.

I don’t have an issue with UNICOR, a non-profit organization hiring inmates in a program designed to provide training and activity for inmates and products for the US government. Any reasonable taxpayer would likely approve of a non-profit company hiring inmates in a publicly funded prison to generate an additional revenue stream that reduces the prison’s need for public support. Almost every state has a flavor of this, and ours has Arizona Correctional Industries, a division of the Arizona Department of Corrections, which has an online catalog for a variety of products produced by those behind bars.

(Inmates reporting to work on a farm) We are talking about borderline slave labor, lucrative indeed. I'm not complaining about the systems where the state uses inmate labor to recover some of the costs of incarcerating them. If the proceeds return to the state, fine.

I have an issue with developments far more problematic and alarming. As part of our evolution from the USA to the UCA (United Corporations of America), we have created private FOR PROFIT prison systems that negotiate deals with private for profit corporations to force inmates to work real jobs for real companies for almost nothing, creating what is growing to be known as the Prison Industrial Complex, an expanding and malignant machine focused solely on profiting on the backs of an inmate population that has no ability to defend itself against essentially unbridled exploitation of its labor.

Prisoners manufacture clothing, auto parts, electronics, and furniture. Honda has paid inmates $2 an hour for what would cost $20 to $30 an hour on the outside. Konica has used prisoners to repair copiers for less than 50 cents an hour. Toys R Us used prisoners to restock shelves, and Microsoft (has since stopped) used them to pack and ship software. TWA used prisoners to handle reservations. AT&T has used prison labor for telemarketing. Clothing made in California and Oregon prisons is exported to other countries. Other jobs include desktop publishing, digital mapping and computer-aided design work.

Laws now permit the use of convict labor by commercial enterprises, and companies have responded to the availability of a workforce requiring minimal pay, no health or unemployment insurance, vacation time, sick leave, overtime, pension. They can hire, fire, and reassign workers at will.

Prisoners offer the ultimate in a flexible and dependable work force. "If I lay them off for a week," said Pierre Sleiman, owner of the T-shirt company CMT Blues that hires inmates at California's Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, "I don't have to worry about someone else coming and saying, 'Come work for me.'"

Inmates who fail to work as instructed face consequences such as denial of a reduced sentence for otherwise "good behavior." Those who object can be denied prison privileges (recreation, etc.) or even punished. Donovan put two inmates in solitary confinement for making a fuss about working. CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) and Wackenhut, for profit corporations running many prisons, commonly cut corners that can border on brutality as the executives minimize food and housing expenses to maximize profit.

It gets worse. Companies have used prison labor to replace real workers, resulting in layoffs. Lockhart Technologies, Inc. closed its plant in Austin, Texas, dismissing its 150 workers, and hired inmates at the state prison in Lockhart. IBM, Compaq and Dell get circuit boards from the same prison, thereby not using outside employees to make them. The companies pay the prison the federal minimum wage. The profit making prisons keep 80 percent for themselves.

Linen service workers have lost their jobs when their employer contracted with the prison laundry to do the work. Recycling plant workers lost their jobs when prisoners were brought in to sort through hazardous waste, often without proper protective gear.

The United States incarcerates more of its population than any nation. China, that beacon of civil rights and due process, has over three times the population of the US, yet it has less than three-fourths the number of inmates. Five percent of the planet, the US incarcerates 25% of those in prison across the world. In the United States, one is six times more likely to be behind bars than in the rest of the world. We spend $62 billion per year on corrections, and we've created a labor gold mine of defenseless cheap labor.

It gets worse. The story is not about the present, but the future. All trends point in the wrong direction. Forecasts not only predict a growth in inmate population, but an increase in the RATE of incarceration (details). What are we doing? The country based on freedom incarcerates its population at six times the rate of the rest of the planet. Attorneys can talk the legal stuff, but I fear we've shifted from a nation of individual freedom where organizations are kept in check to a nation where individuals are kept in check so organizations can be free to exploit them. Oh, wait. I'm just having a nightmare.

I will wake up any minute and find a country with a prosperous middle class, widespread support for well funded education and health care, and a fiscally responsible government that serves the interests of all of its citizens.

Of course our leaders recognize the importance of education. Our executive branch would never lie to invade a country and steal its assets. We would never implement tax cuts for the ultra rich, and suspend habeas corpus? Clearly these concepts are an illusion. I can wake up any time now.

I know it's a dream because the House passed a law to have a bunch of people craft language to identify criminal thinking that leads to domestic terrorism. The first WTC bombing was not domestic terrorism nor was 911. Dig into domestic terrorism actually occurring and you find an abortion fanatic, a screwed up white boy, some high school kids, and a psychopath in college.

Since I'm fantasizing, why not go whole hog including the postage and extend the trends of gutting education, increasing ignorance and poverty, and raising that incarceration rate dramatically by new laws that imprison individuals with a profile suggesting they're about to commit a terrorist act? What does that profile look like? Perhaps it's individuals with little education living in poverty and despair. Let's imprison half the country and force them into slavery for corporations.

We split the world into four segregated classes:

1. The ruling elite that own the planet
2. Sycophant suck ups that want to be class 1 that manage class 3.
3. Non-incarcerated workers (soldiers, prison guards, hotel maids, etc.)
4. The inmates

What a bunch of over dramatic nonsense. Never mind. What I've posted doesn't point to anything of substance. We're fine.


Blogger Art Jacobson said...

This is a killer post,thanks.

I've met plenty of working class conservatives whose mantra is "get the Government off my back."

Well,it's off. Government functions are being handed off to the private sector and their jobs are being shifted to the cons.

Where are the muckrakers when we need them? Where are the revolutionaries?

11/30/2007 3:42 PM  
Blogger Dustin said...

I am at a loss for words.

11/30/2007 3:50 PM  
Blogger John Rose said...

This is a hugely under-reported story. A large part of the reason we have such draconian incarceration penalties is because of the prison-industrial complex. Even if they didn't profit off of inmate work power, prisons rake in money with each inmate they hold. No wonder they aren't very interested in rehabilitation.

The sad thing is how easy it is for these special interests to influence the public into supporting their agenda, and how they've inspired so much hate towards criminals, who are just a product of society and their upbringing.

11/30/2007 3:55 PM  
Anonymous The Navigator said...

Repeating myself, my god, you keep breaking into new turf.


Like Dustin, I don't what to say, except thanks for an extraordinary and powerful post.

Again, thank you for what you do. Your voice is powerful. I hope you keep speaking out. Your range of material is breathtaking.

11/30/2007 4:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John is right about the lack of awareness of this situation, and I agree with everything here.

The public are pathetic sheep. They did some poll, and more people could name the kids of Angela Jolie than state the name of our Vice President.

God help us.

11/30/2007 10:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Prison Industrial Complex fits in with the war on drugs/terrorism and incarcerating those who would vote against the ruling elite. Perhaps we will stop pretending to have elections.

Corporate boards run the country, and it will imprison more and more of its citizens. Inside prison or outside, you are born into millions or you are a slave.

12/01/2007 7:29 PM  
Blogger Michael Bryan said...

Blew my hair back, Matt.

I don't know that the prison-industrial complex is the reason for the growth in the prison population so much as the result. It is our propensity for incarceration for victimless crimes, self-medication outside the reach of the medical-industrial complex, and careful cultivation of a permanent underclass that feeds the maw of our voracious prisons. Anytime you have that much raw material, you are going to get vermin feeding on it.

12/01/2007 11:23 PM  
Blogger roger said...

Let me add also, GREAT POST.

I have been thinking about private prisons for awhile, but had not made the connection with slave labor until I saw a NY Times story about prison labor being used to pick the veggies in Colorado that were rotting because sources of undocumented labor had gone away....AND now.

The thing that I think Art gets at that is so right on is that privatization is arguably the worst of goverment power. In this case government is directly subsidizing an industry...and choosing which industry makes it and gets the contract. There is very little that is "market" based about privatized prisons...they are in fact government programs and would not exist without the state. They sacrifice ethics, healthcare, oversight, and the provision of the "public good" by taking a purely government function and giving it away to companies. There are barriers to entry.

Privatization is closer to socialism than it is to a free market.

12/02/2007 8:32 AM  
Blogger x4mr said...

In my opinion we have a perfect storm of the elements the comments have noted. I agree with Michael that the prison industrial complex, certainly in the beginning, did not drive the prison population but reacted to it.

I'm no historian, but my sense is that Nixon's war on drugs, actually a strategy to disenfranchise a left leaning group, and then Reagan's tossing large numbers of the mentally ill into the streets (don't know much about that), and then the privatization Art and Roger mention, and we have it.

We move in the wrong direction towards that which cannot work, but I am baffled on what can turn the ship.

Nationally, inflation adjusted wages have stagnated for decades for almost everyone. Personal debt has skyrocketed to make up the difference. How long can this continue?

12/02/2007 9:55 AM  
Blogger Liza said...

This is an excellent post, x4mr, on a subject that is almost untouched even by independent media. I have seen only a couple of television documentaries in recent years about prison privatization and they were on either Free Speech TV or LINK. Every now and again Amy Goodman has a related story on "Democracy Now." You have to really go looking for this to find anything.

What I find so alarming is that the rate of incarceration is increasing with the demand for prison labor as well as the demand for prisoners. Yes, "for profit" prisons do, in fact, create a demand for prisoners. Not only do they create a demand for prisoners, they can also create a demand for "good" prisoners such as illegal immigrants who are a non-violent and relatively easy to manage prison population.

However, the average citizen who obeys the law does not expect to go to prison and does not give a great deal of thought to who is in prison and who isn't and what prisoners do with their time while incarcerated. Most of us assume that,in most cases, whoever is in prison did something to deserve to be there, had a fair trial, and received a just sentence. We also tend to think that prison labor is rehabilitative and will benefit the prisoner when he is released. Because almost everything that happens to prisoners is outside the radar of those who are not involved, this is one of the easiest populations to exploit.

The other aspect of this that should be extremely worrisome is that it is once again the poorest of Americans (or immigrants) who are the most vulnerable. Those who could not afford to buy some of that "reasonable doubt."

I read this post before there were any comments but waited to see what everyone else said. This is a great thread and very openminded.

I think that it is very important for all of us to understand that what happens to people on the periphery of our society will sooner or later happen to us when the forces of greed, corruption, and absolute power are ignored and allowed to grow exponentially as they have in recent years.

Anonymous (10:46 PM), you are spot on. God help us.

12/02/2007 11:29 AM  
Blogger x4mr said...

Good remarks. The problem is going to get worse, and Liza is right that it occurs very much under the radar.

It is systemic and exploits minorities, the poor, and immigrants.

Just so you know, Liza, I put fifty times the effort into this story compared to the next one.

12/02/2007 6:05 PM  
Blogger Liza said...

That's why people read your blog, x4mr, for posts like this one.

12/03/2007 10:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel the CCA systems are just awful. It is OK to work the inmates for little to no pay. What is really awful is the treatment of these inmates. Sure they are paying their debt to society but, the facilities that CCA own are some of the worst I have every read about. The torture of the inmates with endless long term solitary confinement. Their practices are totally inhumane and nobody seems to give a damn. There are groupd all over this country protest the treatment of animals but, nobody seem to want to do anything about the people in our prison systems. The solitary confinement is a form of torture and is counter-productive to rehabilitation.

11/29/2008 8:07 PM  
Anonymous Angie said...

Nice post which Prisoners manufacture clothing, auto parts, electronics, and furniture. Honda has paid inmates $2 an hour for what would cost $20 to $30 an hour on the outside. Konica has used prisoners to repair copiers for less than 50 cents an hour.Thanks a lot for posting this article.

5/06/2012 8:50 AM  

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