Fed Bill Would Allow More, and Cheaper, Prison Labor

by Carey Seal
       M AJOR NEWSPAPERS, The Sun included, have devoted much space to diatribes against Chinese industry’s use of prison labor. Coverage of prison labor in America, however, is sparse and superficial.

       Yet private industries’ subcontracting of manufacturing and service work to state prison agencies has almost imperceptibly become big business in the U.S., and new proposed federal legislation, if passed, will add federal prisons to the mix.

       Wisconsin, Oregon, California, Tennessee, Kansas, Ohio, Nevada and Texas have been in the forefront of offering state prison labor to private industry. Some states are promoting their prison labor force to industry as an alternative to taking jobs overseas for cheap labor.

       Prisoners are being employed as data entry clerks, telemarketers, circuit board assemblers, furniture or clothing makers, and order-takers, among other jobs. In a report published by the National Institute of Justice, Jeff Black, TWA’s director of area reservations, is quoted as saying, “We know that [prisoners trained as ticket-reservation agents] are not going to be late for work because of a traffic jam on the freeway. That kind of dependability is important to us.”

       Prisoners do not retain all their earnings; fiscal arrangements differ from state to state. After federal and state taxes are withheld, somewhere between 41% and 80% of a prisoner’s wages is applied toward costs of incarceration; the balance may go toward support for prisoners’ families, victim compensation, prisoner “allowance,” and/or a savings account for the prisoner to access when leaving prison. The “allowance” is becoming more important as some state prison systems, strapped for cash, are requiring prisoners to make co-payments for medical care and prescriptions; in the state of Washington, prisoners are even charged a $10 UPS delivery fee to ship their belongings when they are transferred from one facility to another.

       The corporations that employ the captive labor force typically pay the prison a fee per prisoner, further defraying costs of incarceration.

       While work for private industry is usually performed inside the prison, minimum-security prisoners are being transported to factories outside the prison.

       Though the income and on-the-job training offered through prison labor jobs appeals to many, critics of the practice say there aren’t enough restrictions to prevent abuses. In California, for example, if a prisoner refuses to work, he or she is moved to disciplinary housing and loses canteen privileges and “good time” credit toward reducing the length of his or her sentence.

       Critics of the growing prison labor trend also say it has disturbing implications for workers “on the outside.” How can they compete with a captive workforce that receives no benefits and accepts low wages? The use of inmate labor, they say, is thus a question of workers’ rights as well as prisoners’ rights.

New Federal Legislation

       If some members of the House of Representatives have their way, American workers will be thrown into even more direct competition with inmate labor. H.R. 2558, sponsored by Reps. McCollum (R.), Hyde (R.), and Scott (R.), would open federal prisons to contractual arrangements with for-profit corporations and allow the products produced to be sold freely on the open market.

       Under the terms of the proposed law, inmates could be paid less than the minimum wage if the industrial operation in question is deemed to be in competition with foreign rather than domestic business.

       Companies contracting work to inmates would be required to continue employing their existing non-inmate U.S. employees, unless in the judgment of the Attorney General there are “exigent circumstances.”

       Rep. Robert Ehrlich could not be reached for comment on the bill, and a member of Rep. Benjamin Cardin’s legislative staff said Mr. Cardin would not be taking a position on the bill until it emerges from the Judiciary Committee.

Prison Labor in Maryland

       The private-sector-contracted prison labor industry is flourishing in Maryland. A firm called Powercon is now subcontracting work to the Hagerstown Correctional Facility’s metal shop, according to State Use Industries project administrator Cliff Benser. Mr. Benser said in a telephone interview that he has “four or five” new Prison Industry Enhancement (PIE) Program projects in development; some may be operational as early as this month. He said he notifies the Maryland AFL-CIO about each project and said the union has never, to his recollection, raised objections. The AFL-CIO official who might have been able to confirm this statement was on vacation.

       Prison labor for profit is closely connected with another trend: the increasing abundance of private prisons operated for-profit on a contractual basis. For example, U.S. Technologies, Inc., one of the largest PIE contractors, now has an “exclusive arrangement” with Wackenhut Corrections Corp., a for-profit operator of private prisons, to contract work to Wackenhut-run prisons.

       Also, building prisons and supplying their needs has become a huge U.S. growth industry. Long distance phone carriers are jockeying for contracts to install pay phones in prisons; prisoners have to call collect, and a single prison phone can gross $15,000 a year--five times more than a phone installed on the street.

History of U.S. Prison Labor

       In 1885, three-quarters of U.S. prison inmates were working at jobs of some kind, with the majority laboring under prison contract or leasing arrangements with private employers.

       Protests of prisoners’ rights groups and organized labor and abuses of prison labor in the early part of this century prompted the federal government, in the 1930s, to restrict the transportation of prison-made goods across state lines and to set limits on the percentage of products federal agencies can procure from prison factories.

       In 1979, however, the Justice System Improvement Act created the PIE certification program, which allowed state corrections departments to form “partnerships” with private firms and freed “certified” products made in prison factories from the earlier federal regulations governing prison-made goods. PIE rules stipulate that inmate workers be paid “local prevailing wages,” and that the interests of other parties that could be adversely affected be protected.

       These PIE programs are now operational in prisons across the country--even in juvenile facilities such as the Gainesville State School in Texas.

       Work for outside firms is supposed to be strictly voluntary; prison officials claim that inmates are eager to work for the corporations. This enthusiasm could stem from the fact that prisoners are awarded “good time” for working on PIE projects and thus are released earlier; thus the length of an inmate’s sentence can be tied to whether or not he or she cooperates with the for-profit work program.

        Unlike the proposed new federal legislation, PIE operations are required to pay their workers minimum wage or the prevailing wage in the area for similar work, whichever is higher, and to consult with local labor organizations about the impact of the prison factory on local labor.

       Proponents of allowing for-profit companies to use prison labor claim private enterprise can make prisoners more productive, and therefore later more employable, than can government-run prison work programs. Opponents, however, counter that it is immoral and unethical for private enterprise to make a profit from prison labor, and say that any proceeds should go toward such purposes as victim compensation and prisoner rehabilitation rather than to overpaid CEOs and stockholders.

Constitutionality Issues

       The 13th amendment abolished slavery in the U.S. except for people convicted of a crime. “Legally allowing [criminals] to be subjected to slavery and involuntary servitude opened the door for mass criminalization,” wrote Julie Browne in her thesis, “The Labor of Doing Time.” Ms. Browne traces the development of the so-called “Black Codes,” known as the “Slave Codes” before the Civil War, as a way to re-enslave freed African-Americans by criminalizing behaviors more likely to be found among them than among whites.

       Critics point out that much of the increase in the prison population over the past two decades has come from the disproportionate criminalization of drug practices that are more common among African-Americans. This has resulted in a corresponding disproportionate increase in the number of African-American inmates available for cheap, and increasingly for-profit, prison labor.

Carey Seal is a senior at Gilman School. He will attend Yale University in the fall. Alice Cherbonnier also contributed to this article.

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This story was published on June 1, 2000.