|~ "Made on the inside to be worn on the outside" ~|
"Prison Blues" work jeans made by inmates in
Oregon. Photo from American Ground
Sometimes it takes just a slight shift of perspective to reveal the insidiousness of certain practices of the capitalist regime. Over the last 30 years or so, outsourcing of all types of jobs, from service to production, has enabled increased profits at the cost of worker exploitation in places outside of the major regions of consumption. As the continued globalization of the corporate production machine has taken root, so too have fair trade and other worker's-rights movements, that have aimed to fight the exploitation of workers around the globe. These actions are beginning to force corporations to seek new outlets of cheap labor, which has led to a turn back to the center: the ever-growing U.S. prison population.
In the past, prison labor was touted as a means of reforming inmates, and providing them with a skill that would aid in their re-integration with society. Today, prison labor is something much different. It's now a source of incredibly inexpensive, highly controllable labor. Prison labor shows up to work on time, receives no benefits, overtime, or other perks, cannot organize, and is rarely paid even minimum wage. If a prisoner refuses these terms, they are reportedly locked up in solitary. A report from Global Research, a Canada-based globalization research center, has begun to frame this "insourcing" of jobs in way that reveals just how underhanded this development in labor practice is.
First a little prison population background is in order. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2011, there were about 1.6 million total prisoners in state and federal prisons in the US. Of those, 1.4 million are male, and almost 1 million are black or hispanic (about 63% of the total prison population). Prisoners in private prisons represent a relatively small fraction of the total number of total prisoners (about 130,000 in 2010), but the privatization of prisons is one of the fastest growing industries in the U.S. All of these prisoners combine to represent around 25% of the world's prisoners, and more than any other country, including China and India, which have 4-5 times the total population of the US.
"So what?" many people might ask. "You do the crime, you do the time. You lose your rights when you go to prison." While such thinking holds truth in today's world, if we take a historical perspective, this line of thought is cast in a more shadowy light. From the Global Research report:
Prison labor has its roots in slavery. After the 1861-1865 Civil War, a system of “hiring out prisoners” was introduced in order to continue the slavery tradition. Freed slaves were charged with not carrying out their sharecropping commitments (cultivating someone else’s land in exchange for part of the harvest) or petty thievery – which were almost never proven – and were then “hired out” for cotton picking, working in mines and building railroads. From 1870 until 1910 in the state of Georgia, 88% of hired-out convicts were Black. In Alabama, 93% of “hired-out” miners were Black. In Mississippi, a huge prison farm similar to the old slave plantations replaced the system of hiring out convicts. The notorious Parchman plantation existed until 1972.
With over 60% of the current prison population represented by blacks and hispanics, it's not a far stretch to see this renewed move to prison labor as an extension of the forced-labor upon which the U.S. was built. Over the last 30 years or so, the exploitation of labor was moved to developing areas of the world, where sweatshop conditions and forced labor remain the norm. One can see the recent case of Apple and its labor problems at the Foxconn factory in China as an example.
Now that prison labor and the legacy it carries is back on the rise in the U.S., the question turns to what kinds of companies are participating in these practices. Unlike in times past, prison labor is not tied to the southern elite. Today, it's the country's elite corporations and even the government itself taking advantage. So who's on the take, and what are they making? Global Research reports:
At least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations that mount their operations inside state prisons. The list of such companies contains the cream of U.S. corporate society: 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.
And some of the primary products:
The federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove assembly; 46% of body armor; 36% of home appliances; 30% of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21% of office furniture; airplane parts, medical supplies, and much more.
With the ability to produce such a variety, it's no wonder that the prison labor industry is profitable and continues to grow. Texas and Florida have the highest numbers of prisoners in private prisons, with Arizona, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and South Dakota seeing at least a 17% increase in private prison populations. With the continued crunch on state and federal budgets, these numbers can be expected to keep going up. Private prisons receive a guaranteed amount of money for each prisoner, and maximize profits by using the least number of guards to watch over the highest possible number of prisoners. By relieving an underfunded and overcrowded public prison system, while at the same time providing incredibly discounted labor to the corporate elite, it appears that private prisons have secured their place within the world's largest prison system. This, while continuing the legacy of slavery and forced labor that so many have fought with their lives to end.
I'll leave you with a parting quote from the Global Research report:
“The private contracting of prisoners for work fosters incentives to lock people up. Prisons depend on this income. Corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners’ work lobby for longer sentences, in order to expand their workforce. The system feeds itself,” says a study by the Progressive Labor Party, which accuses the prison industry of being “an imitation of Nazi Germany with respect to forced slave labor and concentration camps.”