US Prison Labor Boosts Hundreds of Private Companies and Helps Expand the Carceral State

Tennessee, Alabama, Oregon, and Vermont voted in the November elections to ​​prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for crime, while Louisiana did not.

The votes had to do with the hundreds of thousands of incarcerated Americans forced to work for pennies an hour – and sometimes no wage at all. The four approved initiatives won’t bring about any immediate changes in the states’ prisons, but they could remove some barriers to legal challenges over the brutal treatment of prisoners.

There are reasons to doubt much change will come from the votes. Colorado voters made slavery and involuntary servitude unconstitutional in 2018, but the state’s court of appeals just recently decided that the people did not mean to abolish the state Department of Corrections’ prison labor program.

There are also rules in place from the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 (thanks, Bill!) that make it nearly impossible for prisoners to enforce what little rights they have in court. The law requires that incarcerated people exhaust purposefully burdensome and opaque administrative avenues within correctional facilities before they can bring a suit in court As expected, this leads to retaliation from correctional officers.

One would be tempted to say the system is “broken,” but that ignores the fact it’s operating as it’s designed to – with ever-increasing efficiency.

Forced prison labor allows the system to grow without becoming too much of a strain on tax dollars, and it helps private companies maximize profits.

The ACLU released a long report in June, Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers, that’s well worth reading in full for more details into the banality of American evil.

Of the more than 1.2 million people in state and federal prisons, 76 percent are required to work or face additional punishment, including solitary confinement, loss of opportunity to reduce their sentence, loss of family visitation rights, and the inability to pay for basic necessities like bath soap.

Incarcerated workers earn little pay that is often garnished and in seven states they are paid nothing at all for most jobs. Nationally, incarcerated workers produce more than $2 billion a year in goods and commodities and over $9 billion a year in services for the maintenance of the prisons where they are warehoused.

The ACLU research found that the average minimum hourly wage for non-industry work is 13 cents with an average maximum of 52 cents. And being forced to work for basically nothing doesn’t just take a toll on the prisoner. From the report:

Because incarcerated workers’ wages are so low, families already struggling from the loss of income when a family member is incarcerated and removed from household wage earning must step in to financially support an incarcerated loved one. Families with an incarcerated loved one, many of whom are impoverished themselves, spend an estimated $2.9 billion a year on commissary accounts and phone calls.  Over half of these families are forced to go into debt to afford the costs of a relative’s conviction and subsequent incarceration.

Prisoners also work for private companies through the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program. The ACLU estimated that roughly 5,000 prisoners work for private companies through the program, although the number could be much higher. The ACLU filed FOIA requests with the federal government and all 50 states, but the Federal Bureau of Prisons and all but eight states refused to provide data.

Of course the prisoners have no workplace protections, face dangerous conditions with little or no training, and sexual favors are often demanded for better work positions. From the report:

Yet despite overwhelming evidence of exploitation and negligence in prisons, little has been done to protect these workers. The vast majority of incarcerated workers are excluded from federal statutes such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the National Labor Relations Act, that provide for minimum wage, overtime pay, protection from discrimination, and the right to collectively bargain for improved work conditions. Incarcerated workers also are excluded from the right to earn into the social safety net afforded to other workers. Because the work performed by incarcerated workers is excluded as covered employment eligible for Social Security, Medicare, disability insurance, and unemployment insurance benefits, the time people spend working while in prison generally does not contribute toward earning future benefits.

The US prison system violates nearly all of the articles of fundamental ILO Conventions on the Abolition of Forced Labour, of which it is a signatory. Predictably, prisoners are frequently injured and sometimes killed on the job. A few examples from the ACLU report:

  • An incarcerated woman employed at a private egg factory in Arizona was forced to rip her own finger off rather than lose her whole hand to a piece of machinery she had never been trained on.
  • A man who was incarcerated in a state prison in Alabama and sent to work a sanitation job at a private poultry processing plant was killed when a machine caught his arm and pulled him inside. When OSHA later investigated the incident, it found that employees at the plant might not have known how to correctly turn off the machine that killed him.

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic incarcerated workers were widely used to meet the demands of protective equipment production early in the pandemic. They manufactured hand sanitizer, masks, medical gowns, face shields, and other personal protective equipment that they were then prohibited from using to protect themselves. They also worked in morgues, transported dead bodies, dug mass graves, built coffins, washed soiled hospital laundry, disinfected supplies, and cleaned medical units. The ACLU reports:

Incarcerated workers at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in New York were working around the clock in eight- hour shifts to bottle 100,000 gallons of hand sanitizer every week for 65 cents an hour …

Workers in Texas were not paid at all for their work manufacturing face masks and medical gowns for first responders. In Bastrop, Louisiana prisoners were forced to work at a DG Foods poultry processing plant so it didn’t have to temporarily halt operations. If the prisoners refused, their parole eligibility dates were pushed.

A majority of the largest, single-site outbreaks since the beginning of the pandemic have been in jails and prisons causing over 3,000 deaths, although that number is likely undercounted.

The primary beneficiaries of the labor of incarcerated workers are federal, state, and local governments. They offset budget shortfalls by forcing incarcerated laborers to work to maintain the very prisons that confine them. According to the report:

The true costs to operate our prisons are much higher. Incarcerated workers’ labor partially offsets the staggering costs of our country’s bloated prison system. The cost-savings of unpaid and grossly underpaid prison maintenance labor and the revenues from commodities and services generated by imprisoned laborers prevent policy makers and the public from reckoning with the true fiscal costs of mass incarceration.

The current US Vice President Kamala Harris succinctly argued this point when as California attorney general she fought against sentence reductions. In a September 2014 filing in the case, signed by Deputy Attorney General Patrick McKinney but under Harris’ name, the state argued, “Extending 2-for-1 credits to all minimum custody inmates at this time would severely impact fire camp participation—a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.”

Many states also require all public institutions and state agencies to buy manufactured goods from prison industries. In fiscal year 2020, Illinois’ correctional industries program sold over $33.5 million worth of goods and services from incarcerated workers to its own state agencies, state universities, and local governments, while California’s correctional industries program sold over $191 million in manufactured goods, services, and agricultural products produced by incarcerated workers in fiscal year 2020–21.

And it’s not just manufacturing. Prisoners do data entry, repair state-owned vehicles, and wash laundry for public hospitals and universities. In Oregon incarcerated workers staff the state’s DMV call center for $4 to $6 per day.

Organized free labor fought back against prison labor in the late 19th century and early 20th and again in the 1920s and 30s, which led to curbs on this form of modern slavery. The reforms were short-lived, however, and starting in the 1970s, the US began to ramp up prison labor once again.

Private companies are now increasingly benefitting. The Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR) program operates in seven areas: metals, wires and plastics, vehicular repair/manufacturing, data and document conversion services, electronics, woods, and fabrics/materials. Again from the ACLU report:

Wages for these various manufacturing jobs or services range from $0.23 to $1.15 per hour. UNICOR explicitly advertises to private companies, telling them that they can benefit from the “Made in the USA marketing advantage” while eliminating the “waste and instability caused by offshore supply chain interruptions and unstable labor.”  As for services, UNICOR maintains call centers that it outsources to private companies. The program’s website urges these corporations to “imagine…all the benefits of domestic outsourcing at offshore prices. It’s the best kept secret in outsourcing!”

And business is booming. Utah Correction Industries sells goods and services to almost 1,000 private companies, including 3M Company, Allstate Insurance Company, American Apparel, American Express, Apple Inc., AT&T Mobility, Costco, Enterprise Rent- a-Car, FedEx, Frito Lay Inc., Fujifilm North America, Hertz Corporation, Hewlett-Packard, Hickory Farms, Infiniti Motor Company, Little Caesars Enterprises, Lowe’s, KFC, OfficeMax, Pepsi-Co, Procter & Gamble, Sara Lee Corporation, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Xerox Corporation.

Again, the ACLU researchers only received data from eight states, so it is conceivable that the majority of products that consumers buy has some affiliation with prison labor. The conglomerate Dairy Farmers of America that markets 30 percent of the milk produced in the US uses prison labor. So does Leprino Foods Company, which supplies mozzarella to Domino’s, Papa John’s, and Pizza Hut.

Companies that don’t use prison labor are put at a major disadvantage. From the ACLU report:

Direct Trailer and Equipment Company, a Texas-based manufacturer of flatbed trucks, used this to their advantage to undercut their local competitors, eventually driving competitor Lufkin Industries into bankruptcy. A media report in 2010 concluded that Direct Trailer’s use of incarcerated labor allowed it to avoid paying full wages or employee benefits, resulting in an artificially cheap product.

And the companies and prisons are getting, how should we say, more “innovative.” Arizona Correctional Industries has a private labor contract program that allows companies in the state to directly employ prisoners outside of the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program. Two of the largest beneficiaries are Hickman’s Egg Ranch / Hickman’s Family Farms, the fourth-largest US egg producer, and Taylor Farms, which provides salads and vegetables to some of the country’s largest fast food and grocery chains, including Chipotle, Costco, Kroger, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Ralphs, Safeway, Subway, Target, Walmart, and Whole Foods Market.

No wonder there’s been such a push across the country to lock up homeless people, private prison companies keep upping their bribes to elected officials, and stories of corrupt judges keep popping up and are likely only the tip of the iceberg.

The US Inflation Reduction Act has been getting a lot of attention for its subsidies that could be used to lure European industry to American shores, but what about prison labor?

The European Union would seem to be hamstrung by its rules that “the pursuit of financial profit must not be prioritised over the interests of people in prison.” The EU instead largely relies on a system based on dignity and rehabilitation.

The US, without a hint of irony, last year enacted a ban on products made from alleged forced labor in Xinjiang, China. Following the US lead, the EU is working on its own ban. The problem, as NC reader Mikel recently pointed out in comments, is this would effectively end most trade with the US.

Of course there’s no plan for Brussels to direct the measure at Washington despite the US trying to poach its companies. Too bad. It’s going to be tough for European industry to turn down a sales pitch that includes cheap energy, subsidies, and slave labor.

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  1. Bugs

    My ex worked for a travel booking system and the call center was staffed for a time by prison labor in South Carolina. Pennies per hour for the prisoners but decent money for the prison. The prison marketed itself as well. I was flabbergasted that such a thing existed. Not sure if that’s still going on.

  2. Mark Gisleson

    In this regard, the Republicans have morphed into Democrats. Prison labor shames Lincoln’s legacy but is consistent with Jefferson, Jackson and Wilson.

    1. digi_owl

      While i’m foreigner, my impression was that prison labor was specifically exempt from any anti-slavery legislation passed after the civil war.

      1. Lambert Strether

        Amendment thirteen:

        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.

        Diptherio rightly took me to task for saying that the Civil War “ended slavery.” It did, however, end destroy the Slave Power and the mode of production it was based on. (It would be interesting to trace the ideological origins of prison labor, and see whether it started with Jim Crow.

        I did think to search, for obvious reasons, on ‘”prison labor” “woodrow wilson”‘, and came up with this, from the Wayback Machine:

        In the 1890s and 1900s, the prison system became an important cog in a political fund-raising machine developed by Edward M. House, the heir to an enormous cotton and sugar fortune (House would one day go on to national politics, where he helped mastermind the rise of Woodrow Wilson to the presidency). In Texas, the political network that House developed was the power behind the election of four governors: James S. Hogg, Charles A. Culberson, Joseph D. Sayers, and S.W.T. Lanham.

        House’s political machine was the most sophisticated that Texas had ever seen. Using prison personnel, House set up a network of operatives that traveled the state soliciting donations from other powerful sugar titans who used state prisoners to work their fields and thus depended on them for profitability and competitive edge. It became a common practice to have prison employees, especially the traveling inspectors who were supposed to be keeping tabs on the work camps, carry out political missions such as overseeing election activities instead of doing their jobs.

        The interconnections of sugar money, prison labor, and the use of prison personnel to staff the political machine created powerful forces that resisted any attempts to end the convict leasing system or reform the prison system.

        1. Eclair

          I read Michelle Alexander’s ‘The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness,’ about ten years ago, and I have not yet recovered.

  3. Rob

    What I don’t get is why aren’t the corporations using this slave labor being identified by our “free press”?

    1. Eclair

      Rob, there have been, in the past couple of decades, occasional ‘investigative’ pieces in major US newspapers. Obviously, they slide into oblivion.

      The US incarcerates more of its population per capita than any other country. Poverty correlates with incarceration; about 60% made less than $22,000

      But, the US holds fast to the ideology of income being a natural reward for virtue, so the increasing use of gulags for the poor seems inevitable. As does the widening gap (15 years and climbing) of life expectancy between those in the lowest and highest income sectors.

      God forbid that we as a nation should have an industrial policy that includes paying a decent wage and benefits to workers. No, we plow ahead, paying about $40,000 per year per prisoner (Colorado estimate.) The government (he is us) pays for prisoner food, lodging, health care; the corporations, CEO’s, share-holders, private equity (?) reap the profits from their rock bottom labor costs.

      What a country!

      1. Ana B

        We need to start having prisoners teach college courses and code. Once the white collar labor aristocrats and petty bourgeois professionals start losing their jobs then they’ll suddenly grow a conscience. Or at least get proletarianized (which will have the long term effect of further encouraging the violent revolution this country is so long overdue for).

  4. spud

    this article does many good things. it shows what complete rubbish the economic terminology of comparative advantage is. its pure rubbish. the only real comparative advantage is how far will they go with human and environmental degradation.

    it lightly touches on history, to light. lets give credit where its due,

    here is the guy who super charged it.

    “In 1992, William Barr, then United States Attorney General, authored a report, The Case for More Incarceration, which argued for an even further increase in the United States incarceration rate.[33] In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the largest crime bill in U.S. history,[34][8][35] which directly allotted a $9.7 billion funding increase to prisons and introduced the three-strikes law, assigning unprecedentedly long sentences (25 year to life minimum) to third-time convicts.

    As the prison population continued to grow steeply throughout the 1990s, the profit margins of private prison corporations such as CCA and GeoGroup continued to increase.[7] Throughout the 1990s, the CCA and GeoGroup were both significant donors to the American Legislative Exchange Council.[36] In 1995, Congress passed another piece of ALEC-influenced legislation, the Prison Industries Act, allowing corporations to pay prison laborers less than the federal minimum wage and divert the difference to constructing facilities for further prison labor.[37][38]

    By the end of 1999, the U.S. had a total incarcerated population of 2,026,596.[39] This included 71,206 prisoners held in privately operated facilities, accounting for 5.5% of state and 2.8% of federal prisoners.[39] In 1999, nearly 43% of all sentenced inmates were African-American men, and an estimated 9% of African-American men in their late 20s were in prison.[39]”

    “Americans need to know the truth: mass incarceration and private for profit prisons, thanks bill clinton: kamala harris also likes forced prison labor: It was former President Bill Clinton (Democrat) who started to load up detention centers and jails with immigrants, CIVIC noted. “In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which doubled the number of people in immigration detention from 8,500 each day in 1996 to 16,000 in 1998. Today, the detention population has increased fourfold to approximately 34,000 individuals each day, due in part to a congressionally mandated lock-up quota”

    Mass Incarceration, Prison Labor in the United States

    these articles are just the tip of the iceberg on how bill clinton took a meat axe to americas civil society. and his type is not done yet.

    if the american people are so naive that they think they can change the future, whilst ignoring the past, someday they will get a stalin or a mao that will do it for them, the hard way.

    till then the thatherites, blairites, clintonites will continue to pull the stirings of government, till there is nothing left.

    to allow them to run come join bill clinton and his master class on yahoo news, just invites more of the same on our country and the world.

  5. Felix_47

    What about child support? So many of the people I deal with have a bunch of kids while the fathers are in prison for long periods of time. And it damages one more generation. And when the fathers get out employers will not hire them. It would be better, one would think, for these organizations to focus on federalizing generous child support for prisoners perhaps subsidized by the employers of prison labor.

    1. spud

      the free traders running america sign contracts with the fascist private prison industrial complex, to keep the beds full to maximize profit from forced prison labor, and a full bed, is a profitable bed.

      so keeping the families in grinding poverty sure helps future profits.

  6. Bill Malcolm

    And the US bangs the human rights drum on the Chinese supposedly using Uighurs as slave labour.

    But their own prisoners in jail? Work ’em like dawgs for nothing or not much more. All to benefit the Man, democracy, capitalism, free enterprise, whatever you want to call it — the system. No wonder the Chinese pay scant attention to Americans huffing and puffing about how wonderful and pure and inclusive the USA is. It’s obvious bullshit just on the face of it.

    People living in glass houses should not throw bricks, they say. But the USA does it all the time without irony.

    1. Lambert Strether

      > People living in glass houses should not throw bricks, they say. But the USA does it all the time without irony.

      Or accountability. That’s the function of “the rules-based international order.” However, “the rules-based domestic order” seems to be fraying a bit at the edges….

      1. Stephen

        As a foreigner I am careful on these types of topics. The British prison system is hardly a paragon of virtue either.

        However, the comment about glass houses is spot on. I lost count of the number of articles criticizing the Russian prison system when Britney Griner was convicted. Zero reflection on this type of situation, nor on Guantanamo Bay.

        In similar ilk, people here talk about the Wagner Group as (wrongly) all being ex felons released from the “hell hole” of Russian prisons. Some of them are, of course. Zero reflection though that the British Army under Wellington (arguably its most effective period) was composed heavily of ex convicts and he even referenced that plus stated what fine men the army had turned them into. In the modern era, the British Army similarly claims not to turn away ex convicts and has been known to recruit within prisons too. It just does not get talked up a lot.

        Hypocrisy seems a very common human trait.

    2. Jim

      @Bill Malcolm,

      “People living in glass houses should not throw bricks, they say. But the USA does it all the time without irony.”

      All it takes is faith.

  7. LawnDart

    AP Investigation: Prison boss beat inmates, climbed ranks

    I kinda wonder what this guy did to get AP’s attention, painted as though he were some sort of exception: there are many like him throughout the sadist’s playpens of USA jails and prisons.

    The prison workers are broken people, broken much in the way one would break unruly livestock– through force and coersion, and the goon squads are but one application of the enforcement mechanism: a beat-down is only a tool; at the more extreme end, rape, murder, or simply the threat thereof, are other devices which may be utilized in order to bring a prisoner into compliance with one’s objectives. Sometimes the objective is simply to set an example, a demonstration of power and control.

    To refuse to work is really not an option for these workers; as Gallagher’s post mentions, “privileges” are withheld from refuseniks, with privileges being a euphemism for what we outside those walls might consider to be essentials. Further resistance will likely result in the forceful, deliberate compromise of certain aspects of the non-compliant’s physical and psychological integrity: it is unwise to test this, for prison not only may break one’s body, but one’s principles.

  8. JBird4049

    Let me just mention that California’s prison system, beloved of Kamala Harris for its prison labor, is also brutal; despite news and legal investigations has had more than one illegal prison gladiatorial fights for the guards amusements and (again very, very illegal) sterilization programs both of multiple years in more than one prison. I do need to re-investigate this, but finding out about this in detail is really hard especially as the news media, which occasionally used to cover this a little, no longer does so. However, every ten to twenty years it oozes to the surface after a lawsuit or story. It is also not always in some state prison in the boonies, but in places like the San Francisco county jails with its gladiatorial fights with its scandals twice in a decade.

    It it like some kind of poisonous dandelions that gets chopped and removed only to reappear somewhere or somewhen else. Then again, the prison guards union is the most powerful union in the state and it likes to get its way and usually does.

    But lets bring up Louisiana. The state that has the largest prison labor system in the world with its infamous Angola state prison. No other country or American state equals it. And people insist on blaming the citizens, usually Black, of the state for being so criminally violent. Responsibility is a thing, but lock up masses of people in hellish conditions mostly to make a profit and don’t be surprised if they start to imitate you.

    I could talk about the other states like Florida, which are likely even more hellish, but it’s a sunny day with a break in the rain. Today, I just really don’t want to gaze into our country’s for real heart of darkness again.

  9. Copper Chromate

    Thanks for this comprehensive write-up. We don’t get too much ‘Made in USA’ goods in this neck of the woods. But when next I see something bearing that label, here is hoping this piece comes to mind.

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