Sliding backward in time

Teamsters in Youngstown, Ohio, were leafletting a low-wage shop targeted for organizing when the first shift arrived for work. In a prison van.

After overcoming their surprise, the Teamsters asked themselves: Do convicts working for a private employer have the right to petition for a union representation election? For that matter, do prisoners working for bosses have the right to call for an OSHA inspection or file for Workers Comp?

Years ago, unions and labor parties helped establish standards of civilized treatment of prisoners. But now those standards are being eroded.

The labor movement, almost from its inception, protested the use of convict labor to drive down wage levels and break strikes. By the 1890s, public opposition spearheaded by labor had compelled many states to abolish the use of prison labor for profit. State after state prohibited the sale of goods made by convict labor. In the 1930s, Congress enacted the Hayes-Cooper and Ashurst-Sumner Acts, which outlawed prison labor and made it a felony to move prison goods across state borders. After that, rather than making products for private profit, inmates made license plates and other products for government or nonprofit agencies.

In the 1970s, Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger pushed for prisons to become "factories with fences." A new series of laws, beginning with the Justice System Improvement Act of 1979, loosened regulations to allow allow prisons to put people to work, provided they paid prevailing wages, consulted unions and didn't displace workers outside prisons.

But do corrections officials actually ensure that inmates are paid prevailing wages and that workers aren't displaced? The evidence suggests the answer is no.

Following the jail break in his district earlier this year, Rep. Don Walko introduced a bill in the Pennsylvania legislature that would ban the use of prison labor on outside contracts. The head of the state corrections system said the bill wasn't necessary because convict labor has been banned in the state for over a century. But the law hasn't kept Pennsylvania from letting private firms hire inmates.

Like those who built the unions and labor parties of previous generations, today's workers might consider again raising the demand of no prison labor. Period. -P.G. 

Earlier this year, six inmates escaped from Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh by digging a tunnel. How did they do it? Why, they used power tools, including a hydraulic jack, that they'd gotten from their employer.

A prisoner works in a factory that produces the eyeglasses for the New York state prison system.
Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein, Impact Visuals

Their employer? Yes, these prisoners had been hired by a private contractor to replace a fire line in the penitentiary. Swartz's Welding made a bid on the job that came in $100,000 below everyone else's -- not hard when you're paying inmates just 41 cents an hour to do the work.

The proliferation of prison labor for private profit has made escape on company time almost inevitable. Nearly 60 years after federal legislation outlawed the use of convict labor for interstate commerce, state governments and entrepreneurs are again teaming up to exploit prisoners. Politicians of both parties have jumped on the bandwagon, eager to be seen promoting the "work ethic" and private enterprise in prisons.

For workers, prison labor means lower wages: None of us can undersell workers who make 41 cents an hour and who get no workers' compensation, unemployment compensation or insurance costs -- not to mention health and safety protections.

The Western Pen story is no aberration: More than 100 companies have contracted out the use of thousands of prisoners in at least 29 states. Arizona has already turned over the labor of 10 percent of its inmates to private businesses. Here are just a few examples of what is happening in prisons across the country:

A Texas company, U.S. Technologies, left 150 workers jobless when it sold off its Austin electronics plant. Just 45 days later, the same businessmen opened up shop in a nearby town -- using prison labor.

 Inmates at the notorious Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana have been de-boning chickens for 4 cents an hour for a private firm.

Business hot shots and politicians argue that this import of Third World conditions is justified because, after all, we need the jobs. In the words of an Arizona state official, "In select industries where America has lost jobs overseas, like shoes and textiles, you could bring these jobs back."

It's true. The San Francisco-based computer firm DPAS closed its data retrieval operation in Mexico in 1994, and transferred the work to inmates of San Quentin prison. "We have a captive labor force, a group of men who are dedicated. And the whole thing is very profitable," says the owner of DPAS. Prison labor is the ultimate reliable workforce.

The chief executive officer of Exchange Group once complained that at his firm's suburban Atlanta factory, "Our problem is getting people to show up every day." He's found a solution: the company now has inmates at the Gadsden Correctional Institution in Florida do the work, putting "Tickle Me Elmo" logos on T-shirts.

Not surprisingly, the Gadsden operation has provoked complaints from the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, which is worried about the loss of union jobs. Exchange Group's CEO is unruffled by the criticism: "We aren't taking anything away from anyone," he argues. "We're getting work done here that before was going offshore."

The U.S. prison population is an enormous -- and growing -- pool of potential cheap labor. Some 1.1 million Americans are in prison today, compared with 316,000 in 1980. Nearly 3 out of every 100 American adults are in prison or on parole or probation. Those numbers are likely to increase further as "three strikes" laws and welfare repeal take their toll. Western Penitentiary, scene of the January jailbreak, is already at 162 percent of capacity.

Keeping all these people in jail costs a lot of money. States are now spending about $25 billion a year on corrections. Caught between anti-tax agitation and anti-prisoner sentiment, a growing number of states are actually requiring prisoners to pay for their own incarceration. And of course, the private use of prison labor and the growing move to privatize prisons have a seductive appeal to state officials who can't be bothered about the loss of jobs and declining living standards for those workers still at liberty.

  Checking out sunglasses at the Federal Prison Industries trade fair. Photo by by Rick Gerharter Impact Visuals

Prison privatization is now a galloping industry that has the support of everyone from Bill Clinton to the Republican right. Some of the country's biggest corporations are investing in the business, including American Express and Goldman Sachs & Co. Stock in CCA has quadrupled in the past four years. And these companies wield growing political clout: CCA, together with Wackenhut Corrections Corp., gave almost $150,000 in campaign contributions to Republicans and Democrats in 1995-96.

So watch out: The state penitentiary could be as deadly to your job as any Mexican maquiladora, thanks to the corporations' perverse reverse NAFTA.

-- Peter Gilmore

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