When you think of prison labor, what comes to mind? You might envision inmates making license plates and highway signs or cleaning up road debris. For decades, this perception would have been roughly accurate. Using prison labor in the private sector was illegal, so inmates worked on public projects.
But this dynamic changed dramatically in 1979 with the passing of the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIE). PIE made it legal for private sector companies to contract prison labor to produce goods.
Ever since then, corporations have turned to prison labor at an ever-increasing rate to make their products. At a time when unemployment remains high and millions of Americans look for work, American corporations are capitalizing on America’s sky-high incarceration rates by using inmates to make their products.
The dynamic is a corporation's dream – inmates make as little as 23 cents an hour, never show up late for work, and don’t demand benefits or time off. These inmates don’t account for some small percent of manufacturing production, either.
According to a report done by the Centre for Research on Globalization, prison labor produces 100% of American military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet proof vests, ID tags, and uniforms. These products are made for UNICOR, a for-profit company owned by the United States government.
Prison labor produces 93% of the nation’s paint and paintbrushes, 46% of body armor, 36% of home appliances, 30% of audio equipment, and 21% of office furniture. All of these products are produced for for-profit corporations.
The companies exploiting prison labor are household names – IBM, Boeing, Target, AT&T, Microsoft, Dell, Macy’s, Honeywell, and hundreds more. All of these companies are making billions while paying the people who make their products pennies. This sounds eerily similar to a certain practice made illegal in America with the 13th Amendment.
When confronted with this information, I can envision this being a common reaction: Who cares? They’re inmates. Work keeps them busy, and if they’re locked up they might as well be productive. This line of reasoning is problematic for two reasons.
First, these are private sector jobs that used to belong to free citizens. Americans all need jobs, yet our businesses are giving away thousands of jobs to prisoners rather than free workers. You and I not only miss out on these jobs and wages, but we subsidize the system with our tax dollars.
But here is the real problem with privatized prison labor: it puts a financial incentive on incarceration. When companies can push their profit margins through the roof with prison labor, they suddenly have a huge self-interest in maintaining high incarceration rates. This isn’t speculation, either. Since private sector prison labor was made legal, America’s biggest economic powers have actively lobbied for legislation designed to both imprison more people and lengthen their sentences.
Perhaps no organization shows this to be true more clearly than the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is an enormous lobbyist organization involved in many issues. They write model legislation used to construct policies in economics, international relations, education, agriculture, and a number of other areas.
One of the legislative areas in which they’ve made the greatest impact is in incarceration policies. Backed by both businesses using prison labor and the private prison industry, ALEC is behind many of the laws that have led to America’s massive spike in incarceration rates over the last 40 years.
“ALEC has been a major force behind both privatizing state prison space and keeping prisons filled,” legal writer Alan Greenblatt wrote in 2003. “It put forward bills providing for mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes sentencing requirements. About 40 states passed versions of ALEC's Truth in Sentencing model bill, which requires prisoners convicted of violent crimes to serve most of their sentences without chance of parole.”
On Tuesday, we told you about the private prison industry and how, regardless of violent crime rates, its business model depends on keeping prisons full. As troubling as that is, the private prison labor industry is even more alarming. America has created a situation in which the giants of the private sector all have a self-interest in seeing prisons filled to the brim.
Terrifying is an overused word, but it definitely applies here.