Albion Monitor /News
[Editor's note: For additional information, see " Prison Labor Boon for Employers, Report Says," and "Doing Time, 9 to 5" in previous editions of the Monitor.]

Prison Labor is Multi-Billion Dollar Industry

by Farhan Haq

In state and an expanding number of privately run facilities, prison labor has become big business
(IPS) NEW YORK-- They make your hotel reservations by phone in New Mexico, they stitch blue jeans in Oregon, and they even make golf balls for you in Hawaii. They're U.S. prisoners, and they could be the new face of U.S. labor, some prison analysts warn.

Labor from prisoners, working either in state-run jails or in an expanding number of privately run facilities, has become big business. Years ago, prison labor amounted to little more than the manufacture of license plates on cars and some small crafts. Today, prisoners produce goods for the market in 30 of the 50 states, which in 1995 netted a total value of $1.81 billion.

Although the U.S. prison population -- which has already grown to more than 1.6 million people, about half of whom are African- American -- has surged in recent years, the prison workforce has increased even faster. One study, by the Correctional Industries Association, noted that the number of U.S. prisoners rose by 221 percent from 1980 to 1994, but the number of inmates employed in industry grew over the same period by 358 percent.

In many states, prisoners must pay back most the money they earn to defray the cost of their "room and board" and to pay restitution
Some analysts worry that business is booming for all the wrong reasons. Even as many low-wage jobs are moving away from U.S. workers outside the world of prison bars, those who are detained within -- who have limited ability to seek higher wages or better working conditions -- are picking up the slack.

"They are literally a captive labor force," says Jenni Gainsborough, public policy director of the National Prisons Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. Many of them do not earn the minimum wage ($4.25 an hour last year), while others earn only that amount, she says.

But even with the low pay, the labor programs are often popular with prisoners. "A lot of the prisoners who participate like these programs because their day passes more quickly, they earn money, and they can pick up a skill," says Robert Gangi, director of the Correctional Association of New York, which monitors that state's prisons.

The problem, Gangi and Gainsborough agree, is not with allowing prisoners to work -- which both contend can be a useful means of job training for criminals -- but with the low wages and lack of adequate health standards that accompany prison labor.

"Some inmates think this is a rip-off," Gangi says. He notes that there is the potential for lesser enforcement of health and safety standards at prison workplaces than outside. Even the current level of regulations governing their working conditions could be cut under proposals now before the Republican Congress, Gainsborough warns.

Even as matters now stand, prisoners receive little of the money they earn working either for the state or in facilities run by such private-sector corrections firms as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and Wackenhut. In many states, prisoners must pay back most the money they earn -- as low as two dollars an hour in Colorado -- to defray the cost of their "room and board" and to pay restitution to the victims of their crimes.

Journalist Reese Erlich noted, in the magazine Covert Action Quarterly, that such costs can take back about 80 percent of the meager wages the prisoners earn. By contrast, the labor the prisoners perform is often considerably cheaper than in the outside world: Erlich noted that Texas' Lockhart Technologies fired some 150 workers who constructed circuit boards in Austin in 1995 because it could relocate those jobs to a Wackenhut-run prison where detainees did the work for the minimum wage.

"Workers working in prison are competing with workers outside prison under conditions in which (prison) workers cannot organize, cannot bargain collectively, and are at a disadvantage to obtain any concessions from their employer, who is also their imprisoner," says Pharis Harvey, executive director of the Washington-based International Labor Rights Fund.

As a result, he argues, prison labor threatens to lower the bargaining power -- and thus worsen the wages and working conditions -- of U.S. labor as a whole, with the detainees offering an alternative to the free laborers outside.

"We have to ban the use of prisoners to make goods which also compete with free labor," Harvey argues, or risk a further lowering of labor rights overall. Short of that, he says, "we need tighter control over the wage rates and pay of those prisoners who are working."

"While arrests and convictions are steadily on the rise, profits are to be made -- profits from crime. Get in on the ground floor of this booming industry now!"
There is an additional problem, Gainsborough argues: What if private firms like Wackenhut and CCA earn so much from running prison facilities that they have an incentive to keep people in jail? By "handing over the business of locking people up to people who have a financial incentive to lock up more people," she says, states may wind updetaining prisoners even longer than before.

For a privatized facility to be profitable, it must have a substantial occupancy level, perhaps as high as 90 percent. The need for high occupancy could affect treatment of prisoners. As the Washington-based newsletter CounterPunch disclosed recently, the State Department of Corrections in New Mexico found that CCA-run prisons "issued more disciplinary reports -- with harsher sanctions imposed, including loss of time off for good behavior -- than those run by the state."

"There is always the potential for mischief," Harvey adds. "While prison labor programs are all voluntary, the possibility of coercion cannot be dismissed."

For that reason, the International Labor Organization (ILO), in its Convention 29 on labor rights, explicitly bans prison labor. The United States has not ratified that convention.

Nevertheless, groups that study the privately run prisons have found conditions there generally better than in their state-run equivalents. Most are minimum-security prisons, where detainees are near the end of their terms and thus eager to cooperate

"They are making a real effort to make these facilities very good," Gainsborough says. "My theory is that (the private firms) are doing this to make these private prisons showplaces" to prompt further expansion, she adds.

That effort is working for now. Although the private firms only operate, in Gainsborough's words, "a small but growing percentage" of prison beds -- some 62,000, or about 5 percent of the prison population -- their reputations, and stock prices, are surging. Wackenhut was recently listed by Forbes magazine as one of the 200 best small companies to invest in in the nation.

CounterPunch cites one brochure, issued at a 1995 conference organized by New York's World Research Group, which gave an upbeat summary of the situation: "While arrests and convictions are steadily on the rise, profits are to be made -- profits from crime. Get in on the ground floor of this booming industry now!"

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Albion Monitor February 18, 1997 (

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