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'Volunteer' Prison Labor

by Daniel Burton-Rose

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Michael Matthews is a medium security prisoner at the Dayton Correctional Institute, a 480-man facility for both adults and youth in south Dayton. Originally from Missouri, he's been in Ohio's penal system for twelve years and at Dayton Correctional for seven. Like many of Ohio's prisoners, he spends at least six hours a day working in a state-run factory within the prison. With much of the rest of his time, he cares for a 150' by 40' plot of garden vegetables whose yield helps feed those residing at a local homeless shelter.

Matthews' gardening is his pastime, but it is also community service. He is lucky because he actually is interested in his community service job; he weeds and waters the plot in his scarce spare time, and reads books on low-maintenance gardening. But for the most part, community service jobs for Ohio prisoners are menial and uninteresting, and prisoners acquire no new skills. Even worse, prisoners increasingly are coerced into contributing their labor by prison administrators offering "incentives," so that volunteer work threatens to become just another form of prison labor in the state of Ohio. Once that happens, it will take its place alongside the work prisoners do for slave wages for local and state governments, and for private businesses seeking legal ways to pay workers as little as they can. And the sort of gratification and growth Matthews experiences by contributing his labor will seem a utopian fantasy.

Microsoft, once it was exposed, dropped using prisoners to package products like Windows 95
At 47,000, Ohio's prison population is the fifth largest in the country. Last year the state of Ohio farmed out more than 1.9 million hours of these prisoners' volunteer labor to various public and nonprofit entities. "Mostly we do it for churches and schools, and for the state of Ohio," says the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections' media contact Joe Andrews. "Availability of inmates, distance from the prison, all those things come into play, but we'd like to do what we can."

By contrast, for-profit use of prison labor is not yet widespread in Ohio, although it is on the rise in Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and several other states (see "Global Economy Behind Bars" sidebar). "So far the actual numbers of outside businesses involved in prison productions is still quite small," says Paul Wright, coeditor of Prison Legal News, a prisoner himself in Washington state, and a journalist who has written nationally on the topic. "At last count there were only around 72,000 prisoners employed in these 'free-world' ventures," out of a national prison population of around 1.7 million.

Volunteer work does not carry the stigma of prison labor which, Wright argues, will eventually arouse the opposition of the public and so faces limited growth potential as a source of cheap labor for businesses. "As people become increasingly aware of prison/slave labor I think there'll be a backlash against the companies that use it," says Wright. "My personal experience has been that upon exposing corporations using prison/slave labor, they usually don't want to be associated with it, there's really a public relations problem with it. Having demonized us and made us little better than wild beasts -- if not worse than that -- there's really a problem then saying 'This product was made using prison labor.'" This is what happened with Microsoft, which, once it was exposed, dropped its practice of using prisoners in Washington State to package products like Windows 95.

In California, where the prison guards' union is one of the strongest lobbies in the state, private use of prison labor faces another obstacle: guards' desire for complete control of the prison, argues Christian Parenti, a writer and teacher at the New College in San Francisco. Parenti cites by way of illustration that California prisons have at least two walls surrounding them. But the gates of both can never be opened at the same time, making it difficult for manufacturers to drive a flatbed truck into the prison compound. There are also unpredictable lockdowns that make prisons an unappealing alternative to other forms of cheap labor.

In contrast, there are few public relations and other obstacles to asking for prisoners as volunteers, and demands for their time are growing. For instance, those prisoners from minimum- and medium-security facilities who are seen grouped into crews picking up roadside litter, cleaning parks, or working for a church are "volunteers" procured from the prison system.

Chris Fletcher, the Job Coordinator and Community Service Administrator at Dayton Correctional and my guide on a short tour, showed me a large marker board listing the projects for which local nonprofits requested prison volunteers, sometimes by using a form easily downloaded from a website. The jobs ranged from packaging pamphlets on birth control and abortion for Planned Parenthood to doing the grunt work in renovating the old building which will soon house Dayton's new Afro-American Museum. Each of Ohio's 29 prisons "adopts a school" and responds to "an inventory list of what that school needs," according to Wanda Suber, an administrator for the Ohio prison system's Bureau of Community Service. "It might be recycling pop can tabs. We also create educational plays on crime and we loan th ose tapes to area schools. We do flash cards, we do bookshelves, we do coloring books, we do charts, we do room borders. We do book covers, we restain desks, we resand desks, we do landscaping... We do all sorts of things. You name it, we're probably doing it."

As educational programs are dismantled, Ohio's remaining option for prisoners is more work

Helping prisoners feel a part of their communities by providing them with opportunities to donate their time is obviously valuable, even though minimum security prisoners never have the satisfaction of interacting with the communities they're helping. Suber reports, "We've gotten letters from inmates where they say this is one way they feel they can give back to society, and, as far as I'm concern ed, when we allow inmates to ask for forgiveness -- whether we give it or not -- at least they know there's a possibility they can be forgiven through their community volunteer acts, and as a result of that it helps lift their self-esteem, it makes them feel better about returning to that community once they're released."

But recent changes requiring prisoners to perform community service to win access to a shrinking pool of educational programs is transforming the nature of community service and making it more like the Ohio prison system's other work "opportunities." Prisoners must perform at least 30 hours of community service a week before the prison system allows them to enroll in high school equivalency or vocational training classes. The inmate must also pay a course fee ranging from $10 to $25.

"It's like a job then or like workfare for welfare. It's not really like saying 'I want to do something nice for somebody,'" says Jana Schroeder, Director of the Criminal Justice Program of Dayton's chapter of the American Friends Service Committee. To Schroeder, the issue is clear: "It's not voluntary," she says bluntly. "It's not like saying, 'If you want to do something you can.' It's saying, ' If you want vocational training beyond the high school level then you've got [to do this]."

These requirements follow on the heels of the state legislature's recent "Tough on Crime" bill that last year banned programs allowing Ohio prisoners to earn college degrees. As educational programs for prisoners are dismantled, Ohio's remaining option for occupying prisoners' time is more work. Ohio's prisoners may work for a private company contracting with the prison system, or for one of Ohio Penal Industries' fifteen in-prison industrial facilities making goods for the state. These include not only license plates but office furniture and street signs. Or the prisoners may be put to work repairing government vehicles or doing other skilled work. The government pays them little, about $1 for a six hour day, after the various deductions like victim's restitution and court fees are made.

Whether it is the state or private sector using wage laborers or nonprofits using volunteers, it raises concern that low or unpaid prison workers will exert a downward pressure on outside wages and labor clout. When a state uses prisoner labor, says Peter Gilmore, Managing Editor of the United Electrical Workers' UE News, "You can very quickly cross a line into an area where you're talking about j obs that are currently held by people who are employed by state or local government. I think people who work in the public sector should... be able to perform their jobs secure in the knowledge that they're not going to be undercut by somebody who's in shackles."

City near prison has 11.7 percent unemployment

Is prisoner volunteer work really akin to the type of prison labor private companies exploit in Ohio? Because many prisoners feel "like they are contributing something," Schroeder of the AFSC is careful to condemn the coercive aspects of prisoners' community service, and not community service work itself. Michael Matthews' experience growing vegetables shows that it is possible for the prison syst em to allow inmates to cultivate their interests and competency through volunteer work. This may even have value as a form of "rehabilitation."

But many in Ohio's labor community, including Alice and Staughton Lynd, make no distinction between volunteer and "paid" labor. Before retiring, the Lynds were a husband and wife team of Legal Services lawyers in Youngstown. Leftist activists since the 1950s, the Lynds proudly refer to themselves as "long distance runners" who've stayed active and devoted to working for meaningful social change fo r decades. In the last several years, as four prisons, one of them private, descended upon the battered Youngstown community, Ohio prison issues captured the Lynds' interests.

With Youngstown suffering from 11.7 percent unemployment, Staughton is virulently opposed to yet another force acting against the Ohio worker -- it is not steel giants leaving town this time around but under- or unpaid prison labor. Staughton is against the use of prison labor, through community service or otherwise, because, "A, even if it doesn't take an existing job from public employees it takes a job that could be performed by public employees. And B, it tends to undercut the wages and working conditions of employees on the outside."

Ohio prison officials argue that prisoners do work for state agencies "that would not have gotten done because budgets wouldn't allow for it." Staughton finds this argument insidious. He responds with emotion: "The underlying reality is that there are at least five groups of people who would like to be doing such work. They are: the unemployed, recent high school graduates looking for work, people in prison (if they were paid at the prevailing wage), people just released from prison, and people being forced off welfare."

"Any kind of work for any kind of compensation is desperately fought over by several competing constituencies. I think it's really irresponsible the way (Ohio prison officials) act as if they were operating in a vacuum."

A Youngstown community forum on prison labor in April 1997, organized in part by the Lynds, developed a 14-point platform. The platform included points already supported by the national AFL-CIO (though not always energetically enforced by its local affiliates), such as prison labor should not displace existing outside jobs, and should not be used to break strikes or lockouts or provide services wh ich might prolong a strike or a lockout. Some of its demands are more innovative -- that list includes a small stipend for prisoners in educational and training programs, the ability to earn "good time," and particularly, labor rights: "Prison workers should be able to form and join trade unions, and to withhold their labor to protest their conditions of work. At the very least, prison workers must be able to report their grievances to an outside labor organization or organizations that will advocate on behalf of inmates."

The agenda emerging from the platform would have low-end workers, whether imprisoned or not, afforded some degree of protection from forces currently stronger than they are -- such as corporations -- as well as protection from being pitted against one another in competition for jobs.

"What's happening to labor is that it's going into the prisons and it's going out of the country," agrees the AFSC's Schroeder. "And where are the jobs going to be for people to really earn a living wage?"

Daniel Burton-Rose is coeditor of "The Celling of America: An Inside Look at the U.S. Prison Industry," published by Common Courage Press

This article originally appeared in the May/June 1998 issue of "Dollars & Sense" magazine

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Albion Monitor July 16, 1998 (

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