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Captive Labor, Capitalism’s Best Idea

This week brings the interesting news that immigrant detainees in Aurora, Colorado are suing the their detention facility’s owner for violating labor laws. According to Colorado Public Radio, “The federal class-action complaint alleges detainees are threatened with solitary confinement if they don’t volunteer to clean, maintain and help operate the facility, for which they are paid no more than $1 a day.”

It so happens that the owner has come under criticism before: “The GEO Group operates 52 different facilities in the United States, and has faced class-action lawsuits on various subjects as recently as 2012.” As one detainee put it to a CPR reporter, speaking quite literally, “another day, another dollar.”

Prisons forcing inmates to work for little or no pay is nothing new—and they’re not just mopping prison floors, either. They’re working in factories, they’re doing data entry, they’re fielding customer phone calls. Prisoners might be “hired” by a dairy farm to work for a few cents a day to make artisanal cheese for Whole Foods, for instance. As Fortune framed it earlier this year, “The idea: Offer small businesses a flexible workforce and give prisoners the chance to stockpile earnings and skills needed for life outside prison bars.”

Right. Stockpiling earnings. By working for small businesses. Mother Jones has reported that “The Corrections Corporation of America and G4S (formerly Wackenhut), two prison privatizers, sell inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM.”

Beth Schwartzapfel, writing in a crushing American Prospect piece called “The Great American Chain Gang,” also points out that the approximately 870,000 working inmates aren’t counted in national labor surveys, nor do they have traditional labor rights. “Because inmate workers are not considered ‘employees’ under the law, they have none of the protections that word implies,” Schwartzapfel writes. “No disability or worker’s compensation in the event of an injury. No Social Security withholdings, sick time, or overtime pay. In three states—Texas, Georgia, and Arkansas—they work for free.” Inmates can sometimes appeal to OSHA, but typical responses from the organization are “toothless.”

Now even labor unions are taking notice. Dave Jamieson reported this month at The Huffington Post that the AFL-CIO has come out in support of a sentence-reduction bill in California—not because the organization has a particular stance on the proper punishments for drug possession, but because of the labor implications of mass incarceration in America. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka delivered a speech in which he said:

It’s a labor issue because mass incarceration means literally millions of people work jobs in prisons for pennies an hour—a hidden world of coerced labor here in the United States. It’s a labor issue because those same people who work for pennies in prison, once they have served their time, find themselves locked out of the job market by employers who screen applicants for felony convictions.

Heartbreaking, but not breaking news. Back in 1997, for The Baffler no. 9, Christian Parenti wrote a piece about our country’s long history of using prison labor on the cheap. (This was before he wrote his celebrated book Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis.)[*]

In The Baffler, Parenti wrote about the “captive labor force” at San Quentin in California who, at that time, were getting paid about $4.25 an hour (80 percent of which went to the state) for making exercise clothes. Meanwhile, prisoners in Nevada were making waterbeds and cars, Washington state inmates were packaging Microsoft software boxes and Starbucks coffee, convicts in Vermont were booking vacation reservations, and on and on and on.

Parenti also showed that these practices aren’t just violations of individual prisoners’ rights; they have impact on entire industries, and they affect workers everywhere. Here’s an excerpt from his piece, “My Dad Went to San Quentin and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt”:

During a strike by TWA flight attendants in the late 1980s, the ever-conscientious California Youth Authority helped soothe the labor dispute by providing inmates as TWA tickets bookers. The extra capacity allowed TWA to transfer ticket agents to flight attendant positions. According to one union official “this very definitely allowed the airline latitude in replacing strikers.” In other words, the state helped put those rebellious sky-bunnies back in their place.

The wonderful thing about prison labor is that its impact reverberates far beyond the prison gates. If prisoners will do data entry for Third World wages, why should an employer hire some slacker temp for 13 bucks an hour? And if the employer does decide to take the slacker temp route, why should they let the irritating bastard go to the bathroom whenever he wants when there is a labor force as well-behaved as prisoners just outside town? By making even the worst job seem like a gift, prison labor promises to put a smile on everyone’s face. […]

Convict labor is not archaic, but cutting edge; not incongruous with “the free market,” but capitalism’s tool of choice.

Read Parenti’s entire piece here.

[*] Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Parenti wrote his Baffler piece a decade before he wrote his book, Lockdown Nation. Verso published a second edition of his book in 2008, but the book was in fact originally published in 1999. The sentence has been corrected; we regret the error.