It is likely that the computer you are reading this from was made by a Chinese worker earning less than a dollar a day. We have become tolerant of this fact, accepting the premise that conditions are relative and what is considered slavery here is gainful employment there. But what if these same wages were paid for domestic labour? How easily could we push aside our conscience when that worker is not a world away, but rather locked away? This is increasingly the case in America as companies from large department stores to small online shops are selling goods manufactured by prisoners. In a quiet yet booming industry, inmates are now staffing call centres and assembling solar panels, harvesting crops and processing meats, all while earning pennies an hour.
This is not a new invention. America has a very long and dark history of putting its prison population to work: from the early chain gangs to convict leasing, the only distinction now is the scale of their operations. Gone are the days when inmates in numbered jumpsuits were making licence plates; in the modern economy their handiwork can be found on million dollar Patriot missiles and F-16 fighter jets. The government program responsible for this is known as UNICOR, a for-profit corporation operated by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. It’s mission is to “employ and provide job skills training to the greatest practicable number of inmates”—that is, while paying them 23 cents an hour. By comparison, the minimum wage in Haiti is 30 cents an hour.
As a federal program, UNICOR can only sell its goods to other government agencies, since its slave wages would outcompete any private business. However, that restriction does not exist for state prisoners, who have long been employed to make products for some of the most well-known brands from Victoria’s Secret to Microsoft. It is most prevalent in the agricultural industry, as recent immigration laws in some states have forced companies to look beyond their traditional labour pool. The grueling, backbreaking work of picking fruits all day under the blistering sun is more than most Americans are willing to endure. In the past, undocumented workers would fill the void but with harsher penalties now applied to employers, they are increasingly looking at inmates to replace them. These inmates are often subject to abusive conditions on the job, since it is mandatory for them to work in many states. In an expose by Truthout, a female prisoner in Arizona gives a description of her experience working for Martori Farms, a key supplier to Wal-Mart:
“They wake us up between 2:30 and 3am and kick us out of our housing unit by 3:30am. We get fed at 4am… We are forced to work in the blazing sun for eight hours. We run out of water several times a day. We ran out of sunscreen several times a week. They don’t check medical backgrounds or ages before they pull women for these jobs. Many of us cannot do it! If we stop working and sit on the bus or even just take an unauthorized break, we get a major ticket which takes away our ‘good time’.”
It is not only the private sector that profits from the employment of convicts. In these difficult economic times, many state and local governments are turning to the incarcerated members of their population in an effort to close budget gaps. Jobs normally done by unionized, public workers are now being given to prisoners as a cost-saving measure. In California, the state with the nation’s largest deficit (and coincidentally the second-largest prison system), inmates are used as firefighters. In New Jersey, they are hired to remove roadkill. When the cost of one year in prison is more than one year at Princeton, governments will find any way to keep inmates on the outside, especially when it can fill its own positions.
The modern use of inmate labour originally seemed like a good idea. It was thought that if prisoners were given the opportunity to learn employable skills while serving their sentence, it would help them in their future. This was supported by many studies which have linked prisoner work requirements to lower recidivism, especially if that task is purposeful. A job with even a meagre income allows prisoners to pay victim restitution, child support, and in many instances have a small savings upon release. In contrast, the image of a new labour class of Americans—mostly black and brown—toiling in the fields for a pittance can draw easy parallels to a past century. There are benefits that should be considered, but only within the framework of a more equitable system.
In the original legislation, a clause states that inmates should be paid the “local prevailing wage for similar work”, but this is a condition that is often disregarded in practice. Any real reform will need to address this first. Employees on either side of the wall ought to be paid equal pay for equal work. Similarly, there should be no discrepancy between the wages of state and federal prisoners. As with all jobs, an inmate’s pay should be based on the type of work they are assigned, regardless of the severity of their crime. The other great concern lies with workplace conditions. In order to ensure prisoners are not abused as was the case at Martori Farms, there needs to be a formal complaint system in place, similar to an ombudsman program. If implemented, these reforms could begin to change the image of America’s prison labor system from one of exploitation to opportunity.
Not long ago while driving in the American South, it was a common sight to see lines of prisoners chained together, breaking boulders on the side of the highway. Prison was a place of punishment, and this type of forced labor was accepted. Today, in similar fashion, prisoners are working long hours for little pay, making products that are found in every American home. In an age of consumer consciousness, where Made in China tags have become synonymous with sweatshops and sub-standard wages, American-made goods may not be that different.