American prison labor blossoms as we criticize Chinese slave labor

Saturday, July 15, 2006 at 10:38 AM

The U.S. has often taken China and other repressive regimes to task for using cheap/free slave labor or prison labor.  Right wing sites, such as NewsMax do so frequently.

Any guesses as to which other, closer-to-home country, has a very large and still growing prison labor industry?

That's right.  Us. Or U.S. if you like extra periods.

The federal government has the Federal Prison Industries (FPI) which is:

...a wholly-owned government corporation established in 1934, under an Act of Congress and an Executive Order which is now incorporated in Chapter 307, Section 4121-4128, Title 18, United States Code. FPI was set up to provide paid employment to inmates, primarily in the manufacture of products for use by the federal government. In 1978, FPI adopted the trade name UNICOR, under which it does most of its business. The products made at these institutions are produced in strict conformance with Federal or other applicable specifications.

Nor is FPI the only prison labor organization--most states have similar programs for their state prisons. In fact, one source lists 39 different states with prison industry programs, in addition to the Fed's UNICOR.

State prison industry examples:
Prison Industry Authority (PIA) of California

State of Delaware Prison Industry

Maine Department of Corrections Industries

Mississippi Prison Industries Corporation (MPIC)

Nevada's Department of Corrections, SILVER STATE INDUSTRIES

The South Dakota State Prison Industries

In fact, there's a National Correctional Industries Association (NCIA), described as: international nonprofit professional association, whose mission is to promote excellence and credibility in correctional industries through professional development and innovative business solutions. The NCIA is an affiliate body of the American Correctional Association, the Jail Industries Association and The Workman Fund.
NCIA's members include all 50 state correctional industry agencies, Federal Prison Industries, foreign correctional industry agencies and numerous city and county jail industry programs. Local jurisdictions are assigned to one of five regions to promote continuous interaction and the promulgation of the mission of the organization within the region. Private sector companies that work in partnership with correctional industries both as suppliers/vendors and as partners in apprenticeship and work programs are among NCIA's members.

Correctional industries are the work programs in correctional facilities that provide real world work experience to inmates, teaching them transferable job skills and work ethic to help them prepare for reentry and employment. They are the only self-funded reentry support program in corrections - no appropriated funds are required for their operation since they rely on revolving funds from the income generated by the sale of the products and services they produce through the program.

NCIA was founded in 1941 as the Penal Industries Association (PIA), an affiliate of the American Prison Association (APA). In 1954, when the APA adopted the name, "American Correctional Association (ACA)," the PIA changed its name accordingly to Correctional Industries Association (CIA). In January 2002, the Board of Directors voted to change the name to that currently in use today. Property and affairs are managed by a National Office with oversight by a board of directors duly elected by the association membership. Business and board meetings of the association are open to all members.

The National Correctional Industries Association encourages networking and joint ventures among correctional industries that foster an affirmative spirit of cooperation, including affording one another professional courtesies with regard to interstate activities.

AND, the Dept. of Justice has a program to certify state and local programs:

Under the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP), the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) certifies that local or state prison industry programs meet all the necessary requirements to be exempt from federal restrictions on prisoner-made goods in interstate commerce. The program places inmates in realistic work environments, pays them prevailing wages, and gives them a chance to develop marketable skills that will increase their potential for rehabilitation and meaningful employment on release.

The technical assistance provider under PIECP, the National Correctional Industries Association, works with the public and private sectors to provide the latest information and strategies on prison industries and to enhance certificate holders' prison industry programs.

Currently, 37 state and 4 county-based certified correctional industry programs operate in the United States, and these programs manage at least 175 business partnerships with private industry. As of September 30, 2005, PIECP generated more than $33 million for victims' programs, $21 million for inmate family support, $97.5 million for correctional institution room and board costs, and $46.6 million in state and federal taxes.

Legislation: PIECP originally was authorized under the Justice System Improvement Act of 1979 (Public Law 96-157, Sec. 827). The Crime Control Act of 1990 (Public Law 101-647) authorizes continuation of the program indefinitely.

And trust me, the prison industry is an industry.  They even have industry trade shows, as reported in the SF Bay View (see photo and caption).

While these prison industries were at one time concentrating on, or even legally limited to, supplying material to governments and government agencies, that's changing.  It is pretty common now for prison industries to sell to private customers, a policy often based on a desire to "grow" the industry..  Now, according to the source in the preceding link:

Inmates also book rooms for motel chains and take reservations for Trans World Airlines (yes, they do take credit card numbers--and yes, there have been embarrassing incidents). In Kansas, they process Social Security numbers. In Iowa, they work for the Department of Tourism's Information Bureau, boosting the same state that locked them away. A number of states, among them Iowa and Nebraska, rent their inmates out as telemarketers.

Who is investing in this prison labor force?

Who is investing? At least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations that mount their operations inside state prisons. The list of such companies contains the cream of U.S. corporate society: IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom's, Revlon, Macy's, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and many more. All of these businesses are excited about the economic boom generation by prison labor. Just between 1980 and 1994, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion.

What's the scam?

Inmates in state penitentiaries generally receive the minimum wage for their work, but not all; in Colorado, they get about $2 per hour, well under the minimum. And in privately-run prisons, they receive as little as 17 cents per hour for a maximum of six hours a day, the equivalent of $20 per month. The highest-paying private prison is CCA in Tennessee, where prisoners receive 50 cents per hour for what they call "highly skilled positions." At those rates, it is no surprise that inmates find the pay in federal prisons to be very generous. There, they can earn $1.25 an hour and work eight hours a day, and sometimes overtime. They can send home $200-$300 per month.

One view of this is that the government enacts harsh drug laws, incarcerates those who violate them, uses the incarcerated to produce cheap products that put private businesses out of work, swelling the ranks of the hopeless and unemployed, who are more likely to use illegal drugs, for which they will get arrested and sent to prison, where they may have an opportunity to put their former private industry skills to use for the prison labor industry.  The suspicious/cynical would find a correlation between the growth of prison populations from 300,000 in 1972 to 2,000,000 in 2000 and the explosion in the use of prison labor in the U.S.

And keep in mind that private companies making a fortune off prison labor are not funding the housing and care of that labor force.  You are.

Apart from the inherent ugliness of using prison labor--there must be a reason we are so outraged as a nation by other nations using slave labor and prison labor--what effect does this have on private manufacturers?  Does anyone in their right mind think that a private American manufacturer can compete with a prison industry enterprise?  Many attribute the demise of the American furniture industry in part to the advent and expansion of prison furniture making. Ditto footwear and garment making, after the massive military purchasing went more and more to prison industries.

Congressional efforts to require the common sense minimum--that the fed prison industry be required to compete with private companies for the government's business--were shot down in 2005.  That's in a Republican-controlled House, which had previously approved the competition law, only to have it shot down in the Republican-controlled Senate.

In fact, prison industries have been known to fund studies of the effects of prison industries and, surprise, they usually turn out to show that the prison industry is beneficial.  For example, a 2002 study commissioned by the PIA of California reported that "Prison industries have a positive ripple effect for California's economy."

All hail private enterprise, except when......

You would think that the far right's outrage machine would be at least a little outraged by this, wouldn't you?  But I haven't heard a peep from them.  Not a peep.  Even when authors deploring China's prison labor policies acknowledge that the U.S. also uses prison labor, there is a tendency to focus on how much harsher the Chinese system is.]  While true, that seems to me to let the U.S. off the hook much too quickly and easily.  Especially since these prison industry programs amount to a huge public governmental enterprise, and the right supposedly abhors government enterprise, especially when it's killing private enterprise.

Oh, wait, maybe this all explains the current mania to privatize prisons.  That simple device would turn all this "public enterprise" into "private enterprise" with the signing of the prison operation contract, wouldn't it?