When most of us think of convicts at work, we picture them banging out license plates or digging ditches. Those images, however, are now far too limited to encompass the great range of jobs that America's prison workforce is performing. If you book a flight on TWA, you'll likely be talking to a prisoner at a California correctional facility that the airline uses for its reservations service. Microsoft has used Washington State prisoners to pack and ship Windows software. AT&T has used prisoners for telemarketing; Honda, for manufacturing parts; and even Toys "R" Us, for cleaning and stocking shelves for the next day's customers.
During the past 20 years, more than 30 states have enacted laws permitting the use of convict labor by private enterprise. While at present only about 80,000 U.S. inmates are engaged in commercial activity, the rapid growth in America's prison population and the attendant costs of incarceration suggest there will be strong pressures to put more prisoners to work. And it's not hard to figure what corporations like about prison labor: it's vastly cheaper than free labor. In Ohio, for example, a Honda supplier pays its prison workers $2 an hour for the same work for which the UAW has fought for decades to be paid $20 to $30 an hour. Konica has hired prisoners to repair its copiers for less than 50 cents an hour. And in Oregon, private companies can "lease" prisoners for only $3 a day.
But the attractions of prison labor extend well beyond low wages. The prison labor system does away with statutory protections that progressives and unions have fought so hard to achieve over the last 100 years. Companies that use prison labor create islands of time in which, in terms of labor relations at least, it's still the late nineteenth century. Prison employers pay no health insurance, no unemployment insurance, no payroll or Social Security taxes, no workers' compensation, no vacation time, sick leave, or overtime. In fact, to the extent that prisoners have "benefits" like health insurance, the state picks up the tab. Prison workers can be hired, fired, or reassigned at will. Not only do they have no right to organize or strike; they also have no means of filing a grievance or voicing any kind of complaint whatsoever. They have no right to circulate an employee petition or newsletter, no right to call a meeting, and no access to the press. Prison labor is the ultimate flexible and disciplined workforce.
All of these conditions apply when the state administers the prison. But the prospect of such windfall profits from prison labor has also fueled a boom in the private prison industry. Such respected money managers as Allstate, Merrill Lynch, and Shearson Lehman have all invested in private prisons. As with other privatized public services, companies that operate private prisons aim to make money by operating corrections facilities for less than what the state pays them. If they can also contract prisoners out to private enterprises
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