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—forcing inmates to work either for nothing or for a very small fraction of their "wages" and pocketing the remainder of those "wages" as corporate profit—they can open up a second revenue stream. That would make private prisons into both public service contractors and the highest-margin temp agencies in the nation.
Down Oregon's Trail?
These developments affect not only prisoners, but also workers outside of prison trying to make a decent living. In Oregon in 1994, voters approved a ballot measure mandating that all prisoners work 40 hours per week and requiring the state to actively market prison labor to private employers. After only a few years, the new law has wrought dramatic effects. Thousands of public-sector jobs have been filled by convicts, while private-sector workers have been laid off by firms that have lost contracts to enterprises using prisoners. These troubling developments have prompted the state legislature to reconsider the wisdom of mandated prison labor. And the legislature is now debating whether to place a new initiative on the ballot at the next election that would allow voters to decide whether or not to undo the original initiative. The debate that is now unfolding will offer up a preview of the policy choices facing states across the nation as they confront what is fast becoming a significant threat to the job prospects of working Americans.
In Oregon the variety of jobs performed by prisoners is remarkable. Convicts are now responsible for all data entry and record keeping in the secretary of state's corporation division. They also answer the phones when members of the public call with questions about corporate records. Across the state, public agencies are using prisoners for desktop publishing, digital mapping, and computer-aided design work—all jobs that would otherwise be filled by regular public employees.
In 1998, the prison work program began taking jobs out of the private sector as well. In Eugene, the church-owned Sacred Heart Hospital canceled its contract with a unionized linen service and redirected the work to a prison laundry. At the same time, up to 100 construction workers lost out when the Umatilla prison used inmates to expand its facility, taking away work that had previously been performed by unionized labor.
More recently, a South Georgia recycling plant laid off 50 workers who sorted recyclables and replaced them with prison laborers from a nearby women's prison in Pulaski County. Of the 50 sorters who lost their jobs, 35 had taken those jobs to get off welfare. And, according to an article published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last June, ten of those former welfare recipients are now back on welfare.
The Georgia case also shows how easy it can be to flout restrictions on the use of prison labor. Environmental Technologies Group is the for-profit recycling company that hired the prison workers in order to help the company edge closer to profitability. But Georgia law permits prisoners to work only for state, county, or local governments and prevents them taking the place of paid employees. The company was able to get around this prohibition because Environmental Technologies Group is actually a contractor performing a privatized service for a public authority, the Crisp County Solid Waste Management Authority. And arrangements were made to have the public authority pay the workers wages directly in order to evade the restriction on prisoners working for private companies.
In the years before the Civil War, white farmers and workers in the North turned against slavery because they saw it not only as morally abhorrent, but also as an economic threat to free labor. In its impact on workers, at least, prison labor is analogous to slave labor. Convict labor not only takes decently paid jobs out of the economy; it also undermines the living standards of those who remain employed by forcing their employers to compete with firms that use prisoners. The need to compete with poverty-level wages in the Third World has already undermined the bargaining power of American production workers. But until now, service jobs have proved very difficult to transport overseas. Chartering what amounts to a chain of maquiladora enterprise zones on American soil may force even service workers to compete at the level of the most impoverished overseas laborers.
Some proponents of prison labor argue that the practice either serves a rehabilitative purpose or helps prepare prisoners for re-entry into the workforce after incarceration. But expenditures for education and training have actually been declining. And even a cursory examination of how prison industries are administered makes clear that the motivation for these programs has little to do with rehabilitation. If training were one of the goals one might expect that workers would be selected for particular jobs based on their need for training. But there is seldom any selection process like this at work. And in those few cases where selection processes do exist, they are to help potential employees find convicts who already have skills needed for particular jobs.
Today the prison labor system is still in its infancy. The Oregon program has yet to meet its full-employment mandate, and the Department of Corrections is still working to develop streamlined procedures for providing local firms a safe, cheap, and reliable labor force. But when these kinks get ironed out, the system will grow exponentially because Oregon—like many other states—has adopted tough-on-crime mandatory sentencing laws that are projected to double the prison population over the next ten years. If this projection holds true and the state meets its requirement for full employment in the prisons, the number of prison workers will grow from 4,000 in 1998 to more than 10,000 ten years from now.
Through the leadership of Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, an outspoken critic of the universal work requirement, the legislature has begun to review the policy. Even if the current law is repealed, however, mandatory sentencing and fiscal incentives will continue to make prison labor hard to resist. In a sense, the ballot measure supporting universal prison labor simply forced Oregonians to confront a set of pressures already building up in states across the country as a result of harsh sentencing laws and the rising cost of prisons. In a climate of fiscal restraint it is nearly impossible to raise taxes to cover the full cost of prison expansion. Elected officials can either allow prisons to consume a huge share of the state budget or find a way to make incarceration cheaper. As the size of the problem grows, states will unavoidably face mounting pressure to cut costs by privatizing corrections services, substituting prisoners for public employees in other agencies, or hiring prisoners out to work in private enterprise.
The Politics of Prison Labor
Oregon's prison labor law was approved by 70 percent of the voters, including many union members. Many of these early supporters now claim they were fooled: they never imagined that making prisoners contribute to their own upkeep would end up taking jobs away from people on the outside. But if voters were deceived, the activists who wrote and financed the initiative knew just what they were getting.
The prison labor initiative was not, as one might expect, the product of victims' rights associations or conservative community groups. The campaign was almost entirely paid for by a clique of conservative businessmen who have promoted a host of anti-worker initiatives over the past decade. Led by the owner of the anti-union Shilo Inn chain, this group of wealthy businessmen joined together in the early 1990s to form the Oregon Roundtable, each member pledging to contribute $100,000 per year to promote a conservative political agenda. Of the $206,000 spent on the Measure 17 campaign, $193,000 came from this consortium, representing businesses in the sawmill, real estate, hospitality, and medical supply industries. This same group has backed virtually all of the most aggressively antilabor proposals of the past decade, including regressive tax reform, cuts in unemployment benefits, attacks on public employee pensions, and a prohibition on using union dues for political action. The effects of prison labor on the normal labor pool are, therefore, not an unintended by-product of tough-on-crime politics. The antilabor agenda was the heart of the matter from the start.
On the other side, the threat of prison labor has mobilized a coalition of prison activists, progressive policy organizations, and black and Latino community groups. Ultimately, however, the outcome of this struggle will depend largely on the labor movement. Union members have the most to lose, and thus the strongest incentive to oppose prison labor. Theirs is also virtually the only organized movement capable of undertaking the fight; only trade unions have the experience, resources, and membership base to mount an effective campaign on this issue. In fact, the labor movement has a long history of leading the fight against convict labor. In 1891, the Tennessee Coal Company locked out all of its union workers for refusing to sign a "yellow dog" contract barring them from union membership; locked-out workers were replaced with convicts. Soon after, however, the state discontinued the practice of hiring out inmates when the mine workers stormed the prisons, released the convicts, and burned the prison to the ground.
Times have changed since Ronald Reagan, as governor of California in 1968, signed into law an "inmate bill of rights." The intervening decades have produced a series of tough-on-crime policies such as Nelson Rockefeller's draconian mandatory minimums in New York; the passage of strict federal sentencing guidelines in the mid-1980s; the reintroduction of federal mandatory minimums via the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986; and most recently, California's famed "three strikes" law, which has spawned imitations in 23 other states.
As a direct consequence of these initiatives, the United States now has the largest incarcerated population in the world. In the six years following the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, the federal prison population jumped from 48,300 to 80,259. The tightening of federal sentencing guidelines in subsequent years helped propel that population to the 1998 all-time high of 107,381. In 1980, there were 501,886 inmates in all federal, state, and local correctional facilities. The current U.S. prison population stands at 1.8 million, and is projected to be 2 million by the end of this year. To meet the demand, annual state spending on corrections has more than quadrupled since 1980, from $4.2 billion to $19 billion. The biggest totalitarian state in history, China, has a half-million fewer prisoners than the world's preeminent democracy.
Much of the growth in the prison population has been fueled by the influx of nonviolent prisoners. In 1980, violent criminals accounted for about half of those entering state prisons; by 1995, they comprised less than a third. Many state mandatory minimum laws and federal sentencing guidelines punish drug-related crimes, even nonviolent ones, far more harshly than violent crimes. (According to Human Rights Watch, one-fourth of drug inmates are in jail for simple possession of drugs, usually of small quantities.)
In many states, prison overcrowding has crippled the criminal justice system itself. In California, wrote Eric Schlosser recently in the Atlantic Monthly, "The state's backlog of arrest warrants now stands at 2.6 million—the number of arrests that have not been made . . . because there's no room in the jails." And there are other unintended consequences: the release of moderately dangerous criminals to make room for extremely dangerous criminals; simmering tensions among overcrowded inmates; and the emergence of what Schlosser has termed a "prison-industrial complex," a confluence of private prison companies and captive public officials with a disquieting interest in maintaining high prisoner populations.
In Oregon, the campaign against prison labor is being led by the Teamsters, the Building Trades, and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), whose members include thousands of corrections officers. In 1998, both the Teamsters and the Building Trades unions lost jobs to prison labor. Based on this experience, these unions took the lead in establishing prison labor as a priority issue for the Oregon AFL-CIO. It is to the great credit of all three of these unions that they provided the vision and leadership to unify the state labor movement in an effort to tackle this issue while it is still in its infancy, without waiting for it to reach crisis proportions. This past January, union members from across the state participated in a day-long political convention that focused, in part, on developing a common response to this issue.
And yet the task of forging a union consensus on the prison labor issue will not be easy. First, the corrections officers union must be concerned about protecting the safety of its members. Oregon AFSCME opposed the prison labor law and is committed to preventing prison industries from undermining the jobs of other union members. But corrections officers do benefit from the work programs in important ways: work keeps prisoners occupied for eight hours a day, and it leaves them tired and easier to control. All of this makes the job of corrections officers easier, particularly when budget cuts have dramatically increased the number of prisoners each officer must supervise.
Moreover, few union members are inclined to think of prisoners as potential political allies. Instead, while there is clear agreement that prison labor should not take jobs out of the free market, most are eager to guarantee that prisoners have it tough. In discussing alternate proposals, for instance, one union member suggested that convicts should be made to carry heavy boulders from one side of the road to the other, and back again: "work" that would not interfere with anyone else's job, but would ensure that prisoners suffered appropriately. Similarly, one of the Teamsters members who lost her job to a prison laundry turned her anger not on the hospital that preferred convicts to union members, but rather on the convicts themselves. "I'm not angry at the prison," she insisted. "I understand the need for prison work. What upsets me is that prisoners don't have to worry about food, bills, and clothing. As a taxpayer, I'm paying for their living situation, and then I lose my job to them."
To date, opponents of prison labor have focused primarily on the security problems posed by convicts working outside prisons. Union representatives and progressive politicians have often focused on the danger of, for example, allowing rapists and murderers to rake leaves in parks where children are at play. And public safety is a real concern. In seeking job placements, the state has continually expanded the range of work and public interaction deemed appropriate for convicts. More alarmingly, Oregon has begun to compromise security standards to make prison work crews more affordable. Under the current system, employers may "lease" a ten-inmate work crew for $30 per day. However, the cost of providing a corrections officer to oversee this crew is nearly $300 per day, and this cost has led many agencies to limit their use of work gangs. To put more prisoners to work, the Department of Corrections recently sought to cut operating costs by replacing corrections officers with less-trained but lower-cost civilian overseers.
Undoubtedly, attacking the safety of the prison labor system may be a more immediately effective political approach than appealing for solidarity with inmates. But as the prison industry works out the kinks in its operation, these security problems will be progressively diminished. For instance, if Louisiana Pacific—one of the financial backers of the prison labor initiative—decides to lay off union workers and construct a sawmill on prison grounds, there is no security argument that will effectively prevent the project from going forward. Prison labor must be opposed on the more durable basis that it threatens free labor.
Certainly, in the interim, legislatures could pass laws banning prison industries from bidding directly against free-labor companies or requiring them to pay prevailing wages. But ultimately such stopgap measures will be neither effective nor politically viable as long as correctional facilities continue to operate under the fiscal constraints imposed by mandatory sentencing laws. Building a consensus not only against the extensive employment of prisoners but also against mandatory sentencing laws will be a slow and arduous process, but we must undertake it if we hope to stop the expansion of prison labor before it gets much further. A "free market" economy ought to have no place for a vast army of prisoners undermining the wages of working people.