U.S. Prison Labor
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Thu Aug 12 18:51:47 MDT 1999
Prison labor in the U.S.
By Victor Perlo
What country leads the world in the number of prisoners? You guessed it:
the United States, with two million incarcerated - and the number
doubles every 10 years. Inmates are overcrowded, abused by guards,
terrorized by other, violent prisoners.
We have a half-million more prisoners than China, which has nearly five
times our population. We have twice the rate of South Africa or Cuba;
five times the rate of China, Canada or Mexico; six times the rate of
Germany or France. Our Black population of 35 million approximates the
Black population of South Africa. But there are 900,000 Blacks in U.S.
prisons compared with 140,000 in South Africa.
U.S. imperialism uses cries of "prison labor" to attack China and other
socialist countries. Unfortunately, the UAW leadership, in its magazine
Solidarity, puts China "on probation" for various sins, notably "human
rights violations" like prison labor. These statements help General
Motors instead of union members. Those concerned with human rights
should look homeward.
Many states use prison labor for making license plates and other
government items. Driving through the South 40 years ago I saw chain
gangs, that cruel relic of slavery. Now that barbarous practice has been
revived. And what's new is the growing use of prison labor directly for
corporate profits. e.g., in California prison laborers book flights for
TWA. Elsewhere, Microsoft uses prison labor to ship Windows software to
save money for the world's first $100 billionaire, Bill Gates. Toys-R-Us
uses prisoners to clean and stock store shelves.
According to Gordon Lafer in The American Prospect, "Corporate America
can't imagine a better work force than prison inmates: sub minimum
wages, no health benefits, no union, no vacations, no absenteeism, no
overtime. They have no means of filing a grievance or voicing a
During the past 20 years, more than 30 states have legalized the use of
prison labor by private companies. In Ohio, Honda pays $2-per-hour for
prison laborers who do the jobs that UAW workers did for $20-per-hour.
Of course, such prospects have fueled a boom in privatizing prisons -
owned and run by private companies.
Lafer names Allstate, Merrill Lynch, and Shearson Lehman as investors in
shell companies that buy prisons. These companies are profitable because
the cost of their operations are less than what the states pay them for
running the prisons, and for contracting out the prisons to other
companies for practically no wages. The difference is pocketed as
In Georgia, a recycling plant laid off 50 sorters, replacing them with
prisoners. Of those laid off, 35 had taken the job to get off welfare.
Now they have neither work nor welfare.
Oregon is one of the worst offenders. A 1994 law requires the state to
actively market prison labor to private employers. Thousands of public
service jobs have been filled by convicts and private sector jobs
replaced by inmates.
The prison legislation was enacted in response to a campaign by the
Oregon Roundtable, a right-wing group headed by the union-hating Shilo
Inn chain. Each member of the Roundtable contributes $100,000 yearly for
The campaign against prison labor in Oregon is picking up steam. The
fightback is headed by the Teamsters, the Building Trades unions and the
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, whose
members include correction officers.
The unions provide the strength needed by the coalition of prison
activists, progressive policy organizations, and Black and Latino
community groups that are fighting against the use of prison labor and
for the repeal of the laws authorizing it.
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