Convict labor returns to America, part 2 – Lucrative for the employers, expensive for us.

Summary:  We have spent decades unwinding the progress of generations.  Bringing mercenaries back on the world stage, ramping debt levels back up to WWII levels, waging preemptive war based on lies, torture of prisoners, assassination, and large-scale convict labor.  All of these produce terrible side-effects for society.  The last may severely affect the largest number of people (plus the cost the rest of us pay to run the prisons).  At the end are links to previous chapters this series about our criminal justic system, and to other articles about this important topic.

Click to enlarge!

American Gulag: A Lot More Than License Plates“, Lyric Hughes Hale, Huffington Post, 19 April 2012.


Today, the U.S. prison system delivers profits to both government corporations and private enterprises in several ways:

  • Through the use of inmate labor to produce goods and services in federal and state prisons,
  • Through the contracting of this labor to private companies at below-market wages, and
  • By privatization of the prisons and detainment centers themselves.

Given these perverse incentives to maintain a high inmate population, is it any wonder that the number of prisoners and the length of their sentences — Americans comprise 5% of the world’s total population but 25% of the world’s prison population — have skyrocketed since privatization began in 1984?

One might ask if this population surge could be due to a sudden increase in violent crime in America. A much smaller percentage of prisoners than one would imagine have histories of violence. Just 3% of those in Federal prisons, and a third of those in state prisons, have been convicted of violent crimes. A majority of those in city and county prisons are merely awaiting trial and cannot make bail. As any policeman will tell you, much criminality would be eliminated if drug laws were changed. Moreover, of the total prison population, it is estimated that 16% are suffering from mental illness, according to Vicky Pelaez in Global Research in Canada.

… America has now created its own Gulag and it makes much more than just license plates. Of the 2.3 million prisoners now being held, more than 100,000 work in federal and state prison industry programs. This doesn’t mean the usual cooking, cleaning and peeling potatoes, but work that produces products for sale — about $2.4 billion dollars annually and has its own trade shows.

… The government, particularly the Department of Defense, is the biggest customer for the federal prison labor. Most military clothing, furniture, and helmets are made by Federal inmates. It is very likely that they made the furniture at your local post office. Calling directory assistance? You might well be talking to a felon.

UNICOR is the trade name for Federal Prison Industries, Inc. They offer convict labor to maximize profits for a wide range of industries. See their website, with this on the home page:

For more information about the US criminal justice system

(a) Other articles about convict labor

  1. Start here: graphs on the website of The November Coalition. A visual and quantitative display of shameful numbers.
  2. Prisoners Help Build Patriot Missiles“, Noah Shachtman, Wired, 8 March 2011 — “some of the workers manufacturing parts for Patriot missiles are prisoners, earning as little as $0.23 an hour.
  3. 21st-Century Slaves: How Corporations Exploit Prison Labor“, Rania Khalek, AlterNet, 21 July 2011 — “In the eyes of the corporation, inmate labor is a brilliant strategy in the eternal quest to maximize profit.”
  4. New Exposé Tracks ALEC-Private Prison Industry Effort to Replace Unionized Workers with Prison Labor“, Democracy Now, 5 August 2011 — Video and transcript.
  5. Billions Behind Bars: Inside America’s Prison Industry”, a series on CNBC, October 2011
  6. Prison Labor in US – Unicor, the Hidden Face of Federal Commerce“, JD Journal (by the Employment Research Institute), 16 March 2012
  7. State {GA} sending inmates to work Vidalia onion harvest“, USA Today, 18 April 2012
  8. American Gulag: A Lot More Than License Plates“, Lyric Hughes Hale, Huffington Post, 19 April 2012
  9. Creating a Prison-Corporate Complex“, Steve Fraser and Joshua Freeman, TomDispatch, 19 April 2012 — “Prison Labor as the Past — and Future — of American ‘Free-Market’ Capitalism”
  10. UNICOR is the trade name for Federal Prison Industries, Inc. They offer convict labor to maximize profits for a wide range of industries. See their website.

(b) Other articles about our prisons

  1. A 25-Year Quagmire: The War on Drugs and Its Impact on American Society“, Marc Mauer and Ryan S. King, The Sentencing Project, September 2007
  2. The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration“, John Schmitt, Kris Warner, and Sarika Gupta, Center for Economic and Policy Research, June 2010
  3. Welcome to Debtors’ Prison, 2011 Edition“, Wall Street Journal, 16 March 2011
  4. The Caging of America – Why do we lock up so many people?“, Adam Gopnik, New Yorker, 30 January 2012

(c)  Other posts about our shameful criminal justice system — other chapters in this series

  1. An opportunity to look in the mirror, to more clearly see America, 10 November 2009 — About our prisons
  2. Nixon declared war on drugs, a major investment of America in itself – but one that’s gone bad, 21 May 2010
  3. The Feds decide who to lock up for life (not just at Guantanamo), another nail in the Constitution’s coffin, 2 June 2010
  4. Being a third world nation is a state of mind, as we will learn (about prison rape), 19 March 2011
  5. Our prisons are a mirror showing the soul of America. It’s not a pretty picture., 28 March 2011
  6. The Collapse of American Criminal Justice System — Excerpts from The Collapse of American Criminal Justiceby William J. Stuntz
  7. More about the collapse of the American Criminal Justice System– Studies and reports about our shameful system.
  8. Final thoughts about the American Criminal Justice System, 21 September 2011
  9. Why should we care about the Supreme Court’s ruling allowing strip & cavity searches of prisoners?, 5 April 2012
  10. Back to the future: convict labor returns to America (a powerful tool to force down wages and crush unions), 23 April 2012
  11. Convict labor returns to America, part 2 – Lucrative for the employers, expensive for us., 24 April 2012
  12. Convict labor, part 3 – We cannot plead ignorance. We do know., 25 April 2012

4 thoughts on “Convict labor returns to America, part 2 – Lucrative for the employers, expensive for us.”

    1. (1) It is amazing how many econoomic charts show trend charges around 1980. Rapid increase in household and government debt, stagnation of wages, increase in inequality, deregulation, shift of Federal income from taxes to borrowing, slowing of growth, increase in prison population. The Reagan Revolution indeed, taking incipient trends and shifting them into high gear.

      (2) Robb’s analysis is mostly defective, as usual with economics (unlike, for example, his brilliant analyis of open source movements and 4GW). Also, beware of writers who show material without citations or links. In my experience, it’s usually a red flag.

  1. possibly started here … and then is reproduced numerous times in various blogs over the couple months: {from the New York Times – The Great Prosperity vs The Great Recession.

    … refs … Bill Marsh/The New York Times Sources: Robert B. Reich, University of California, Berkeley; “The State of Working America” by the Economic Policy Institute; Thomas Piketty, Paris School of Economics, and Emmanuel Saez, University of California, Berkeley; Census Bureau; Bureau of Labor Statistics; Federal Reserve

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