Convict labor, part 3 – We cannot plead ignorance. We do know.

Summary:  The FM website strives to give you hard but lesser-known facts about America.  Good or bad (these days, usually bad).  It’s a website for those who never accept the blindfold.  In that light we present the last in this series about prison labor.  At the end are links to previous chapters, and to other articles about this important topic.

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(1)  Setting the stage, a look at our prison system:  “The Caging of America – Why do we lock up so many people?“, Adam Gopnik, New Yorker, 30 January 2012.

Excerpt:

Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today — perhaps the fundamental fact …

Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America — more than six million — than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.

The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life. Every day, at least fifty thousand men — a full house at Yankee Stadium — wake in solitary confinement, often in “supermax” prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo “exercise.”

… Prison rape is so endemic — more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year — that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. The subject is standard fodder for comedy, and an uncoöperative suspect being threatened with rape in prison is now represented, every night on television, as an ordinary and rather lovable bit of policing. The normalization of prison rape — like eighteenth-century japery about watching men struggle as they die on the gallows — will surely strike our descendants as chillingly sadistic, incomprehensible on the part of people who thought themselves civilized.

Though we avoid looking directly at prisons, they seep obliquely into our fashions and manners. Wealthy white teenagers in baggy jeans and laceless shoes and multiple tattoos show, unconsciously, the reality of incarceration that acts as a hidden foundation for the country.

(2) 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.” Excerpt:

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{P}rivate companies have a cheap, easy labor market, and it isn’t in China, Indonesia, Haiti, or Mexico. It’s right here in the land of the free, where large corporations increasingly employ prisoners as a source of cheap and sometimes free labor.

In the eyes of the corporation, inmate labor is a brilliant strategy in the eternal quest to maximize profit. By dipping into the prison labor pool, companies have their pick of workers who are not only cheap but easily controlled. Companies are free to avoid providing benefits like health insurance or sick days, while simultaneously paying little to no wages. They don’t need to worry about unions or demands for vacation time or raises. Inmates work full-time and are never late or absent because of family problems.

(3) New Exposé Tracks ALEC-Private Prison Industry Effort to Replace Unionized Workers with Prison Labor“, Democracy Now, 5 August 2011 — Video and transcript.

Many of the toughest sentencing laws responsible for the explosion of the U.S. prison population were drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which helps corporations write model legislation. Now a new exposé reveals ALEC has paved the way for states and corporations to replace unionized workers with prison labor.

We speak with Mike Elk, contributing labor reporter at The Nation magazine. He says ALEC and private prison companies “put a mass amount of people in jail, and then they created a situation where they could exploit that.” Elk notes that in 2005 more than 14 million pounds of beef infected with rat feces processed by inmates were not recalled, in order to avoid drawing attention to how many products are made by prison labor. {see the transcript for the full story}

(4) Billions Behind Bars: Inside America’s Prison Industry”, a series on CNBC, October 2011 — Video.  Summary:

With more than 2.3 million people locked up, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. One out of 100 American adults is behind bars – while a stunning one out of 32 is on probation, parole or in prison. This reliance on mass incarceration has created a thriving prison economy. The states and the federal government spend about $74 billion a year on corrections, and nearly 800,000 people work in the industry.

From some of the poorest towns in America to some of the wealthiest investment firms on Wall Street, CNBC’s Scott Cohn travels the country to go inside the big and controversial business of prisons.

  • We go inside private prisons and examine an Idaho facility nicknamed the “gladiator school” by inmates and former prison employees for its level of violence.
  • We look at one of the fastest growing sectors of the industry, immigration detention, and tell the story of what happens when a hard hit town in Montana accepts an enticing sales pitch from private prison developers.
  • In Colorado, we profile a little-known but profitable workforce behind bars, and discover that products created by prison labor have seeped into our everyday lives — even some of the food we eat.
  • We also meet a tough-talking judge in the law-and-order state of Texas who’s actually trying to keep felons out of prison and save taxpayer money, through an innovative and apparently successful program.
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(5) BP Hires Prison Labor to Clean Up Spill While Coastal Residents Struggle“, Abe Louise Young, The Nation, 21 July 2010 — Excerpt:

The advantage for private companies is that trustees are covered under Work Opportunity Tax Credit, a holdover from Bush’s Welfare to Work legislation that rewards private-sector employers for hiring risky “target groups.” Businesses earn a tax credit of $2,400 for every work release inmate they hire. On top of that, they can earn back up to 40 percent of the wages they pay annually to “target group workers.”

For more information about the US criminal justice system

(a) Other articles about convict labor

  1. Start heregraphs 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

6 thoughts on “Convict labor, part 3 – We cannot plead ignorance. We do know.

  1. I always tell people who loathe America to read this website and light a candle for the American people, because good people still live there. FM’s posts on this subject, this deplorable subject, is honourable, factual and has guts. I think the lack of comments is expected. It’s hard to type when you’re staring at your shoes.

    1. It’s a puzzle why some posts get many comments, while what seem to be the clear and important ones get none. The same pattern appears in the number of hits. Almost all articles get 1,000+ hits in the first week. The first article in the “Convict labor” series got 700; the others even less.

      However, the FM website says what needs to be said. Sometimes we get low traffic. Sometimes threats (one author, horrified by the hostile comments, understandably left). Often we get little but criticism. Perhaps these things show that we’re doing what needs to be done.

    2. Mate, I think truth makes it’s own progress in ways that we can’t see – or quantify – at the time. You certainly remind me about my values when I’m fed up of practising them – and I’m not even American..?

    3. It’s difficult to continue the struggle for liberty, as the life seems to have faded from the American people — and their hearts grown cold. In such times we turn to our past for guidance.

      “Is Despair the Greatest of Sins?”, from Thomas Acquinas’ The Summa Thologica::

      “If, however, despair be compared to the other two sibs {disbelief or hatred of God — or, in this context, Libery} from our point of view, then despair is more dangerous, since hope withdraws us from evils and induces us to seek for good things, so that when hope is given up, men rush headlong into sin, and are drawn away from good works. Wherefore a gloss on Proverbs 24:10, “If thou lose hope being weary in the day of distress, thy strength shall be diminished,” says: “Nothing is more hateful than despair, for the man that has it loses his constancy both in the every day toils of this life, and, what is worse, in the battle of faith.” And Isidore says (De Sum. Bono ii, 14): “To commit a crime is to kill the soul, but to despair is to fall into hell.”

      Part I – Treatise on the Theological Virtues, sectino I, Question 20 – About Despair, Article 3

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