The Common Good
December 1994-January 1995

Profiting from Punishment

by Jennifer Johnson | December 1994-January 1995

When the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude,
its drafters specified one exception: prisoners.

When the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, its drafters specified one exception: prisoners. Prisoners, of course, do not face the same circumstances slaves did, but with a 168-percent increase in prison population since 1980 and the promise of much more to come in the wake of the crime bill, prisons represent a growing labor source for both the private sector and the government.

In the past, state prisons have "rented" prison labor to private contractors. In 1984, Congress created the Private

Sector/Prison Industry Enhancement (PIE) program, removing interstate commerce constraints on prisoner-made goods to make it easier to profit from work done in prisons.

Goods made in U.S. prisons are now being sold around the world. The California Department of Corrections markets its clothing line in Asia. The "Prison Blue" brand of clothes, mostly jeans made by Oregon state prisoners, brings in more than $1.2 million each year to state coffers.

The export of products produced by prison labor has even begun to have an impact on U.S. foreign policy. When China has been criticized for its own extensive use of prison labor, Chinese officials have pointed at similar practices in the United States. As a result, State Department officials have begun to voice discomfort with U.S. prison-made exports.

But some say prison labor is a way for prisoners to pay their debt to society. Several states, primarily in the South, still have unpaid prisoners working in sugar cane and cotton fields, supervised by armed guards on horseback. The work is mandatory, and the profits go to state-run institutions. With newer "prison industries," prisoners' wages are garnisheed for room, board, taxes, victims' compensation, and sometimes family support, leaving the worker with about 20 percent of earnings-at minimum wage, about $1 an hour.

To prevent prison labor from competing with other U.S. workers, private industry can only legally use "voluntary" prison labor and must pay wages that are commensurate with the private sector. But in reality it doesn't always work out that way. For example, a court ruled in 1992 that prisoners in Arizona who were being paid 50 cents an hour were entitled to minimum wage because their employer, Arizona Correctional Industries, was deemed a "private enterprise and subject to all laws applying to these." A year later, the decision was overruled-and the prisoners still receive 50 cents an hour.

JOB TRAINING is the avowed purpose of prison industries. The PIE program's stated goals include "providing inmates with marketable skills and increased possibilities of employment upon release." With many employers already reluctant to hire former inmates, and with most state prisoners having less than 12 years of education, job training and education are key to reducing the nation's 63-percent recidivism rate.

But what kind of jobs do prison industries prepare inmates to do? Most of them are low-skilled jobs in textile, clothing, and furniture production-work mainly done by prisoners, by illegal immigrants in this country, or by poverty-level workers in Third World countries. American unions voice little opposition to prison industries because the jobs do not compete with union jobs found in the United States.

While the PIE program and others like it claim to be about skills and opportunities, the real impetus is to provide workers for jobs that otherwise flee to Asia and Central America. Textile production, for example, is fast becoming extinct in this country-497,000 U.S. textile jobs were lost between 1980-92. What good is training for jobs that can only be found in Asia or in Central American maquiladoras?

In 1991, a management consulting firm told Congress that federal prisons should team up with large businesses in their production of electronic, textile, and other goods because the work is labor intensive and frequently done offshore. Businesses would welcome the opportunity, it was suggested, "if quality and labor costs were better than alternatives" and if other incentives could be provided through tax benefits.

Several states already provide tax incentives, rent-free facilities, and-through prison workers-a labor force without the hassles of collective bargaining or benefits. Despite the lofty talk, the prison industry enhancement program cloaks exploitation of unprotected workers behind the win-win language of economic efficiency and job creation.

Advocates have long called for more education and vocational training in prisons, and most prisoners do want meaningful work. But when the work's principal objective is corporate gain, the result is not prisoner rehabilitation but a case where some profit from others' penance.

JENNIFER JOHNSON is a former Sojourners intern now living in New Orleans.

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