Date: Tue, 17 Aug 1999 23:42:21 -0500 (CDT)
Subject: Prison labor in the U.S.
Article: 73019
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Prison labor in the U.S.

By Victor Perlo, 17 August 1999

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 complaints.

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 profits.

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 anti-labor campaigns.

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.