Made in the USA: By People in Prison
Victoria’s Secret lingerie, Starbucks coffee beans, JC Penney jeans, McDonald’s uniforms, Whole Foods artisanal cheese, and Patriot missiles all have one thing in common: they have—at one point or another—been manufactured by people in prison. The list doesn’t stop there though. Most recently, during the height of the coronavirus outbreak, medical gowns, masks, and hand sanitizers were mass-produced by incarcerated workers to help keep frontline workers and free citizens safe; the irony is that many of the same products were simultaneously prohibited to the people in prison producing them.
Shackled labor has a dark history and has evolved into a system with mixed results. The capitalistic society we operate in today was built on the bones of the slaves who fueled it a few hundred years ago. Our dependency on free labor is not new; for the New World slaves were the original capital, today it is people in prison.
When slavery was abolished via the 13th Amendment, one loophole was left in: those convicted of a crime could still be forced to work. This exception allowed (and still allows) states to justify forced labor and continue to exploit marginalized bodies. This first began with Black Codes—which criminalized Black people who were unemployed and effectively filled prisons with recently-freed slaves—and convict leasing—which allowed white plantation owners to purchase people convicted of crimes to work at their homes—before Jim Crow laws were established in the late 1800s. Chain gangs (i.e. groups of incarcerated people shackled together and forced to work at gunpoint) were also used during this time; it was not until nearly 100 years after the Civil War that this barbaric form of punishment was banned. Today, states are still able to capitalize on cheap, involuntary labor through our national affinity for mass incarceration.
The U.S. was built by slave labor and is now fueled by prison labor; slavery has not ended, it has been reinvented. We have created—and are abusing—an invisible workforce. Although today people in prison are not physically harmed (at least, not legally) if they refuse to provide free labor, their privileges—such as care packages, visits, and/or phone calls—can be revoked. They can also be sentenced to time in solitary confinement, which causes immense emotional and mental trauma.
The work that people do while incarcerated falls into four rather broad categories: regular jobs, jobs in state-owned businesses, jobs outside the facility, and jobs in private businesses. A regular job, which is completed under the direction of the Department of Corrections (DOC), supports the day-to-day operation of the prison facility. This can include jobs such as food service, laundry, custodial, grounds keeping, maintenance, etc. Jobs in state owned-businesses—also called Correctional Industries—create products such as furniture, apparel, bags, and home supplies, that are sold to government agencies (e.g., the military and police departments). Jobs performed outside the facility are often reserved for people who are considered to be low risk, or who are preparing to reenter society; these include work release programs, work camps, and community work centers. Finally, jobs in private businesses become available when private companies operate within correctional facilities.
While some jobs are necessary for the self-sufficiency of the prison (e.g. working in the kitchen, doing laundry), others manipulate the system to take advantage of the cheap labor. For example, the incarcerated people fighting California’s wildfires—who sometimes work for 72-hour shifts—earn up to $5.12 a day, with the possibility of earning an additional $1 per hour from Cal Fire. While the pay is high compared to that of non-industry incarcerated workers—whose average pay ranges from 86 cents to $3.45 per day—it pales in comparison to the salary of their non-confined counterparts. To add insult to injury, although they have experience in the workforce and proper training, incarcerated firefighters are not always eligible for the same position post-release because of their criminal record; a bill approved this year aims to change that. If someone is capable, willing, and trusted, to put out fires on the inside, it begs the question of why they are suddenly ineligible to do so on the outside?
This selective employment decision—like many things in our society—comes down to money. The work that incarcerated firefighters do is estimated to have saved California taxpayers about 100 million dollars a year. Looked at as a whole, Worth Rises estimates that over $14 billion dollars in wages are stolen every year from incarcerated workers across the four employment categories.
Our national dependency on incarcerated labor places profit before people. The purpose of prison is not to break people down, it is to build them up. The concept of working in prison is not malign, but expecting people to do it for free (or cents per day) is. Contrary to popular belief, life in prison is not free: phone calls cost an average of $5.74 per 15 minutes, shampoo and conditioner cost $6.15, and two tampons are $5.55. This means that the average worker (who, at the high end of the spectrum makes $3.45 a day) would have to work for a day and a half to afford two tampons or a short call to their family. In Arkansas, however, where a 15-minute phone call is $24.82 and most people in prison are paid nothing for their work, people must rely on their family to subsidize the prison system.
The justification for prison labor—then and now—is that it rehabilitates, teaches skills, and allows a person to resolve the harm they have caused. Forcing someone to work for little to nothing while incarcerated, however, does not allow them to repay their debt to society. The profit of their labor does not get invested into the communities which they harmed. Instead, it goes into the pockets of big businesses and companies, widening the gap between social classes.
Having a job in prison (that is willingly worked) does provide a sense of purpose and teach important skills—this I will not argue with. However, more valuable lessons—specifically about money management—could be learned if people were treated with respect and dignity and were appropriately paid for their work. We are reluctant to value prison labor for what it is claiming that someone who commits a crime is perpetually indebted to society. However, if we want to respect the humanity of people who are or have been incarcerated, we need to accept that their debt is paid either by their incarceration, by their reparations given, or by their process through the judicial system.