Penal Labor

Chain gang, Maricopa County, Arizona

For those of you who wonder why the U.S. has more people in prison per capita than any other nation on earth, you’ll begin to understand how we can have a weakening economy and still fund wars overseas. It’s all based on prisoners…” ~ Lynne Schmaltz in her article Profiteering Off the Prisoners

Prison Labor

Prison labor is a form of forced labor that may exist at the edges of the usual definitions of human trafficking, but it is certainly a form of forced labor. It specifically refers to the exploitation of prisoners for commercial enterprise often by contracting them out. It exists in many countries including here in the U.S. where it has become a growing practice as the prison industry has been increasingly privatized.

Think chain gangs are a thing of the past? Think again. Although chain gangs were phased out in 1955, Alabama reinstituted chain gangs in 1995 followed by Arizona, Florida, Iowa, and Maine. Arizona’s first female chain gang was instituted in 1996. Complete with striped uniforms, the women of a Phoenix jail (to this day) spend four to six hours a day chained together in groups of 30, clearing roadsides of weeds. But chain gangs are only the most dramatic evidence of prisoner exploitation.

New York’s State Prison at Auburn has the dubious distinction of being the first prison, in the early 1800’s, to contract with a private business to operate a factory within its walls. After the Civil War the “contract and lease” system proliferated, allowing private companies to employ prisoners and sell their products for profit. In many parts of the country this amounted to little more than a continuation of de facto slavery. Prisons swelled with former slaves charged with minor and frivolous infractions. While Americans have rightfully demanded laws that prohibit or restrict the importation of goods produced by prison labor abroad, there are few constraints on the domestic exploitation of captive labor.

The 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery in the United States, specifically carves out an exception:  (Section 1) “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” This is a loophole through which corporate giants are extracting billions of dollars in profits. Also benefiting greatly is the military procurement industry. Almost every piece of kit carried by today’s soldier, excepting his weapon, is likely to have been produced by prison labor.

‘It ain’t just license plates’…  All manner of consumer goods are being manufactured in prisons today:
What do Prisoner’s Make… by Caroline Winter, Mother Jones 8/08 (excerpts) 

Starbucks subcontractor Signature Packaging Solutions has hired Washington prisoners to package holiday coffees (as well as Nintendo Game Boys). Confronted by a reporter in 2001, a Starbucks rep called the setup “entirely consistent with our mission statement.” ~ California inmates sew their own garb. In the 1990s, subcontractor Third Generation hired 35 female South Carolina inmates to sew lingerie and leisure wear for Victoria’s Secret and JCPenney. ~ In 1997, a California prison put two men in solitary for telling journalists they were ordered to replace “Made in Honduras” labels on garments with “Made in the USA.”  ~ Prisoners in for burglary, battery, drug and gun charges, and escape helped build a Wal-Mart distribution center in Wisconsin in 2005, until community uproar halted the program. ~ Texas and California inmates make dorm furniture and lockers, diploma covers, binders, logbooks, library book carts, locker room benches, and juice boxes. ~ Federal Prison Industries, a.k.a. Unicor, says that in addition to soldiers’ uniforms, bedding, shoes, helmets, and flak vests, inmates have “produced missile cables (including those used on the Patriot missiles during the Gulf War)” and “wiring harnesses for jets and tanks.” ~ In 1997, according to Prison Legal NewsBoeing subcontractor MicroJet had prisoners cutting airplane components, paying $7 an hour for work that paid union wages of $30 on the outside.


23 Cents an Hour? The Perfectly Legal Slavery Happening in Modern Day America, By Terrell Jermaine Starr / AlterNet July 1, 2015

Plantations, Prisons and Profits, Louisiana as prison capitol of the world,  Charles M. Blow, New York Times Op-Ed May 26, 2012

The Caging of America, Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, January 30, 2012

Competing With Prison Labor: Private Businesses Fight Federal Prisons for Contracts, Diane Cardwell, New York Times, March 15, 2012


BANKING ON BONDAGE: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration November 2, 2011, ACLU (43 pages)

JAILED WITHOUT JUSTICE: Immigration detention in the United States, Amnesty International report, 2008 (53 pages)

Slavery on the New Plantation: A Report on Today’s Prisons and Jails

Prison Labor – Facts and Issues

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II, Author: Douglas A. Blackmon

Selected extracts from DePauw University address by Angela Davis:

Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: “Criminals & Terrorists” 341KB] Ms. Davis says there also are parallels to be drawn between the way we view terrorists and the way America handles its prisoners. She quoted an April 4, 1967 speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and other nations, for those it calls enemy. For no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.” Davis says, in recent years, America has undertaken a “massive” program of building new prisons. Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: “Prisons” 516KB] “It’s almost as if the prison in both concept and institution serves as a place to deposit what is undesirable,” she stated. “So inside those prisons we deposit those people who are assumed to be the undesirables in our society, lock them away, and not worry about. We are safe… they make us feel safe.”

What’s more, Davis says many new prisons are now privately run. Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: “The KFC Connection” 599KB] “Punishment has become very profitable. There are so many corporations and organizations that have a stake in this punishment system.” Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: “Huge Economy” 600KB]

The social activist and educator says since September 11, the federal government has moved to limit immigration, and she worries other restrictions will follow that could affect all Americans. Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: “Hone Skills” 354KB] “This is a period during which, if we want to maintain a vision of the possibilities of social justice, we truly need to hone our critical skills, develop them and implement them.”

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23 Cents an Hour? The Perfectly Legal Slavery Happening in Modern Day America

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