Human Rights

There Are 870,000 Slaves in Modern-Day America

An investigation into the prison labor industry unearths shocking conditions and rampant wage theft.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Jaromir Chalabala

Imagine getting a job washing dishes, in a windowless room fogged by the steam of a 200-degree dishwasher. You are required to show up for your eight-hour shift every day, whether or not you are sick, and your supervisor won’t take any action if you injure yourself on the job or have to work overtime. Your compensation for this grueling, dehumanizing work? $2 a day.

If this sounds like some hellish turn-of-the-century sweatshop, it is close. But this is today's reality for hundreds of thousands of American prisoners, who work backbreaking full-time jobs for shockingly low pay. Half of the 1.6 million Americans currently serving time do this kind of “institutional maintenance,” and the median wage they receive is between 20 and 31 cents an hour. Some states, like Texas and Georgia, offer no compensation at all.

In a fascinating investigation for the American Prospect, Beth Schwartzapfel takes us inside the dark world of penal labor, asking a question that has dogged the industry since the days of roadside chain gangs: why can’t we agree that prisoners have labor rights?

At prisons across the United States, men and women build office furniture, clean cellblocks, make industrial sinks for school cafeterias, work as telemarketers, sew the uniforms worn by their guards and fellow inmates, and complete dozens of other mindless, routine tasks that keep the giant engine of the carceral state running. Though part of the pretense for prison labor is that it helps inmates save money and earn skills that will ease their transition upon release, these terribly paid, manual labor jobs provide little practical assistance to inmates returning home. Instead, they are more akin to a modern-day version of slavery: unprotected, physically demanding and economically exploitative.

Still, despite the poor quality of the jobs available, inmates eagerly accept whatever work is on offer to break up the monotony of prison life and to earn some cash to send to their families on the outside. Working can help alleviate the psychological strain of being locked up, giving inmates a sense of focus and self-worth. And study after study has proven that those who earn professional skills and a decent salary are much less likely to return to prison. Some states have taken this information onboard, investing in intensive programs that train inmates for skilled, well-compensated positions. One notable example Schwartzapfel points to is a men’s prison in Chino, California that runs a commercial diving school, training inmates to work as underwater welders and heavy-construction riggers. In a state where the recidivism rate of the general prison population is a staggering 64 percent, only 7 percent of the men who participate in this program ever end up behind bars again.

So why don’t we put more effort into training programs that have been proven to work? For one, both private companies and labor unions have historically been very antagonistic to prison labor. Companies see the abundance of dirt-cheap inmate-workers as a threat to their bottom line and unions see it as a threat to their membership. There have been prolonged legal battles to keep correctional work programs from undermining private-sector and union jobs. And for prison owners and government agencies, there is a clear profit motive in keeping wages low and leaving workers without advanced job skills. As Schwartzapfel notes, “Prisons—and taxpayers—use prisoners to save hundreds of millions of dollars each year on labor costs."

Privatization is the multi-headed hydra driving the American justice system, and prison labor is just one example of how keeping people in jail is good for business. We live in a country where arbitrary bed quotas in immigrant detention centers require officials to hold non-violent detainees for months at a time. Modern-day debtors’ prisons keep impoverished offenders chained to the carceral state for minor infractions like speeding or failing to pay fines. Shoplifting a $159 jacket can earn you life in prison. And hundreds of thousands of inmates mass-produce cheap goods for the state. Schwartzapfel brings her article to a close with a question:  

We may all agree that by committing certain crimes, people forfeit their right to be free, at least for a time. Must that also mean they forfeit their right to fair pay for their work? Ultimately, does it serve justice—or benefit the economy—to have so many people released from prison with sizable debts, no job skills, and nowhere to turn but to crime or the government safety net?

The answer is a resounding no. 

Allegra Kirkland is AlterNet's associate managing editor. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Salon, Daily Serving and The Nation.

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