Defense Contractors Using Prison Labor to Build High-Tech Weapons Systems
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“At first, giving people in prison a job looks like a good idea. The prisoner gets the job skill and a few extra dollars, the state takes some payment to let it happen, and the industry gets the work done. But this is not a win-win situation” says prison expert and SEIU senior research analyst Eric Lotke. “It’s actually a lose-lose. The person in prison is paid far less than a real wage negotiated by free people in a free market economy. So free-market wages are undercut, driving wages down in the real economy. Meanwhile, business gets an incentive to lock people up for convict labor and the state loses its financial incentive to improve its criminal justice policies.“
In some cases, forced prison labor has resulted in inmates being brutalized rather than rehabilitated. Last year, Georgia inmates went on strike at six prisons for over a week. They complained that they were beaten if they refused to work prison jobs for little or sometimes no pay.
Prison experts like Lotke say that while such jobs can be valuable in a productive environment, there are different ways to do things. “You could pay workers union wages and incur it into an account for when they are released. This would give them an incentive to behave well while they are in prison and give them a financial base for when they get out of prison,” he said.
Lotke’s union, SEIU, which represents many government service workers whose jobs are threatened by slave wage prison labor, is looking at ways to invest in programs that will help create jobs. SEIU is working with state governments to dedicate resources away from prisons and into government services that keep people out of prison like education, after school programs and other services that create good jobs in underdeveloped communities.
“The prison industry is extraordinarily destabilizing because small towns want the jobs that prisons create. However, Its all backwards—a small town could get a highway or a university or a grant for a factory—any of these things could create jobs,“ says Lotke. “We could be investing in good jobs, creating the conditions where poor youth don’t turn to crime out of economic frustration. Instead we replicate the problem by throwing all this money at the prison system. When people realize what a waste of money, economic opportunity, and how ineffective it is to have so many people locked up, that is when we finally solve the criminal justice and jobs problem in this country”.
The effort by SEIU to move resources away from prisons is a bold one, as prison guard unions have traditionally lobbied heavily to expand the number of correctional facilities in places like California. But as public sector union workers lose their jobs and other services are cut to keep prisons open, more unions are realizing they have to do something or their jobs are going to be lost in a race to the bottom with America’s cheapest labor – incarcerated labor.
Mike Elk is a labor reporter and third-generation union organizer based in Washington, DC.