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21st-Century Slaves: How Corporations Exploit Prison Labor

In the eyes of the corporation, inmate labor is a brilliant strategy in the eternal quest to maximize profit.
 
 
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This article has been updated.

There is one group of American workers so disenfranchised that corporations are able to get away with paying them wages that rival those of third-world sweatshops. These laborers have been legally stripped of their political, economic and social rights and ultimately relegated to second-class citizens. They are banned from unionizing, violently silenced from speaking out and forced to work for little to no wages. This marginalization renders them practically invisible, as they are kept hidden from society with no available recourse to improve their circumstances or change their plight.

They are the 2.3 million American prisoners locked behind bars where we cannot see or hear them. And they are modern-day slaves of the 21st century. 

Incarceration Nation

It’s no secret that America imprisons more of its citizens than any other nation in history. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, the US currently holds  25 percent of the world's prisoners . "In 2008, over 2.3 million Americans were in prison or jail, with one of every 48 working-age men behind bars," according to a  study by the  Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). That doesn’t include the tens of thousands of detained undocumented immigrants facing deportation, prisoners awaiting sentencing, or juveniles caught up in the school-to-prison pipeline. Perhaps it’s reassuring to some that the US still holds the number one title in at least one arena, but needless to say the hyper-incarceration plaguing America has had a damaging effect on society at large.

The CEPR  study observes that US prison rates are not just excessive in comparison to the rest of the world, they are also "substantially higher than our own longstanding history." The study finds that incarceration rates between 1880 and 1970 ranged from about "100 to 200 prisoners per 100,000 people." After 1980, the inmate population "began to grow much more rapidly than the overall population and the rate climbed from "about 220 in 1980 to 458 in 1990, 683 in 2000, and 753 in 2008."

The costs of this incarceration industry are far from evenly distributed, with the impact of excessive incarceration falling predominantly on African-American communities. Although black people make up just 13 percent of the overall population, they account for  40 percent  of US prisoners.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics  (BJS), black males are incarcerated at a rate "more than 6.5 times that of white males and 2.5 that of Hispanic males and "black females are incarcerated at approximately three times the rate of white females and twice that of Hispanic females."

Michelle Alexander points out in her book  The New Jim Crow  that more  black men  "are in prison or jail, on probation or on parole than were enslaved in 1850." Higher rates of black drug arrests do not reflect higher rates of black drug offenses. In fact, whites and blacks engage in drug offenses, possession and sales at roughly comparable rates.  

Incentivizing Incarceration

Clearly, the US prison system is riddled with racism and classism, but it gets worse. As it turns out, private companies have a cheap, easy labor market, and it isn’t in China, Indonesia, Haiti, or Mexico. It’s right here in the land of the free, where large corporations increasingly employ prisoners as a source of cheap and sometimes free labor.

In the eyes of the corporation, inmate labor is a brilliant strategy in the eternal quest to maximize profit. By dipping into the prison labor pool, companies have their pick of workers who are not only cheap but easily controlled. Companies are free to avoid providing benefits like health insurance or sick days, while simultaneously paying little to no wages. They don’t need to worry about unions or demands for vacation time or raises. Inmates work full-time and are never late or absent because of family problems. 

 
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