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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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In an unsettling turn of events lawmakers have begun ditching public employees in favor of free prison labor. The New York Times recently reported that states are " enlisting prison labor to close budget gaps " to offset cuts in "federal financing and dwindling tax revenue." At a time of record unemployment, inmates are being hired to "paint vehicles, clean courthouses, sweep campsites and perform many other services done before the recession by private contractors or government employees." In  Wisconsin, prisoners are now taking up jobs that were once held by unionized workers, as a result of Governor Scott Walker’s contentious anti-union law.

Why You Should Care

Those who argue in favor of prison labor claim it is a useful tool for rehabilitation and preparation for post-jail employment. But this has only been shown to be true in cases where prisoners are exposed to meaningful employment, where they learn new skills, not the labor-intensive, menial and often dangerous work they are being tasked with. While little if any evidence exists to suggests that the current prison labor system decreases recidivism or leads to better employment prospects outside of prison, there are a number of solutions that have been proven to be useful. 

According to a  study by the Pew Charitable Trusts , “having a history of incarceration itself impedes subsequent economic success.” Pew  found that "past incarceration reduced subsequent wages by 11 percent, cut annual employment by nine weeks and reduced yearly earnings by 40 percent." The study suggests that the best approach is for state and federal authorities to "invest in programs that reconnect inmates to the labor market," as well as "provide training and job placement services around the time of release." Most importantly, Pew suggests that in the long term, America must move toward alternative sentencing programs for low-level and nonviolent offenders, and issuing penalties that are actually proportionate with real public safety concerns.

The exploitation of any workforce is detrimental to all workers. Cheap and free labor pushes down wages for everyone. Just as American workers cannot compete with sweatshop labor, the same goes for prison labor. Many jobs that come into prison are taken from free citizens. The American labor movement must demand that prison labor be allowed the right to unionize, the right to a fair and living wage, and the right to a safe and healthy work environment. That is what prisoners are demanding, but they can only do so much from inside a prison cell.  

As unemployment on the outside increases, so too will crime and incarceration rates, and our 21st-century version of corporate slavery will continue to expand unless we do something about it.  

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been corrected since its original publication for more accurate attribution to original sources.

Rania Khalek is a progressive activist. Check out her blog  Missing Pieces  or follow her on Twitter  @Rania_ak. You can contact her at  raniakhalek@gmail.com.

 
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