Barred Windows '95: Prison Labor
Was your copy of Microsoft Windows '95 packed and shrink-wrapped by a Washington State prisoner?According to one prisoner who works for Exmark, a company specializing in product packaging, approximately 90 prisoners at the Twin Rivers Correctional Center [TRCC] in Monroe shrink-wrapped 50,000 units of Windows '95."Those were good times for us," he recalls fondly. "Everybody had plenty of work then." That same worker says he was laid off after the Microsoft contract, and hasn't worked since. Each day, he says, he checks the bulletin board: Exmark posts a "call-out" list with the names of those workers fortunate enough to have a job the following day. He explains that those prisoners with the least seniority or who have fallen into disfavor -- for anything from back-talking to poor work habits -- will appear on the call-out list only for the largest contracts.Exmark is a subsidiary of Pac Services, a Redmond, Washington packaging company which also employs non-prisoner, or "free world," workers. Steve Curly, an Exmark employee, denied the company had packed any Windows '95. But he said that Exmark's TRCC operation had packed tens of thousands of units of Microsoft Office, and had wrapped and shipped as many as 40,000 Microsoft mice in one week.Exmark utilizes prison labor mainly, as one prisoner puts it, "when they have a big contract and need some extra workers." When work is plentiful, Exmark's prisoner workers shift into high gear. At other times they remain idle in their cells.Prisoners say Microsoft is not the only beneficiary of Exmark's "flexible" labor force; they also claim to have regularly packaged goods for Costco, Starbucks, and JanSport. Exmark's prisoner workers also talk about stuffing envelopes for mass mailings, something they claim to have often done for telecommunications giant US WEST.Most people are surprised to learn that private corporations utilize prison labor. After the initial shock, however, many think it's a terrific new idea. But the concept is anything but new. Beginning in 1817 with New York's Auburn prison, the predominant U.S. corrections model was based on a scheme referred to as "lease prisons."Sometimes private business entities contracted with states to operate their entire prison system; other times the state would operate the prisons and "lease" the prisoner labor to the businesses.Nineteenth-century prisons were basically forced labor camps. Prisoners were made to produce a wide array of goods including shoes, furniture, wagons, and stoves. For the sake of profit they were often housed in squalid conditions, fed rancid meat and wormy flour. Whippings were commonplace. From almost the very start there were scattered protests about prison labor from manufacturers' associations and organized labor. The states were addicted to the cost savings, however, and they refused to dismantle the lease system.The battle between the competing interests favored prison labor until the New Deal era. In 1935 two federal laws, the Hawes-Cooper Act and the Ashurst-Sumner Act, were passed which virtually outlawed prison labor. The Ashurst-Sumner Act made it a felony to move prison-made goods across state boundaries, irrespective of individual state laws.This lasted until the 1970s, when Chief Justice Warren Burger began proselytizing for conversion of U.S. prisons into "factories with fences." Congress was willing to listen. As part of the Justice System Improvement Act of 1979, Congress passed an amendment which established seven Prison Industry Enhancement [PIE] pilot projects. By 1984, PIE had grown to 20 pilot projects, and the definition of "project" was changed to encompass not just a single business, but all businesses set up in prisons by either a county or a state. The law was again amended in 1990 to allow up to 50 pilot "projects" (e.g., states) to participate. Today all of the prison products from as many as 50 states or counties may legally enter the stream of interstate commerce. And so we begin round two of the prison labor profiteering racket, with a PIE big enough that any business in any state can grab a piece of the action.For companies like Exmark, it's an attractive proposition. Prisoners say they receive the minimum wage from the corporation, but that figure is misleading. The Department of Corrections (DOC) deducts 20 percent of prisoners' wages to recover "cost of corrections." Another 10 percent is deducted and placed in a "mandatory savings account." Five percent is deducted for a "Victims' Compensation Fund" administered by the state. Federal Income Tax, Social Security tax, and Medicare tax are also withheld. The DOC can deduct an additional 20 percent to pay court-ordered restitution, court costs, and other debts.When all is said and done, prisoners can see a "spendable" wage of $1.80 to $2.80 per hour. Exmark and other private industries operating in Washington's prisons, for one, do not have to provide their prisoner workers with any benefits such as health insurance, workers' compensation, or retirement (although the state offers a comprehensive "Three Strikes" retirement plan!). These operations are further subsidized by the state in that they usually pay little or nothing for the factory, office, or warehouse space in the state's prisons. The DOC pays electricity, water, utilities, and other overhead; costs that a private company would have to pay in a non-prison setting.One could argue that some prison-made goods would indeed fall into a category of goods "currently produced by foreign suppliers" such as the infamous maquiladora sweatshops in Mexico and Central America. A lot of people, both inside and outside of prison, believe "correctional industries" jobs are a boon to prisoners. "Elliott Bay is the best program in this joint," claims one prisoner. He points out how working there allows him to hone his welding skills and prepare for a job on the outside. When it was pointed out to him that Elliott Bay probably takes jobs away from society, he replied, "Fuck society! Society locked me up."But which segment of society is truly being shafted by prison industries jobs? Those who own stock in companies like Microsoft, US WEST, Costco, and United Van Lines are probably satisfied with the arrangement. But unemployed welders, telemarketers, and metal fabricators might see it differently when they realize that the only way to get a job might be to go to prison.