Business Behind Bars
With the repeal of welfare, some political opportunists and right-wing pundits are turning their sights on questions of law and order in general and prison "reform" in particular. They are starting to push congress to impose the same solution on prisoners as on welfare recipients: put them to work. Last year, candidate Bob Dole promised that if elected president, he would issue an executive order requiring every able-bodied federal prisoner to work a 40-hour week to earn money to compensate victims. "Taking a portion of prisoners' earnings to pay their upkeep or reimburse their victims also seems appropriate to many Americans," noted the Atlanta Journal and Constitution (9-18-96).Currently more than 90,000 state and federal convicts work in a variety of public and private enterprises while serving time. The majority are employed in state-owned enterprises such as making license plates or furniture for government offices. Increasingly though, private businesses have contracted with at least 25 states to set up business inside prison walls to take advantage of state-supplied facilities and low-wage non-union workers. The sales from privately operated industries totaled $83 million, a relatively small but growing addition to the $821 million generated from sales of state-owned prison industries, according to Knut Rostad, president of the Enterprise Prison Industry.Dr. Morgan O. Reynolds, an advocate of private industry in prisons and director of the Criminal Justice Center National Center for Policy Analysis, argued last year in front of the House Judiciary Committee that "legal restrictions, aided by bureaucratic inertia and labor union sensitivities, continue to hamper progress." Advocates like Reynolds propose repealing laws that protect prisoner laborers from the worst exploitation and protect free labor from unfair competition. In a editorial in the Wall Street Journal (5-1-96), Edwin Meese proposed repealing depression era laws that require prison workers making goods transported in interstate commerce to be paid at least the minimum wage. Part of this argument rests on the assertion that if the labor market is opened up for them, prisoners can help pay the costs of their incarceration. The illogic of this position is that if the state really wanted to make money from prison industries, where its "profit" supposedly comes from a portion of the salary paid to the prisoner, it should push for higher wages. On the other hand, in a happy consequence not mentioned by Meese, the lower the wage, the higher the profit for corporations.Making Out Like Bandits The Enterprise Prison Institute and Meese tout Washington state as a model for prison industries. In one Washington prison, Boeing Corporation, headquartered in Seattle, is discovering the benefits of a captive work force. Last year, while the world's largest civil aviation manufacturer made more planes and more money that ever before, it cut the number of employees on its US payroll. The only significant challenge to its drive to increase profits and executive salaries at workers' expense was a lengthy strike by the machinist union over eroding job security and disappearing pension and health benefits. Like most corporations, Boeing has been cutting costs and countering organized labor's threat to its bottom line by moving factories abroad and out-sourcing to non-union subcontractors in the US. Its search for workers who are unable to unionize or demand a decent wage took it to two widely divergent, yet strangely similar places: China and the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Washington.In China, where Boeing sold ten percent of its planes between 1993 and 1995, the company operates at a fraction of its US costs. According to the Seattle Times, "Employees live mostly on or next to the factory premises. Workers receive a salary of about $50 a month. They are forbidden to form independent trade unions. For those who step out of line on the shop floors in China, there is the notorious Lao Gai 'reeducation through labor' prison work camps ... " (5-26-96).The newspaper could have written almost the same story by traveling 25 miles to the Washington State Reformatory, where MicroJet is employing prison labor to make precision-cut aircraft components. Among the recently formed company's customers is none other than Boeing. MicroJet, which lists its address as 16700 177th Ave SE -- the same address as the prison -- currently employs eight prisoners. They train for minimum wage eventually progress to $7 an hour, according to a MicroJet hiring application, unlike those pesky machinists at Boeing's Everett plant who earn up to $30 an hour for similar work. Like all companies employing prison labor, MicroJet saves further by not paying benefits such as health insurance, unemployment, workers' compensation, etc. Even if a prisoner worker is seriously injured, it is the state, through the prison system, which picks up the tab.In December 1995, Omega Pacific laid off 30 free workers in Redmond, WA earning $7 an hour plus benefits and moved to the Airway Heights Corrections Center near Spokane, WA. There five state-paid employees supervise some 40 prisoners who Omega pays $6 an hour. After inmate Albert Delp works 40 hours a week for Omega Pacific at $6 an hour, his weekly pay is $240. After three quarters of that is eaten up by deductions, he takes home $60. photograph -- Shawn Jacobson, The Spokane Spokesman-ReviewIn addition to savings on salaries, prison industries also enjoy subsidized overhead. MicroJet's rent-free factory is in a 56,000 square foot industrial building built and maintained by Washington state (Prison Legal News April '96). The arrangement offers a "just-in-time" inventory of labor: prisoner workers can be simply left in their cells for weeks on end if there is no work, then be called in on short notice.Another runaway shop that scampered behind bars rather than to Mexico or Indonesia is Omega Pacific, a Redmond-based company which manufactures carabiners, D-shaped metal rings used by climbers to secure ropes. In December 1995, Omega Pacific laid off 30 free workers earning $7 an hour plus benefits and moved to the Airway Heights Corrections Center near Spokane. There, five state-paid employees supervise some 40 prisoners who Omega pays $6 an hour. Omega Pacific owner Bert Atwater told the Spokane Spokesman Review that he moved to prison because of the rent-free quarters where "the workers are delighted with the pay; [where there are] no workers who don't come in because of rush hour traffic or sick children at home; [and where] workers ... don't take vacations. Where would these guys go on vacation anyway?" Atwater was also pleased that he doesn't "have to deal with employee benefits or workers' compensation."With these competitive advantages, prison industries can easily underbid any US competitor. The real losers, then, are the free workers whose jobs have gone to prisoner laborers.Third-World Labor Model In prison, the term wage slavery takes on a new meaning since prisoners are confined to their cells for much of the day. An industry job "consumes virtually all of your out-of-cell time," said Chris St. Pierre, who is serving a life sentence at the Washington State Reformatory, "making you a virtual slave where all your time is spent at work or locked in your cell. This limits your ability to visit with your family and attorneys, do legal research, go to school, exercise, etc."But while a $7 an hour wage clearly puts prison workers at a competitive advantage, it does not at first seem to exploit them. In fact, prisoners hired by MicroJet take home only a small fraction of their earnings. Right off the top, the state deducts 20 percent for "cost of corrections"; 10 percent goes into a mandatory savings fund controlled by the Department of Corrections; and 5 percent to a crime victim compensation fund that is actually used to fund victim notification and awareness programs, in accordance with state law RCW 72.09.111(1)(a). In addition, the prisoner pays state and federal taxes, social security, and up to 20 percent more to pay off any victim restitution, child support, trial costs, and other court-ordered financial obligations. After Albert Delp works 40 hours a week making carabiners for Omega Pacific at $6 an hour, his weekly pay is $240. After three quarters of that is eaten up by deductions, he takes home $60 (Spokane Spokesman Review, 2-22-96)"I don't support prison industries as they are run now," said St. Pierre. "Due to the deductions the more you make, the more they take. You pay taxes and can't vote and have no say in how the money is used. You pay for room and board yet you're still subject to the same shit food and conditions. Even with the money you earn, there isn't much you can buy with it due to property limits. The employers treat prisoners poorly because they know the prisoners have limited employment options and aren't going anywhere."Few prisoners are willing to speak publicly against the program for fear of losing their industry jobs, being blacklisted by prison industry employers, or incurring retaliation from prison officials. In any case, most of Washington state's 12,800 prisoners would probably say that they support prison industries, regardless of any objective exploitation. Just like on the outside, people in prison work at jobs they dislike because they need the money and there are long waiting lists for the 300 industry jobs available. While food, clothing and shelter are provided, prisoners are required to pay for such basics as soap and toothbrushes, a $3 per visit charge for access to medical care, and fees for a number of other luxuries like schooling and family visits. Their situation is similar to that of sweatshop and maquiladora workers in South Asia and Latin America who earn a few dollars a day. While such wages are exploitative and paltry by First World standards, in the Third World, they make the difference between starvation and poverty, and are thus highly sought after. Prison industries represent a Third World labor model in the heart of America.Prisoners also look to these industries for training that will make them more employable on the outside. "Elliott Bay is the best program in this joint," said one prisoner, since it allowed him to hone his welding skills in preparation for a job after he serves his remaining seven years. When reminded that companies like Elliott Bay drive down wages and take jobs out of society, he was blunt: "Fuck society, they locked me up."Prison industries prefer to hire people serving life terms to avoid the retraining and slow production associated with worker turnover. Although no national figures are available, of the eight MicroJet workers at the Washington State Reformatory, four are lifers, as are 12 of the 15 who work for Redwood Outdoors. Prison industry advocate Morgan Reynolds tacitly admits that industry favors prisoners with longer terms, but explained it this way in congressional testimony: "One of the difficulties of creating jobs for prisoners is that many of them are illiterate or semiliterate, or have low IQs ... .The federal system may have the best prospects for high rates of payback because many of the prisoners are there for crimes typically committed by more intelligent criminals like counterfeiting, kidnapping and drug smuggling." These are also crimes which carry longer sentences.This pattern of favoring lifers and long-termers calls into question the claim that such programs are intended to provide meaningful job skills. Also debatable is whether the skills are marketable on the outside. How many ex-prisoners will find work sewing garments in a sweatshop? most of those jobs go overseas, and those that stay in the US are often filled by undocumented immigrants and, increasingly, by prisoners.Costly Jobs "Since 1980, the state and federal prison population has increased from 316,000 to 1.1 million," said Reynolds. "By the year 2002, the inmate population is expected to increase by another 43 percent ... .The expense has reached about $25 billion a year, or $250 a year for every household in America. One of the most obvious proposals to reduce the cost of criminal justice is to increase the amount of productive work by prisoners." Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX) has proposed that federal prisoners pay 50 percent of their annual support through prison work.So far that scenario seems largely hype. In 1995, the Washington state legislature, for example, appropriated over $19 million to the Department of Correction's industries for the 1995-97 biennium -- $9.5 million a year to ensure that 300 prisoners are employed at minimum wage jobs. The money goes to pay the staff salaries and benefits of the bureaucracy set up to oversee the prison industries program. In essence, the state is spending more than $30,000 a year to ensure each prisoner earns $5-7 an hour, with the state getting 20 percent of all paid wages back in the form of its "cost of corrections" deduction. Prisoners would have to gross at least $160,000 a year for the state to break even.Nor does the Department of Correction's prison industries budget include the salaries of the additional guards hired to provide security and supervision of the prisoner workers. Nor does it cover capital construction costs, such as the $5 million spent by the state to house MicroJet.The right-wing drive to make prisons pay -- while racking up a nice profit for industry -- fits well with the continuing transformations of America into a nation of small government, big corporations, and big prisons. And just like the welfare bill, it gives the public the false sense that meaningful reform is taking place. Meanwhile it takes pressure off a system which cannot provide enough decent jobs and uses incarceration as the remedy of choice for poverty, unemployment, poor education, and racism. If you've lost your job in manufacturing, garment or furniture fabrication, telemarketing or packaging, it could have simply been sentenced to prison.The writer would like to thank Terry Allen and Tom Sowa for their assistance in researching portions of this article.Paul Wright, is a prisoner in Washington state and the editor of Prison Legal News, an independent monthly magazine.