Captive Labor

'The underlying reality is that there are at least five groups of people who would like to be doing such work: the unemployed, recent high school graduates looking for work, people in prison -- if they were paid at the prevailing wage -- people just released from prison, and people being forced off welfare.' -- Staughton LyndMichael Matthews is a medium-security prisoner at the Dayton Correctional Institute, a 480-man facility for both adults and juveniles located in southwest Dayton off Germantown Street. Originally from Missouri, he's been in the Ohio penal system for 12 years, and at DCI for seven. He does what most of Ohio's prisoners spend at least six hours a day doing: working, in an in-prison factory. With his free time he takes care of a 150' by 40' plot of garden vegetables, the produce from which is donated to a local homeless shelter. Matthews is lucky. His community service job interests him: he reads books on low-maintenance gardening, and does weeding and watering in his spare time. More often, community service jobs are menial and uninteresting. In guarded work crews prisoners from minimum- and medium-security facilities pick up roadside litter, clean parks, or work for a church that has pulled the labor request form off the Web and duly received approval. Chris Fletcher, the Job Coordinator/Community Service administrator at DCI, my guide on a short tour, showed me a large dry-erase board of various projects local non-profits had requested prisoner assistance for. The jobs ranged from packaging pamphlets on birth control for Planned Parenthood, to doing the grunt work on the renovation of Zion Church, the location of Dayton's new Afro-American museum. In the name of community service, prisoner laborers also do odd-jobs for the state and manufacturing and industrial work for Ohio Penal Industries. Through Ohio's Bureau of Community Service, each of the state's 29 prisons "adopt a school," for example. The prisons "receive an inventory list of what that school needs," according to Wanda Suber, an administrator for the Bureau of Community Service. "It might be recycling popcan tabs. We also create educational plays on crime and we loan those tapes to area schools. We do flash cards, we do bookshelves, we do coloring books, we do charts, we do room borders. We do book covers, we restain desks, we resand desks, we do landscaping ... We do all sorts of things. You name it, we're probably doing it." Last year, Ohio's prisoners racked up 1.9 million community service hours. And the goal for 1997 is substantially higher. "Mostly we do it for churches and schools, and for the state of Ohio," said the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections' media contact Joe Andrews. "Availability of inmates, distance from the prison, all those things come into play, but we like to do what we can." While few would argue against prisoners growing tomatoes for the homeless or making covers for public school books, the use of prison labor is expanding far beyond traditional volunteer work. And this, many labor analysts say, is taking jobs away from non-prisoners and putting downward pressure on wages. Unibase, a multinational corporation with its headquarters in Salt Lake City, pays the state of Ohio to have prisoners in Lebanon, Warren and Orient Correctional Institutions do data-entry work. Unibase pays the DRC according to how productive the workers are, and Unibase President Lynn Blodgett said he did not know how much the prisoners were paid. "It's really kind of a state issue," he said. An Ohio prisoner wrote in Prison Legal News in 1995 that the base pay rate was 47 cents an hour at the Unibase workshop in Lebanon Correctional Institute, with an "incentive pay rate" that had been raised to such an impossible speed that no one earned more than the base rate. Like many corporations that use prisoner labor across the nation, Unibase advances the somewhat clouded logic that their use of prison labor does not take away outside jobs because the jobs they have prisoners doing are largely being sent overseas ("offshore") anyway. "There's a lot of offshore options," said Unibase's Blodgett. "You can get data-entry work done everywhere now: Sri Lanka, the Philippines, the Caribbean, there are hundreds of operations. "We face that competition all the time now," Blodgett continues. "We're constantly fighting offshore vendors, who would happily take the work that's done in those prison industries, probably could beat that price. We argue that [the work] gets to stay in the state, and that becomes kind of our sales pitch." Blodgett feels that Unibase is aiding the state by helping to offset the cost of imprisonment. This argument doesn't set well with Peter Gilmore, the editor of the United Electrical Workers UE News. Blodgett's "is just an astounding argument. 'It's really okay 'cause the jobs are staying in the United States.' I suppose that's true," Gilmore said, "but why is it that you have to be a felon in order to get the job?" Jana Schroeder of the American Friends Service Committee Dayton office feels that prison labor is "a really complex issue. There are some prisoners who will make the point 'this is a good way to get job training. It's good that these private companies come in 'cause they'll train us and then we can go out and work.'" Using prison labor, according to official DRC literature, "is an opportunity to develop new attitudes and to learn marketable skills for [prisoners'] return to society as productive citizens." But what isn't said is that the market for the majority of these skills is already overseas or behind bars. Unibase is a perfect example. "We have three facilities in Mexico and they're large facilities and we do an awful lot of work there," Blodgett acknowledges. Out of roughly 4,000 Unibase employees, 1,500 are in Mexico and 150 or so of the rest are in prison. Most prisoners are apparently not learning "marketable" skills for after their release -- unless they've got their hearts set on a machiladora in Latin America or a sweatshop in Southeast Asia. Alice and Staughton Lynd are a wife and husband team of Legal Services lawyers living in Youngstown and deeply involved in the labor movement as both organizers and labor historians. Activists since the 1950s, the Lynds proudly refer to themselves as "long distance runners." They are among the '60s civil rights and anti-war activists who stayed active and devoted to working for meaningful social change. In the last several years, as four prisons, one of them private, have descended upon the battered Youngstown community, the Lynds have taken an active interest in Ohio prison issues and have been instrumental in the organization of several community forums on the topic. Staughton Lynd, as a labor activist still weathering Youngstown's double-digit unemployment rate, is virulently opposed to yet another force acting against the Ohio worker, this time not in the form of steel giants splitting town, but in the form of the under- or unpaid prisoner labor. Lynd is against the use of prison labor, through community service or otherwise, by state or county agencies because, "A) even if it doesn't take an existing job from public employees, it takes a job that could be performed by public employees. And B), it tends to undercut the wages and working conditions of employees on the outside." The position of Ohio prison officials, such as media contact Joe Andrews, is that the work Ohio prisoners do for state agencies "is mostly things that would not have gotten done because budgets wouldn't allow for it." Lynd finds this argument insidious. "The underlying reality is that there are at least five groups of people who would like to be doing such work: the unemployed, recent high school graduates looking for work, people in prison -- if they were paid at the prevailing wage -- people just released from prison, and people being forced off welfare," he said. "If you were looking at one group of people maybe you could talk that way, but if you realize that a place like Youngstown has the highest unemployment rates of any city in Ohio, and any kind of work for any kind of compensation is desperately fought over by several competing constituencies. I think it's really irresponsible the way [Ohio prison officials] act as if they were operating in a vacuum." In many ways the use of prisoner labor is like the new "workfare" programs. With the rhetoric of "personal responsibility" the government puts the poor to work in non-union jobs at sub-minimum wage levels. The jobs put the participants in direct competition with other badly paid workers or unionized employees. The effect is to lower the salary of unionized and non-offending workers. While those workers suffer the effects of competition created by "welfare reform" and mass imprisonment, employers are the ones who gain. The Lynds organized a community forum on prison labor in Youngstown last April. A 14-point platform was developed at the forum. The platform includes points already subscribed to by the AFL-CIO (though not always energetically enforced by its locals), such as prison labor should not displace existing outside jobs, and should not be used to break strikes or lockouts or provide services that might prolong a strike or a lockout. It also includes more innovative demands such as that prisoners in educational and training programs should be paid a small stipend and allowed to earn "good time," and one stating that "Prison workers should be able to form and join trade unions, and to withhold their labor to protest their conditions of work. At the very least, prison workers must be able to report their grievances to an outside labor organization or organizations that will advocate on behalf of inmates." The picture that emerges from the platform is one in which low-end workers, whether imprisoned or not, would be provided both some degree of protection from forces currently stronger than they are -- such as multinational corporations -- as well as protection from being pitted against one another in competition for jobs. Ohio's prisoners who work but are not involved in community service or prison upkeep do so in one of the Ohio Penal Industries' 15 in-prison industrial facilities. They make goods for the state along the license plate line -- office furniture, street signs, etc. -- and perform tasks such as vehicle repair. The prisoners are paid little, receiving about $1 a day for a six-hour day, after various deductions like victim's restitution and court fees are made. This state use of sub-minimum wage laborers raises the same concerns about exerting a downward force on outside wages and labor clout as Ohio's use of community service prison labor does. UE News Managing Editor Peter Gilmore has been vocal in his opposition to private use of prison labor, and sees a problem with the public use of it as well. When a state uses prisoner labor, Gilmore said, speaking from UE's national office in Pittsburgh, "You can very quickly cross a line into an area where you're talking about jobs that are currently held by people who are employed by state or local government. I think people who work in the public sector should also expect to have some sort of job security -- security because their jobs are valuable to the society as a whole, to the function of government. They should be able to perform their jobs secure in the knowledge that they're not going to be undercut by somebody who's in shackles." The problems inherent in the use of prison labor by private companies are easier for most to understand than that of public sector prison labor. Paul Wright, co-editor of Prison Legal News, a prisoner in Washington state and a journalist who has written nationally on the topic of what he refers to as "prisoner/slave labor," developed this idea. "So far, the actual numbers of outside businesses involved in prison productions is still quite small. At last count there were only around 72,000 prisoners employed in these free-world ventures," out of an overall incarcerated population of around 1.6 million. "Attempts to increase that number are going to be faced with a number of contradictions that're going to limit its growth," Wright continued. "First off among those is that as people become increasingly aware of prison/slave labor I think there'll be a backlash against the companies that use it. My personal experience has been that upon exposing corporations using prison/slave labor, they usually don't want to be associated with it. There's really a public relations problem with it. Having demonized us and made us little better than wild beasts -- if not worse than that -- there's really a problem then saying, 'This product was made using prison labor.'" But the state industries that do not involve private interests, "are companies that by statute can only sell to other government agencies. You don't have the consumer problem," Wright said. Back at Dayton Correctional Institute, Chris Fletcher is showing me through a prison workshop. He waved his hand at stacks of small 8" squares with small gold nails sticking out. "This is one of my favorite [community service] programs," he said proudly. The squares are "GEO Boards," learning tools for small children to make "any shape but a square" on. The prison donates them to schools. Fletcher says that a private company wanted to charge a school something like $3,000 for 500 or so. He said the prisoners could do it for free. Now, he says, "We've got three men makin' these full-time six hours a day." It's plain that those jobs could be outside jobs. Ohio's prison population is rising to well over 45,000, making it the fifth largest penal system in the country. Barring a serious change of power dynamics behind prison walls, the state will likely keep prisoners working for low or no wages on whatever tasks it can think up to give them. That is a huge labor force working at Third World wages in the heart of Ohio. It should cause everyone to do some serious thinking about who is really being punished by large-scale imprisonment.


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