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Prisons For Profit
When 43 inmates at McAlester Prison in Oklahoma burned down the "Rock" on October 19th (the "Rock" was the isolation unit, described by one of the prisoners as "a medieval chamber of horrors"), the State officials had a "solution" besides their normal brutality and repression. According to the Board of Corrections chairman, "Until we have work incentives to give an inmate a chance to prove himself worthy of being released into society, they are going to continue to pull stuff like this. Idleness breeds mischievousness...This means even if we have to bring in a mobile industry to put these hands to work." Acting Warden Roy Sprinkle immediately began advertising for bids on a new garment factory to make uniforms for guards and prisoners, and to rebuild the laundry and dry-cleaning factory along with the traditional license tag production.
Have prison officials decided to go all out for job-training and rehabilitation? Have they given up on their usual prehistoric methods of trying to beat prisoners into submission? Not at all. It's just that today, profits are talking!
A time-tested technique of the factory owner has been to pick up his factory and move it, especially when faced by militant workers. Often, this runaway shop has gone to the South where there are fewer unionized workers, and where wages are lower. More recently, the shop has run away overseas to places like Hong Kong or Taiwan or South Korea where workers can be paid almost nothing in comparison. The reason for this is simple: every penny less paid to workers means one more penny for the owner to stick in his bulging profit pocket.
But, with growing liberation struggles overseas making foreign exploitation more difficult, the industrialists and corporate businessmen are also beginning to find that the US prison system is another target to exploit. While they can't yet move large factories into the prisons, they are more and more using slave labor which exists in prisons around the country. For the factory owner, the best possible situation is one where workers are supervised and controlled as tightly as possible on and off the job, where workers cannot strike, and where they are paid as little as possible--and prisons are perfect. Prison wages vary: at Attica they remain a straight 25 cents per day. In the state prisons in Kentucky, a recent memorandum noted that the pay scales of $3, $5, $7, and $10 per month "will be a broken down scale of 15 cents, 25 cents, 35 cents, and 50 cents, per day." There are reports of wages as high as 47 cents per hour in some prisons!
Prisons--federal, state, and local provide a workforce large enough to be worth the time and energy to exploit: all told, there are some 600,000 men and women prisoners (according to government figures). Around $165 million worth of goods are produced yearly by prison labor. Federal Prison Industries (with George Meany as one of the directors) admits to profits of between 11% and 17% per year. At the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, 900 prisoners produced $18 million worth of products, with a clear profit of $4 million. Needless to say, none of this profit goes to the prisoner/workers.
These figures are just a small part of the actual value of work done by prisoners. Thousands of labor hours are spent in jobs which pay nothing at all--services to prison officials (cleaning, gardening, cooking, waiting tables, etc) farm work, highway construction, forestry projects. As Winter Soldier was told by one prisoner in Louisiana who was transferred to a "work facility," "Now this institution isn't a prison that I was in, merely a boarding station for the State Police Division. Actually, it is the state police headquarters, and they set up a barracks there to keep inmates that help to maintain equipment. By doing this, the state can get away without paying high bills and fees to free people to work these jobs--instead they just send to the State Penitentiary and get a few inmates and give them the job at a fee of 2 cents per hour."
Prison administrators, as in the case of McAlester, see work programs as a vital part of their program: not only do they have the convenient cover of "rehabilitation," and pick up on all the free services forced out of prisoners, but in many states they can lease out prisoners to private contractors for a fee--which goes directly to the administrator, never to the prisoners who do the work. In addition to the blatant corruption involved, work programs can often be used as the carrot by which to "reward" an obedient prisoner: even though wages are pitiful, they are better than nothing. And, because there are sometimes extra privileges involved, jobs can be held out as a temptation to convicts who inform or who stick to the official program. Leaders of militant prison resistance or organizing are, in many cases, never even considered for these jobs.
Prison industry is profit and free services and pacification; one thing it is not is "rehabilitation." Ancient equipment, jobs like making license plates, person services to guards and wardens, none of these provide the skills which lead to employment outside. What they do is take wages from workers who would be making the license plates or the clothes or whatever on the outside--why pay workers a minimum wage is prisoners can be forced to make it cheaper? And while prison industry does not now compete directly with outside industry (most prisoner products go to the state--military low quarters shoes, for instance, which are made at the Federal Prison in Leavenworth, Kansas), clearly the business world is looking more and more closely at the tempting profits to be squeezed from prison labor. Even now, that labor is often used instead of the workers who can least afford it. Throughout the south, prisoners do farm work in place of the migrant farmworkers, already one of the most miserably paid segments of American society. Yet, even their low wages can't compete with prison wages, nor can their work be enforced with whips, guns, or gas, all common at prison farms.
But the prison administrators are caught in a bind; while many of them would like to just lock up prisoners 24 hours a day (that's the simplest way to deal with prisoners who might otherwise rebel), that would mean no profits for the administrator or for the corporate financier of prison jobs. So the wardens put the prisoners to work. But work means that people are getting together, that they can talk to each other, that they can unite to fight their common oppression. It's no coincidence that several recent prison rebellions have taken place in the industrial areas of the prison--the garment factory in Starke, Florida; or the shoe factory in Leavenworth. Getting together means unity, and unity mean struggle against the enemy--and to prisoners around the country, that enemy is clearly the system which makes profits from prison labor, and which needs those prisons in order to continue to exist.