Prof. Jen Light
December 6, 2017
The Quality and Effectiveness of The Prison Labor System
In 2017, companies like UNICOR, Victoria Secrets, and J.C. Penny profit immensely from labor programs in prisons. These major companies invest in contract labor at an alarmingly low cost by investing in and bringing work to prisons. However, we see a number of problematic conditions within the current prison labor systems: inadequate wages, exceedingly high cost of living fees, unsuitable working conditions, and grueling work hours. Contrary to the arguments of the architects of this prison labor system, the programs do not lead to a reduction in recidivism or an increase in the employment rate of recently released individuals. With comprehensive changes to prison labor programs, we might actually effect change with a modest living wage and a specific focus on relevant skill building as well as a comprehensive approach to job placements upon release. We can reduce recidivism and raise the currently low employment rate of recently released individuals.
In 1816, New York State established, their first prison, the Auburn State Penitentiary.i The Auburn system represented a departure from the colonial prison system and sought to rehabilitate convicts through routines of industry, obedience, and silence.ii Several abuses occurred under the Auburn system, including but not limited to grueling slave-labor practices, corporal punishment, malnourishment, assault, and failure to treat disease and other medical conditions.iii The Auburn prison was the first to implement labor workshops, which made up for prison costs, by fulfilling private-industry contracts.iv Majority of the state prisons seen the Auburn system as an effective key to inmate reform. The Auburn system was the first prison to incorporate labor and single cells, to enforce separations of inmates at all times.v Many of the practices that began in Auburn have led to today’s “prison-industrial complex,” a term that describes the overlapping interests of government and industry, and how they use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems.vi Because of the practices within the prison labor system, we can identify a variety of inmate related injustices.
Today, prison labor plays an integral part in production of everyday goods. Many big businesses are bringing work to prisons for significant low cost at the expense of the prisoners. For example, Whole Foods Market, since 2011, benefitted from inmate labor. Items like tilapia, and goat cheese are raised and milked by inmates in Colorado for 74 cents a day.vii Similarly, McDonald’s and Wendy’s use prison labor to produce frozen foods, process beef, chicken, bread, and milk for company products.viii Companies like Victoria Secrets, and J.C. Penny also employ prisoners because of the cheap wages.ix In addition, there are not only companies bringing work to prisons, companies are also investing in the prison labor system. The Federal Prison Industry, also referred to as UNICOR, is a government owned manufacturing company that serves as a prison labor program for inmates within the Federal prisons.x UNICOR operates 83 prisons, and pays their inmates between 23 cents to $1.15 per hour.xi UNICOR takes on contracts from different companies in order to maintain the factories within prisons. As a result of private industries investing in labor from prisons, 100% of all military helmets, ammunition, belts, bullet proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens are produced by inmates through contracted labor.xii Likewise, inmates also produce 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove assembly; 36% of home appliances; and 21% of office furniture.xiii While prison labor and the American economy seems to have a direct relationship, the compensation for inmates is not very lucrative. The City of New York Department of Corrections created the Inmate Incentive Pay Program, this program regulates the type of jobs available to inmates in addition to the pay period and wages that would be offered.
Likewise, prisons are also profiting from the business investments. For example, in North Country, Potsdam New York, they initially started off with two prisons. Today, it currently has eighteen correctional facilities.xiv The prison boom provided an infusion of state money to an economically depressed region. In addition to the more than $1.5 billion spent to build correctional facilities, the prisons now bring the North Country about $425 million in annual payroll and operating expenditures. That represents an annual subsidy to the region of more than $1,000 per person.xv The economic impact of the prisons extended beyond the wages they pay and the local services they buy. Prisons are labor-intensive institutions, offering year-round employment, which means they are able to increase their revenue by offering steady contracts to private industries. They are recession-proof, usually expanding in size during hard times. Prisons and its labor system brought a stable, steady income to a region long accustomed to a highly seasonal, uncertain economy.xvi
Correction facilities created the inmate incentive pay plan in order to provide financial compensation within specific pay rates to inmates who perform full time work. However, the wages do not adequately represent the work. For example, the Oregon Department of Corrections, which has been using prison laborers to produce a “Prison Blues” line of clothing with projected yearly sales of over $1.2 million.xvii Regardless of the profits, prisoners who initially earned $8 per/hour, undergo a large number of fees that account for 80% of their checks. In the end, inmates make up to $1.80 per/hour.xviii On average, inmates make $5.25-$8.75 per week.xix According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, federal inmates earn 12 cents to 40 cents per hour for jobs in prison, a significant cut of these wages go to criminal justice system fees.xx The fees that are taken out of these prison labor wages can include: being billed for a public defender, room and board for jail and prison stays, probation and parole supervision, and for electronic monitoring devices defendants and offenders are offered to wear.xxi These fees can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, and they are charged at every step of the system (court, jail, and release). For example, in Florida, there is a law that allows the state to charge inmates $50 a day to cover the costs of their incarceration.xxii According to a spokesman at the Florida Department of Corrections, every person who is convicted in the state immediately begins accruing the $50 a day “cost of incarceration lien.”xxiii Given the wages offered, and the fees deducted, the inmates walk away with little to no pay after a 7 to 10-hour work day and 80-hour work week.
Similar to the outrageous wages and fees, inmates often undergo strenuous working conditions. Inmates do not have the same employment rights awarded to the average American citizen. They do not have the right to unionize, worker’s compensation, and fair working conditions. In addition, many inmates work an average of 7-10 hours a day, five days a week, on average that is about 35-50 hours a week. In addition to the long hours worked, workers also operate under subpar conditions. For example, UNICOR failed to address hazardous conditions related to e-waste in its recycling factories and warn staff and inmates about the presence of toxic metals in their work areas.xxiv It was revealed that UNICOR did not have policies requiring them to have qualified personnel, including staff from the BOP’s Health Services Division, conduct assessments on UNICOR’s new operations, or on changes in existing operations, that would identify the hazards that UNICOR was required to disclose under OSHA regulations.xxv The reports from the investigation, revealed that inmates who worked in glass breaking operations frequently were cut by the broken glass, some resulting in serious injuries.xxvi
The architect of these programs like UNICOR argues that while the wages are low, inmates are developing vital skills necessary for successful reentry into society.xxvii The work programs offered to inmates are divided into, two specializations, traditional and prison industry enhancement work programs. Traditional work programs include the manufacture or service of goods such as name plates, mattresses, desks, shelving, seating, and bookcases, that are sold to state and county businesses.xxviii While participating in the traditional programs, the hands-on activities provide inmates with specific skills, and the technical means to re-enter society. Examples of the many skills obtained from prison include: carpentry, food service, forklift operation, laundry service, painting, welding, wood working, hand/machine sewing, and furniture re-finishing.xxix Similarly, the prison industry enhancement programs, allow inmates to work for private companies. The prison industry enhancement program station inmates in realistic work environments, pay them decent wages, and gives them a chance to develop profitable skills that would increase their potential for rehabilitation and meaningful employment upon release.xxx
Contrary to the critic’s observations, inmates are not readily welcomed into society and the workforce with their “skilled” investment. For example, Marc La Cloche spent his time in prison training to be a barber, ready to apply his newfound skills upon his release in 2000. As a result of his felony conviction, his application for a barber’s license was denied.xxxi Thus, in accordance with state law, La Cloche could only practice his trade, taught by the state’s Department of Corrections, if he remained behind bars. In New York as in other states, many jobs in today’s workforce, like physical therapists, real estate brokers, plumbers, and sanitation workers are closed to anyone with a prison record; and many employers are not willing to hire inmates because they fear and mistrust them.xxxii Likewise, even employers who are willing to hire an ex-offender are often prohibited from doing so under state law. Thus, not only are these inmates receiving low pay, but they are also being promised a skill that would help their re-entry into the workforce. However, it has been shown, when convicts try to enter the job field related to their “skill,” they are being denied because the very system aimed to help their transition, prevented them from re-entering society and becoming productive agents. In addition to the barriers faced entering the workforce, ex-offenders also face difficulty after securing a job. Prison workers can be hired, fired, or reassigned at will. Not only do they have no right to organize or strike; they also have no means of filing a grievance or voicing any kind of complaint whatsoever. They have no right to circulate an employee petition or newsletter, no right to call a meeting, and no access to the press. Therefore, with all of these impending barriers, recidivism becomes inevitable.
As a result of these counterproductive measures, more than 50 percent of inmates return to prison within three years of their release.xxxiii Ex-offenders have a variety of characteristics that greatly limit their employability and earnings capacities. These include: Limited education, cognitive skills, and limited work experience. Prior to their incarceration, about 70% of offenders and ex-offenders are high school dropouts.xxxiv And, their work experience is relatively low. In addition, the time spent incarcerated also hinders their ability to acquire private sector experience. Other constraints include convicts bearing the title “convicts,” which causes employers to become less susceptible to employ those who are labeled a “felon.” In the same instance, convicts are also denied access to welfare programs which also plays a role on recidivism rates. For example, if a convict is allowed to work amongst the 12,840 plumbers in New York City, whose median wage is almost $24 an hour, the likelihood of re-offending would decrease, saving the state the $20,000 a year, the costs, to re-incarcerate him.xxxv According to the County Re-entry Task Forces in New York State, between July 2013 and June 2014, 62% of inmates were reported to still be unemployed with only 29% being employed either full-time or part-time.xxxvi Unfortunately, for convicts, not only do they face employment discrimination, they also face a variety of societal barriers that can result in an increased likelihood of re-offending.
Ultimately, up until this point, we have seen some problematic conditions within the current prison labor systems: inadequate wages, exceedingly high cost of living fees, unsuitable working conditions, and grueling work hours. Reconstruction within the prison labor system will improve these conditions. First, prison labor wages should be standardized to reflect an honest living wage, especially given the number of fees deducted from their already low wages. It is unreasonable to pay inmates 12 cents to 1.15 an hour, on top of taking out room and board fees, medical and dental fees. If prisons mandate these costs, minimum wage and maximum wage guidelines should also be established, that way inmates can be reasonably compensated for their work which promotes sound working habits and conditions from both the employers and the inmates. Similarly, work hours should also be standardized. As I laid out in the previous sections, inmates can work anywhere between 35-50 hours a week, equating to 7 to 10-hour work days. There should be an enforced system in place that limits the number hours an inmate can work per day to avoid working long grueling hours. In addition to standardized wages and working hours, prisons should also focus more attention to the transitioning from prison work to gainful employment outside of jail because just gaining a skill is not enough. The current prison systems should incorporate programs that help inmates with an actual job search, resume and cover letter building, and knowing how to interview. Furthermore, with these comprehensive changes to prison labor programs, we might actually see a reduction in recidivism and raise the currently low employment rate of recently released individuals.
i Ryder, J.A. (2013, June 18). Auburn State Prison. Retrieved December 07, 2017, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Auburn-State-Prison
v The Auburn & Pennsylvania System of Corrections: A Controversy. (n.d.). Retrieved December 07, 2017, from http://2bpositive.expertscolumn.com/article/auburn-pennsylvania-system-corrections-controversy
vi Ryder, J.A. (2013, June 18). Auburn State Prison. Retrieved December 07, 2017, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Auburn-State-Prison
vii Companies Supporting Modern American Slavery. (n.d.). Retrieved December 07, 2017, from https://www.cagedbirdmagazine.com/single-post/2017/03/28/50-Companies-Supporting-Modern-American-Slavery
xii The Morningside Review. (n.d.). Retrieved December 07, 2017, from https://morningsidereview.org/essay/work-dont-hurt-me-a-study-of-prison-labor-and-prison-industries-in-america/
xiv Schlosser, E. (1998, December 01). The Prison-Industrial Complex. Retrieved December 07, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1998/12/the-prison-industrial-complex/304669/
xxi Shapiro, J. (2014, May 19). As Court Fees Rise, The Poor Are Paying The Price. Retrieved December 07, 2017, from https://www.npr.org/2014/05/19/312158516/increasing-court-fees-punish-the-poor
xxivBernstein, D. (2017, August 16). Prison-Based e-Waste Processing – The Consequences to Business, Health and Safety. Retrieved December 07, 2017, from http://itak.iaitam.org/prison-based-e-waste-processing-the-consequences-to-business-health-and-safety/
xxvii About UNICOR. (n.d.). Retrieved December 07, 2017, from https://www.unicor.gov/about.aspx
xxxi The Morningside Review. (n.d.). Retrieved December 07, 2017, from https://morningsidereview.org/essay/work-dont-hurt-me-a-study-of-prison-labor-and-prison-industries-in-america/
xxxv Division of Criminal Justice Services, New York State. “County Re-Entry Task Force Program Activity Report: July 2013 – June 2014.” Retrieved December 07,2017, from http://www.criminaljustice.ny.gov/crimnet/ojsa/Jul-to-Jun-2014-CRTF-Report.pdf