The Prison Labor Marketplace

The United States currently imprisons more of its own citizens than any other country in the world. Since the 1980’s and the beginning of the war on drugs, the prison population quadrupled to 2.3 million in 2008 – and 1.57 million in 2013. When we look for the cause of such a vast escalation, we examine our laws. However, despite the rising population, the goal of this post will not be to discuss ‘how they got there’, instead we will examine what they do once they are incarcerated.

When a man is sent to prison it is an attempt on the part of society to punish and reform. The mission statement of the Bureau of Prisons reads: “It is the mission of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to protect society by confining offenders in the controlled environments of prisons and community-based facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure, and that provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens.” These words paint a picture of a hierarchical, organized effort towards the responsible and just operation of penal facilities which incorporates reasonable, medical care, and a means of self-improvement. However, as we will see, prisons have violated this ethos in various ways.

Prison labor, a concept born of the brutish practice of slavery, has morphed in modern society and entangled itself within multiple facets of American life including politics, local and national business. Prisons are companies and their products are the human convicts. They sell the labor of prisoners with a deep discount to wages, a labor force that cannot organize against management and continually adds to its numbers. By making the labor available for sale, this practice creates incentives for lawmakers and business owners to construct a system in which maximum penalties are enforced for minor offenses. This aim resulted in the proliferation of ‘mandatory minimums’ when it came to minor drug possession charges. The penalties for crack cocaine are far more punitive than those for cocaine powder.

There are additional benefits for sourcing labor solely from inmates; for instance, companies also save on extraneous labor costs by their inability to organize labor unions and demand better conditions and wages. They are seen both by the company and the public as condemned and it is difficult to overcome their apathy when attempting to address prisoner concerns. A prisoner is perceived to ‘deserve it’ for the crimes they committed. So in addition to the years for which they are incarcerated, a convict is now harnessed with the yolk of local and corporate economic growth.

There are also numerous side businesses that are born when prisons begin to privatize. Prisons require food, cleaning supplies, and electricity. In a particularly upsetting case, Philadelphia-based firm Aramark Correctional Services was accused multiple times of underfeeding inmates with maggot-infested food. This must be considered a massive failure to provide even the most basic human rights to incarcerated American citizens. While the egregiousness of each case varies, the fact that this company’s contract was renewed shows a clear lack of public outcry – and thus, little force for change. It is likely that other organizations such as this will continue to operate outside of the public view.

The scale of the production output is staggering in numbers and variety. “…the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove assembly; 46% of body armor; 36% of home appliances; 30% of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21% of office furniture. Airplane parts, medical supplies, and much more: prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for blind people.” Private prisons have also become a much larger part of the penal system. “Ten years ago there were only five private prisons in the country, with a population of 2,000 inmates; now, there are 100, with 62,000 inmates. It is expected that by the coming decade, the number will hit 360,000, according to reports.”

Now that we have a more complete image of the implications of prison labor, what are the questions we should be asking? Is it acceptable to punish people with longer sentences for crimes, burden them with producing and assembling a large portion of military and civilian goods, and allow companies to profit greatly from their largely discounted labor? In terms of public perception, we once again run into the apathy problem. However, if we were to discuss this only in the context of the ideal, then life in a prison would alter immensely. The long-held moral of Western civilization which states ‘that it is reprehensible to profit from the trade of human lives’ is at the core of the argument against slavery. Since the incarcerated are serving a sentence, their lives are in the hands of the state – or more accurately, the companies which the state hires. Thus, prisoners lose the element of choice in their actions, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.

I think it’s easy for the public to simply write-off this section of society as inconsequential. Politicians are fixed in their punitive positions, as altering that stance would label them “soft on crime” and lose elections. The results speak for themselves in this case. But whether we are a nation of ideologues or calculating pragmatists, Americans must take it upon themselves to conduct the informed debate upon these issues.