Why is prison labor an issue?
Human rights activists and sociologists have already raised their concerns over the US policy on mass incarceration and prison labor. They argue that popular brands using prison labor thrive on modern slavery. Also, The mounting number of racial minorities in the US prison population indicates that the US correctional system is not yet free from racism and classism.
The joke is that when American prisons are heaving with inmates, particularly racial minorities, the US and other developed nations have criticized some Asian countries like China for incentivizing its prison population.
Undoubtedly, reputed brands using prison labor get cheap labor from prison inmates. This shameful situation reminds America’s grim history of slavery. It reminds us of the history when the Southern plantation owners thrived on the sweat and blood of the slaved Black population.
Who are the beneficiaries of prison labor?
Almost every big business in America takes advantage of the cheap prison labor of inmates. As evidence suggests, prisoners offer numerous services to various reputed brands, and most consumers use prison-made commodities almost unknowingly.
Some of the top brands using prison labor are Victoria’s Secret, Wal-Mart, Whole Foods Market, Target, and Starbucks. The corporate titans exploit the prison population without remorse. Many of them sometimes refrain from paying lawful wages to prisons.
The prisoners, unlike the regular employees, cannot voice out their concerns of oppression. Also, the authorities urge prisoners to labor full time in prisons. Conversely, no labor surveys appreciate the work of the convicted population. And, in fact, the US criminal policy originally envisioned the job programs as rehabilitative. It envisages that the program will help convicts to return to normal life after release. However, the present affairs in prison reveal that the policy has had a counter effect.
Experts’ view of brands using prison labor
Forbes, in her article “I Was A Slave….” provides an excellent close-up narrative of her touted prison labor in the Californian prison during the 1980s. Forbes calls herself a ‘slave’ who toiled hard to produce $300-$400 priced office chairs, all the while getting paid merely 15 cents.
Forbes’ article also portrays the plight of other prisoners who sold their labor in farms, fisheries, ranches, and other industries for barely minimum wages. She points out the stark contrast between inmate earnings and earnings of the state by arguing that “each inmate paid less than $2 a day generates $41,5540,000 annually for the state of California” (Forbes, para 4).
Undoubtedly, skin color has become a cause of guilt in the eyes of the dominant society that thrives on class, gender, and creed. Liburd, in his article “The New American Slavery…..” offers a bigger picture of disgraceful prison labor in his dissertation. He argues that the inmates do not get any protection of employment like regular employees. Liburd observes that minimum wage laws and overtime laws do not offer any consolation to the inmate population. He compares the plight of incarcerated Blacks and Latinos with the workers of a sweatshop in the global South (Liburd 46).
What do state, federal agencies do?
Big multinational brands have little concern over the rights of the prisoners. Even the state, federal systems turn a blind eye to the growing plight of inmates. The state and federal authorities thrive ostensibly on prison-made goods by selling them to big brands at a relatively low price. Thus, the role of federal authorities in exploiting the incarcerated population is never evident. A marketing brochure from the Department of Justice lauds its “cost-effective labor pool” and a workforce with “native English and Spanish language skills” (Campbell, para 5). The cost-effectiveness of these systems is nothing but the cost of exploitation of the incarcerated masses. The state and federal bodies in conjunction with the big brands conduct this exploitation.
Arguments for Prison Labor
Authorities tend to justify prison labor, saying that they increase the prospect of employment after release and save several of the prison overheads. The study of Saylor and Gaes opine that prison programs “can have an effect on post-release employment and post-release arrest in the short run and recommitment in the long run” (p. 42). They further observed that the inmates who undertook job skills program were less likely to return to prisons as much as 8-12 years post their release (Saylor and Gaes p. 42). Another dissertation by Richardson that observed the Florida prison programs reveals that the employment opportunities of inmates have increased considerably (p. 60).
However, the same study by Richardson itself argues that today’s prison system resonates with yesteryear’s slavery (p. 60). Unfortunately, supporters of the persisting system refute such studies. According to them, these studies and others of the same argument suffer from some selection bias. Also, the inmates analyzed in the study might be individuals incarcerated for minor crimes. Such inmates display lower recidivism tendencies and are open to earning respectable income after their release.
However, the authorities have failed to validate the ethical and moral concerns of prison labor. Advocates of prison labor highlight the increased federal spending on maintenance of prison population and laud prison labor as the ultimate messiah to reduce the expenditure. Obviously, incarceration is the most expensive form of punitive method that claims a considerable amount of federal budgets. In that context, inmates’ work productivity can pay off various prison overheads and save the taxpayer’s money, the supporters of the system argue.
Why Stop Prison Labor for Brands?
From a humanitarian perspective, federal spending should not come at the cost of prison labors. The major reason is, prison labor refutes all humanitarian grounds by scarifying the labor of prisoners for the colossal brands. The authorities consider the incarcerated men dutiful. Unfortunately, the inmates are to lease out their labor and time to numerous multinational brands for relatively minimal wages. Admittedly, prisons are essential parts of the correctional system. However, outsourcing their skills and energy for unfair means will not bring forth anticipated outcomes. Assigning one with challenging works and paying minimal remuneration is nothing other than slavery.
In total, the deplorable state of affairs in American prison systems resonates with the slavery era where southern plantation owners exploited the slave populations. The authorities marginalize the inmate labor from employee labor and deprive them of perks and benefits they deserve. Thus, they toil day and night with improper facilities concerning healthcare, diet, and clothing.
The federal authorities and several state ventures consider prison labor as a rehabilitative measure to induct the inmates to mainstream society after their release. However, the proponents of the system have failed to substantiate its moral implications on society. The state should focus on better rehabilitation programs for inmates. It should also protect inmate populations from the potential threat, the brands using prison labor.
Campbell, Alexia Fernández. “The federal government markets prison labor to businesses as the “best-kept secret”. VOX, 24 August 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/8/24/17768438/national-prison-strike-factory-labor. Accessed August 3, 2019.
Forbes, Flores. “I Was A Slave Working Under The California Department Of Corrections”. Huffington Post, 9 March 2017.
Liburd, David A., “The New American Slavery: Capitalism and the Ghettoization of American Prisons as a Profitable Corporate Business” (2017). CUNY Academic Works.
Richardson, Robin Leigh. “Assessing the Impact of Prison Industries on Post-Release Employment and Recidivism of Florida Inmates”. Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations, 2005. Paper 1864. https://www.nationalcia.org/wp-content/uploads/Pride-Research-2005.pdf
Saylor, G William and Gaes, Gerald. “Training inmates through industrial work participation and vocational and apprenticeship instruction”. Corrections Management Quarterly, Vol 1, No. 2, 1997: pp. 32-43.