Factories in the Prisons



Whether from Karl Marx’s “Capital” or Charles Dickens’ novels and their many theatrical adaptations, most of us have formed pictures of the old English work houses. In the United States, 19th century chain gangs labored in fields and gravel quarries.

Even in the 1960s, it was common to see chain gangs working on Southern roads. (There’s even a rock song still popular on oldies stations about the men working on the chain gang.) It was in response to the mass civil rights movement that this practice ended.

During the early part of this century, prison factories making products for private companies flourished despite complaints from labor and competing manufacturers. Prisoners were frequently used as strikebreakers-probably the best known example being the miners’ strike in Coal Creek, Tenn. The labor upsurge of the 1930s pressured Congress and the state legislatures to pass laws outlawing private use of prison labor.

In 1979, as part of the assault on labor by big business and its bipartisan political servants, Congress lifted the ban on interstate transportation of prison-made goods. Similarly, chain gangs have returned in a number of states in recent years.

The popular notion of prison labor is the manufacture of license plates, road signs, and items for the prison itself. In Ohio, 200 prisoners, making 40 cents to 72 cents an hour, make 2.5 million license plates and 3 million temporary 30-day stickers annually.

Prison industry generates over $40 million in annual sales in Ohio. For an average rate of 47 cents an hour, prisoners recycle laser printing cartridges, refurbish computers, and make soap, shoes, clothes, office furniture, mulch, false teeth, and eyeglasses. About 25 percent of these products are used by the prison system; most of the rest are used by the state of Ohio.

The Nov. 16, 1997, Cleveland Plain Dealer described the scene at one Ohio prison: “Inside a huge, dimly lit garage, men are fitting shiny new dump trucks with snow plows and salt spreaders. But these mechanics aren’t your average grease monkeys. They are sex offenders, drug addicts and armed robbers imprisoned at the Chillicothe Correctional Institution.

“The work they do will save the Ohio Department of Transportation about $8000 to $10,000 per truck.”

Unicor, the federal prison industries, makes road signs, missile components, military blankets and supplies, mailbags, and executive furniture for government offices. In Delaware, prisoners making 15 cents an hour helped build a new prison.

However, customers aren’t limited to government agencies. At an April 10, 1997, forum on prison labor in Youngstown, Ohio, Peter Gilmore, editor of UE News, explained, “Prisons are changing from correctional centers to profit centers.”

In 1997, the Correctional Industries Association projected that within three years, 30 percent of state and federal prisoners would work, yielding $8-9 billion in annual sales.

Although Ohio Prison Industries bowed to public pressure and stopped contracting with Weaster, Inc. to make wipers and lighting switches for the non-unionized Honda plant, it still makes toys and rakes and provides such services as data entry and coupon sorting.

Prisoners once again used as strikebreakers

Just as at Coal Creek, prisoners are again used as strikebreakers. In 1986, when TWA flight attendants went on strike, TWA hastily forced ticket agents into flight attendant training programs. They then contracted with the California Youth Authority’s Ventura Training School for Youthful Offenders to handle reservations.

In Austin, Texas, Lockhart Inc. closed a plant, laying off 150 people. Prison labor constructed a new facility for Lockhart inside a Texas prison. Lockhart leases this facility for $1 per year. In addition, they receive city tax abatements. Prisoners now perform the work previously done at the Austin plant-assembling and repairing PC boards for Texas Instruments, IBM, and DELL.

Brill Manufacturing Co. closed its Michigan furniture plant. It now uses prisoners making 56-80 cents an hour to fulfill its contract to provide furniture for Michigan State University dorm rooms.

A Chicago-area Toys-R-Us store replaced its entire third shift with the use of prisoners to stock shelves and clean the store.

Prisons promise a readily available and cost-effective source of entry-level labor. They provide reduced transportation costs and more reliable delivery for those operating on a “just in time” basis than the Mexican maquiladoras. They also provide a “Made in USA” label for those concerned about meeting domestic content requirements.

DPAS Inc. moved its maquiladora plant from Mexico to San Quentin, where prisoners assemble literature for Chevron, Bank of America, and Macy’s. A number of companies with prison factories say they decided to set up these factories after comparing the costs to those associated with a maquiladora.

Officials call it “job training”

Richard Bazzle, Warden of the Leath Correctional Facility in South Carolina, states, “The inmate who realizes that an initial assignment in the kitchen might some day lead to a higher paying job in our garment plant is more likely to work hard and stay out of trouble in order to get that better job tomorrow.”

At Leath, 40 women prisoners sew, inspect, sort, and package graduation gowns. Others make a variety of leisure-wear garments and lingerie for Third Generation, whose customers include J.C. Penney and Victoria’s Secret.

Putting the lie to the claim that the primary purpose of such prison enterprises is to prepare inmates to obtain and hold jobs upon release are the complaints from some prison contractors of the high turn-over caused by prisoners being released or moved to a lower security facility.

Chesapeake Cap Co., a division of Lyon Brothers Mfg., solved this problem by only hiring inmates with at least five years remaining on their sentences. They manufacture baseball caps at the Connecticut Correctional Institution.

Escod Industries, a division of Insilco Corp., a Fortune 500 conglomerate based in Columbus, S.C., operates seven U.S. manufacturing plants-including one in South Carolina’s Evans Correctional Facility. In 1996, 250 workers, working two shifts, assembled $16 million worth of electronic cables purchased by IBM and Canadian-based Northern Telecom Corp. The latter sells these cables to several Eastern European countries.

The Hennepin County Adult Correctional Facility in Minnesota operates a job shop, employing 50 inmates, that provides a variety of light assembly, sorting, packaging, and warranty repair services for dozens of firms in the Twin Cities area. In Louisiana, prisoners debone chickens for 4 cents an hour. In California, they raise pigs for the D.R. Ranch.

In Hawaii, prisoners pick pineapples and macadamia nuts, package papayas for Hawaiian Tropical Products, carve native wood into dolphins, and sew brightly colored aloha shirts for Burger King’s Hawaiian uniform.

In Nevada, they refurbish rare antique cars for the Imperial Palace and provided the stained and etched glass windows for New York, New York. From 1981 to 1992, inmates at the Arizona Correctional Facility for Women handled hotel reservations for Best Western.

Tired of all the annoying phone calls about switching your long distance carrier? AT&T uses prison inmates for telemarketing.

Many prisoners work in the garment industry. Oregon has its own line of designer jeans-prison blues. Tennessee inmates produce jeans for K-Mart and J.C. Penney while Washington inmates produce garments for Eddie Bauer Clothing. Oregon prisoners make uniforms and electronic menu boards for McDonald’s.

Spalding uses prisoners to pack golf balls. Colorado prisoners craft hand-tooled leather saddles. Vermont prisoners make metal snowshoes.

Smart and Target are among the customers for 20 models of rough-sawn cedar bird feeders produced by Minnesota prisoners. South Carolina prisoners manufacture plastic seating for hotels, restaurants, and hospitals.

Inmates in Washington package and ship softwear for Microsoft. California inmates produce the logos for Lexus automobiles.

From this partial listing of goods produced by prisoners, it’s obvious that prison labor is being used to exert a downward pressure on wages and benefits. Or, as Tony Cordova, president of Teamsters Local 377, said at the Youngstown meeting, “It’s simply a question of greed. That’s what it all comes down to.”

He explained that he first became aware of prison labor when his local attempted to organize LAS Recycling. While giving out handbills to workers entering the plant, he noticed a van from Community Correction Administration pull up. That’s when he realized that 40 of the 125 workers at the plant were prisoners.

Like their private sector counterparts, government workers’ wages and benefits are also threatened by prison labor. At the Youngstown meeting, Eva Burris, regional director of AFSCME Region 8, said the same job for which a unionized public employee is paid $10 per hour is performed by a welfare recipient for $1.58 an hour or a prisoner for 40 cents an hour.

When the city of Warren, Ohio, was offered free prison labor for community service jobs, AFSCME negotiated that the prisoners could not perform any work previously performed by unionized workers. They also got the city to agree to limit the number of prisoners per work crew.

For the safety of their members, they demanded that any guards accompanying the inmate workers be unarmed. Finally, they asserted the right of the unionized workers not to assist in the capture of any of their new coworkers who decided to walk off the job.

In next month’s Socialist Action, Shirley Pasholk will discuss the privatization of the prisons.

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