Prison labour is a billion-dollar industry, and the corporate beneficiaries of this slave labour include some of the largest corporations and most widely known brands. There are literally hundreds of corporations and firms that exploit prison labour.
One year ago the largest prison labour strike in US history took place. More than 24,000 prisoners across 29 prisons in 12 states protested against exploitation and inhumane conditions. It was timed to mark the anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising1 of 46 years ago over prisoners' demands for better living conditions and political rights. Attica prisoners rioted and took control of the prison, taking 42 staff hostage. When the uprising was over, at least 43 people were dead, including ten prison staff, and 33 inmates.2
One year on, another major prison strike is now spreading across the US and Canada which has entered into its second week. The strike began on August 21 and is set to last a total of 19 days. Naturally, it has been subjected to a media blackout by the mainstream media in the US; and reliable information about the progress of the strike is difficult to come by.
Prison reform advocacy groups liaising with strike organisers, have reported that protests had been confirmed in three states, with further unconfirmed reports emerging from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina as well as Washington State and up to Nova Scotia in Canada.
One of the intentions of the prisoners in the current dispute is to bring to public attention the spate of deaths in custody, which in some states has reached epidemic proportions. In Mississippi, 10 inmates3 have died in their cells in the past three weeks alone, with no firm indication of the cause of their deaths.
In addition to concern over unexplained deaths of prison inmates, the strikers, led by a network of incarcerated activists who call themselves Jailhouse Lawyers Speak4 , have put out a set of 10 demands5 to reform the US’s penal system, including more investment in rehabilitation services and better medical treatment for mentally-ill prisoners. High up on the list is an end to forced or underpaid labour that the protesters call a form of modern slavery.
Among the main tactics that are being deployed in the strike are a refusal to work, a boycott of purchases at prison commissaries, sit-ins and hunger strikes.
Filling the Prisons
In 2016 there were 2.29 million people in US prisons which is equivalent to 716 per 100 000 of the population. This is one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world. (In England and Wales the equivalent number is 144 per 100 000 of the population.) The vast majority of prisoners in the US are working class, and a disproportionate number of them are African-Americans and Hispanics. In states like Virginia and Oklahoma one in every 15 African American men6 is put in prison. This is no accident since these groups predominantly come from some of the most deprived parts of towns and cities in the US. It is also no accident that the US bourgeoisie has been deliberately targeting these groups by passing draconian sentences on them in order to fill up the prisons. This policy accelerated in 1994 with the introduction of the “three-strikes law.”7 These laws require a person guilty of committing both a severe violent felony and two other previous convictions to serve a mandatory life sentence in prison. In California, these convictions can even be minor and a prisoner is sentenced for life.
In this way, the US has been able to readily fill up its prisons with cheap labour and keep them filled. For example, from 1982 to 2000, California's prison population increased 500%. To accommodate this population growth, the state of California built 23 new prisons at a cost of $280 million to $350 million apiece.8 California is by no means unique in showing such a phenomenal growth in prisons and prison populations. While California’s prisons are public and are financed by the Public Works Department and operated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; many other states encourage the building of private prisons. New Mexico incarcerates over 40% of its prison population in private facilities. Private prisons in the US incarcerated 128,063 people in 2016, representing 8.5% of the total state and federal prison population. Since 2000, the number of prisoners in private prisons has increased 47%.9
The United States Congress, influenced by enormous corporate lobbying, enacted the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Programme10 in 1979, which permitted US companies to use prison labour. Coupled with the drastic increase in the prison population during this period, and particularly after 1994, profits for participating companies and revenue for the government and its private contractors soared. The Federal Bureau of Prisons now runs a programme called Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR)11 that pays inmates under one dollar an hour. The programme generated $500m in sales in 2016 with very little of that cash being passed down to prison workers. California's prison labour programme produced some $232m in sales in 2017. Prison labour in the US is referred to as insourcing. Under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), employers receive a tax credit of $2,400 for every work-release inmate they employ as a reward for hiring “risky target groups.”
Your Favourite Brands
Prison labour is a billion-dollar industry, and the corporate beneficiaries of this slave labour include some of the largest corporations and most widely known brands. There are literally hundreds of corporations and firms that exploit prison labour. According to the Left Business Observer, the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, war supplies and other equipment.
Prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove assembly; 46% of body armour; 36% of home appliances; 30% of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21% of office furniture. Aeroplane parts, medical supplies and much more: prisoners are even raising guide dogs for blind people. While prison workers are generating huge amounts of surplus value, they only receive between 90 cents to $4 a day depending on the prison factory they are incarcerated in. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour which means prison labour is paid between 1/15th and 1/65th of the minimum wage. Below is a review of just some of the biggest US corporations that take advantage of this:
UNICOR manages 83 factories and more than 12,000 prison labourers who earn as little as 23 cents an hour working at call centres, manufacturing items such as military body armour. In 2013, federal inmates made $100m worth of military uniforms. UNICOR has also provided prison labour in the past to produce Patriot missile parts for defence contractors Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, and parts for others such as Boeing and General Dynamics.
Since 2011, Whole Foods has benefited from prison labour. This company, acquired by Amazon in 2016, purchases food from Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy and Quixotic Farming, two private vendors that use cheap prison labour to raise fish, produce milk and herd goats.
Walmart, one of the biggest retailers in the US uses prison inmates for manufacturing purposes. The company “hires” inmates to clean products of UPC bar codes so that products can be resold. The company has purchased produce from farms, where women prisoners face bad working conditions, inadequate medical care and very low pay. And Starbucks uses prison labour to cut costs as well. Starbucks’ subcontractor Signature Packaging Solutions hired Washington state prisoners to package holiday coffees.
McDonald’s uses prison labour to produce frozen foods and process beef for patties. Workers flipping burgers and frying French fries for minimum wage at McDonald's restaurants wear uniforms that were manufactured by prison labourers. Prisoners also process bread, milk and chicken products for McDonald’s. McDonald’s rival Wendy’s has also been identified as relying on prison labour to reduce its cost of operations.
Sprint, the telecoms company uses prison inmates to provide telecommunication services by using them in call centres and Verizon, another telecoms company, does the same thing. While American Airlines and the car rental company Avis use inmates to take reservations.
Victoria’s Secret uses prison labour to cut production costs. In South Carolina, female inmates were used to sew products. Prison workers reportedly have also been used to replace “made in” tags with “Made in USA” tags! While, Kmart and J.C. Penney both sell jeans made by inmates in Tennessee prisons.
Some proportion of pension and other investments owned by the US public are invested by Fidelity Investments in prison labour or in other operations related to the prison industrial complex. The investment firm funds the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has created laws authorizing and increasing the use of prison inmates in manufacturing.
Making America Great Again
One way of trying to “make America great again” has been to ensure wages are suppressed in the US to the point where production becomes profitable again for the US bourgeoisie. Median real wage growth in the US was stagnating before the global financial crisis but has gone down even more since then, so that average wages in the US are lower than they were ten years ago. Prison labour has been an important source of very cheap labour and a means of suppressing wages. Prisoners are not only cheap labour, they are also easier to control. Companies are free to avoid providing benefits like health insurance or sick pay. They don’t need to worry about demands for paid leave, wage rises or family issues. In principle use of prison labour is not very different from Stalin’s gulags. Of course, this cannot be admitted because the US pretends it is the great defender of human rights, American values and so on. The Federal Prisons Industry Inc. actually advertises its services as “bringing jobs back to America” with long lists of services the prisoners can perform which can feed into other US industries. They do not say they are bringing the jobs back for US prisoners and so reducing wages of “free” workers.12
It comes as no surprise that “making America great again” also involves the use of foreign prison labour in countries where conditions are even worse than in the US prisons. China uses prison labour to make commodities a lot of which are directly exported to the US or form parts of products exported to the US. According to research by the Financial Times, China, which has a prison population of 2.3 million, virtually the same as the US, is using prison labour to offset the reduced profitability of its manufactures caused by rising wages. This is more or less what the Federal Prisons Industry is arguing for its services in the US. Agricultural products such as garlic, consumption products such as handbags and assembly of wiring for industrial products are examples of the type of work carried out by Chinese prisoners. Although the US tries to disguise the fact that the work of prison labour is imported into the US this often cannot be concealed. A woman in Arizona, for example, found a note, written in Chinese, hidden in a handbag she bought from Walmart saying:
“Prisoners in the Yingshan Prison in Guangxi are working 14 hours every day. Whoever does not finish his work will be beaten…being a prisoner in China is worse than being a dog in the US”
The prisoner obviously realised his work was going to the US but clearly has no idea that US prisoners are in a similar condition. Another prisoner who had been in Tonghua prison in Jilin province told the FT:
“We often needed to work from five in the morning to nine at night so the prison is able to make more money.”
A spokesman for China Labour Watch Mr Li states that in China:
“Prisons are run like companies, with their own sales teams.”13
This is exactly how US prisons are being run as shown by the Federal Prisons Industries website mentioned above.
But what lies behind the increased exploitation of the US and world labour force is the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Increasing the rate of exploitation, reductions in working benefits, reducing pensions, as well as simple wage cuts are all ways to offset the tendency of the rate of profit to fall in an attempt to make production profitable again. Of course the phenomenon of falling profit rates is not just a US one and the capitalist crisis is hitting the US’ rivals equally hard. The financial crash in 2008 was an indirect product of the fall in the rate of profit because firms have been reducing investment in production, because it is simply not profitable enough, and have been investing in speculation instead. And ten years since the last financial crash the global capitalist system now has ten times the debt it had when the system last collapsed to the tune of some $250 trillion!
The Trump administration clearly thinks continuing the exploitation of prison slave labour is the way to go. It has decided to reverse the Obama-era plan to phase out private prisons and enact new law-and-order policies to increase arrests and keep the prisons filled. This is an acknowledgement that in order to try to maintain profits the working class must be exploited even more ruthlessly. It will also increase opportunities for the US government’s corporate donors and lobbyists to profit from their many investments in mass incarceration.
In recent years there have been leftist campaigns to reform the prison system and end prison labour. But this is similar to other reformist campaigns such as calls to restore social housing. It is simply never going to happen under a capitalism that is now in its fifth decade of open crisis. Despite the assurances of left politicians like Bernie Sanders in the US and Corbyn in the UK that capitalism can be reformed, the system simply cannot afford to make any concessions. Sanders’ and Corbyn’s election promises will never be kept. There will be no free education in the US, just as there will be no scrapping of student debt in the UK, to take just a couple of examples.
Capitalism is in an advanced stage of its crisis. Short of a massive devaluation and destruction of capital, which has come about in the past through imperialist world war, the only other course open to it is ruthless exploitation of the working class. This means real cuts in wages, increases in the rate of exploitation, reductions in pension provision, cuts in social benefits, housing and healthcare, etc.
The only way the US and world working class can find a way out of their daily exploitation and, at the same time get rid of prison factories, is to put an end to wage labour, commodity production and the law of value. We can replace this rotten system, which cares only about profits with a world of “freely associated producers”. We need to recognise that capitalism is long past its sell by date. Let’s get rid of it and scrap the wages system at the same time!
29 August 2018
- 2For a previous comment on this see leftcom.org
- 12See Federal Prisons Industries website unicor.gov
- 13Financial Times 31/08/2018