Prison Labor: Workin' For The Man

By Reese Erlich

Covert Action Quarterly #54 - Fall 1995

Convicted kidnapper Dino Navarrete doesn't smile much as he surveys the sewing machines at Soledad prison's sprawling workshop. The short, stocky man with tattoos rippling his muscled forearms earns 45 cents an hour making blue work shirts in a medium-security prison near Monterey, California. After deductions, he earns about $60 for an entire month of nine-hour days.

"They put you on a machine and expect you to put out for them", says Navarrete. "Nobody wants to do that. These jobs are jokes to most inmates here." California long ago stopped claiming that prison labor rehabilitates inmates. Wardens just want to keep them occupied. If prisoners refuse to work, they are moved to disciplinary housing and lose canteen privileges. Most importantly, they lose "good time" credit that reduces their sentence.

Navarrete was surprised to learn that California has been exporting prison-made clothing to Asia. He and the other prisoners had no idea that California, along with Oregon, was doing exactly what the U.S. has been lambasting China for - exporting prison-made goods. "You might just as well call this slave labor, then", says Navarrete. "If they're selling it overseas, you know they're making money. Where's the money going to? It ain't going to us." For the first time in the interview, Navarrete's usual scowl turned briefly into a smile.

Federal law prohibits domestic commerce in prison-made goods unless inmates are paid "prevailing wage". But because the law doesn't apply to exports, no California prison officials will end up in cells alongside their "employees". (1)

Interestingly enough, prison authorities on both sides of the Pacific make similar arguments to justify prison labor. "We want prisoners to learn a working skill", says Mai Lin Hua, warden at China's maximum security Shanghai Jail. He admits that his prisoners are forced to work, facing solitary confinement if they refuse. He also says China no longer exports prison-made goods to the U.S. (2)

U.S. prison officials echo a similar line, except they claim the labor is voluntary. Fred Nichols, head of Oregon's "Prison Blues" jeans-making operation, says, "We provide extra training for them. Here the inmates volunteer." (3)

But prisoners in Oregon, like those virtually everywhere else in the U.S., get time subtracted from their sentences for working in prison industries. If prisoners don't work, they serve longer sentences, lose privileges, and risk solitary confinement.

So what's the real difference between China's "forced labor" and that in the U.S. prison system? Brad Haga, marketing director for Oregon Prison Industries, sheepishly admits, "Perhaps it smacks of old-fashioned imperialism to be making those kinds of judgments." (4)

A Dynamic Sector

Regardless of such qualms, hundreds of thousands of American prisoners now work in what is becoming a growth business: prison industries. The term encompasses several distinct but related arrangements: Federal and state prisons employ inmates to produce goods for sale to government and for the open market. Private companies as well contract with prisons to hire prisoners. And private prisons similarly employ inmate labor for private profit, either for outside companies or for the prison operators themselves. What all three arrangements share is the exploitation of a growing and literally captive labor pool.

And that pool is overflowing. The U.S. now has 1.12 million people behind bars, and its incarceration rate is second only to Russia's. The U.S. rate is more than four times Canada's, five times England's, and 14 times Japan's. (5)

Some cite the country's violent traditions, chronic social tensions, and high crime rates to explain this perverse accomplishment. But such explanations beg the question of how society responds to crime and its causes. Instead of addressing the causes of criminality, political leaders and the mass media have inflamed popular concern about crime and sparked revulsion at notorious offenses. Hyped-up moral panics and crime hysteria lead to good ratings and easy political points. They also deflect attention from the causes of crime. The goal becomes simply to suppress deviance, a stance that prepares the terrain for a harshly repressive response to crime.

For those at the bottom, public policy has become all stick and no carrot. "Three strikes" and other mandatory minimum laws, the war on drugs, and moves to abolish parole are the concrete embodiments of the repressive approach. In the past 20 years, while serious crime rates have remained relatively stable, the incarceration rate has more than doubled. As programs for the poor and disadvantaged face the axe, spending for police and prisons grows rapidly.

As a result, U.S. prisons are jampacked. To keep prisoners busy and increase revenues, prisons across the country are expanding prison industries. And conservative politicians are jumping on the bandwagon. Presidential candidate Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) has called for prison labor to pay half the cost of the federal prison system. (6)

But beneath these pragmatic arguments lurks a darker subtext: the need to impose discipline and control over an ever-larger and increasingly restive prison population. Critics also charge that inmates are exploited, the jobs provide few real skills, and prison industries throw prisoners into direct competition with civilian workers.

Meet The New Consensus

In the 1950s, prison authorities, unions, and private companies reached a compromise on the issue of prison labor. The federal government and states agreed that prisoners should work as a means of rehabilitation. Inmate-produced goods would be used inside prisons or sold only to government agencies - and would not compete with private businesses or labor. (7) Now, prison authorities, along with cost-conscious entrepreneurs, budget-paring politicians, and private prison operators such as Wackenhut and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), are in the process of overturning that long-held political consensus.

The law hasn't changed since the 1950s, but the political climate has moved so far to the right that it is often ignored. Nowadays, almost no one talks about rehabilitation. And in the go- go, free enterprise, let's-privatize-everything 1990s, many in authority just don't care if prison labor competes with civilians. Prisoners are one more sector ripe for exploitation.

In fact, some politicians and businesspeople view inmates much as they see workers in the Third World. In a revealing comment, Oregon State Representative Kevin Mannix argues that corporations should cut deals with prison systems just as Nike shoes does with the Indonesian government. Nike subcontractors there pay workers $1.20 per day. "We propose that (Nike] take a look at their transportation costs and their labor costs", says Mannix. "We could offer [competitive] prison inmate labor" in Oregon. (8)

And prison labor is proving highly competitive. From 1980 to 1994, while the number of federal and state prisoners increased by 221 percent, the number of inmates employed in prison industries jumped by 358 percent. Prison industries sales have skyrocketed during those years from $392 million to $1.31 billion. (9) And they're not just making license plates.

* Oregon prisoners sew jeans called "Prison Blues." Inmates are paid anywhere from 28 cents to $8.00/hour, but 80 percent of the higher wage is withheld. (10) * In 1994, a local prison secretly slipped Chicago-area prisoners into a Toys R Us store to stock shelves. Union protests stopped it. (11) * Southern California youth offenders book flights for TWA. (12) * Private companies hire prisoners in Ohio, California and other states to do data processing inside prisons. (13)

The Prison-Industrial Complex

That prison labor is being exploited should come as no surprise. Prison industries are only one source of potential profits for companies feeding off the imprisonment boom. Prisons themselves are a growth industry. Federal, state, and local governments spent an estimated $30 billion for their prison systems in 1994, up from only $4 billion in 1975. (14)This year, for the first time in its history, California will spend more for prisons than on higher education. (15)

"Prison construction is going crazy all over the country", one happy contractor told the New York Times. (16) California officials estimate they will have to build 20 new prisons to handle the state's "three strikes" law. Florida plans eight new prisons and four new work camps by 2000. And, incredibly enough, Texas plans to open one new facility a week for the next 18 months. (17) Larry Solomon, vice president of Joy Food Service in Florida, said sales to prisons are "a great, great business. Sales are just about doubling every year." (18)

Corporate interest in prisons goes beyond construction and providing candy bars. Long distance phone carriers are falling all over themselves to provide pay phones to prisons. In return for the pay phone monopoly, they routinely kick back part of their profits to prison systems in the form of commissions. Why? Prisoners must phone collect, and the companies can charge substantially higher rates than at other pay phones.

A single prison phone can gross $15,000 per year, five times more than a street phone box. (19)One of the worst offenders among the phone companies, RCNA, holds the contract for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detention center in Florence, Arizona. RCNA charges inmates $22 for a 15-minute call to the East Coast, with INS taking a 35 percent cut. (20)The relatives paying for the calls often have no idea of the scam, until their phone bill comes.

Since the early 1980s, some new corporate players havejoined the fray. Private companies such as CCA and Wackenhut are now building and operating private prisons under contract from federal and state governments. So far, 13 states have private prisons. (21)

CCA co-founder T. Don Hutto, a former Virginia corrections commissioner who jumped to the private sector, (22) is but one example of a revolving door in corrections that has nothing to do with the recidivism rate. The interlocking directorates of former government officials and corporate boards looks alarmingly like the more familiar military-industrial version.

Wackenhut most strongly reflects this trend. Its boards of directors includes former Marine Corps Commandant Paul X. Kelley, a pair ofretiredAir Force generals and a former Air Force under secretary, former Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, and the former chair of AlliedSignal, among others. (23)

But Wackenhut's competitors can play the game as well. When Esmor Correctional Services Corporation wanted to win a halfway house contract with the City of New York it hired an aide to Democratic state Rep. Edolphus Towns. Both Towns and the aide had initially opposed the project. (24)

Esmor also runs jails for the INS, so it made a senior vice president out of Richard Staley, a former acting INS director. And former acting Attorney General Stuart Gerson sits on Esmor's board of directors. (25) These government ties didn't help Esmor, however, when INS detainees rebelled over bad conditions and almost destroyed its private prison in New Jersey. (See Sidebar One)

This new prison-industrial complex is establishing a network of political contacts and local constituencies - wardens, prison guard unions, subcontractors and suppliers, and local government officials - that benefit from increased incarceration. As in the case of the prison pay phones, that complex will make great profits at the expense of the inmates and the public. Just as the country now struggles to get rid of unnecessary military bases and weapons systems, in the years ahead, the prison-industrial complex may lobby to maintain unneeded prisons or promote laws that help fill them.

Wackenhut's Brave New World

For a glimpse of the future, just visit the small town of Lockhart, Texas. Located about 30 miles outside Austin, the sleepy little town is most famous for a lip-smacking barbeque restaurant. But just down the road is a private prison run by Wackenhut. The private security firm in recent years has branched out and is now the second largest private prison operation in the U.S. And it's the very model of the prison-industrial complex.

Scott Comstock, warden at the Lockhart Work Program Facility, sits in a comfortably appointed office with an entire wall of deer and elk heads mounted behind him. He's been hunting for years, almost as long as he's been in the prison business. Comstock, as is the style in these parts, sports a mustache, Stetson hat, and cowboy boots. As an early member of the prison-industrial complex, he worked his way up from guard to warden in the Texas state system and then made the leap to the private sector.

"I think that Texas, in particular, has proven that privatization is a viable alternative", he says. (26) And certainly, that arrangement has been viable for Wackenhut, which receives $31 per day per prisoner from the state. From that money, Comstock must provide housing, guards, electricity and everything else to run the facility. Whatever is left over is profit. So Comstock says adding prison industries to the mix can eventually help the bottom line.

At the moment, however, Wackenhut must convince private employers they will profit from locating in a prison. The Lockhart facility currently houses three private companies: Lockhart Technologies, Inc. (LTI) (circuit board assembly), a subsidiary of Ft. Lauderdale's United Vision Group (eyeglass manufacture) and Chatleff Controls (valves and fittings). (27)

Leonard Hill, owner of LTI, is an unassuming man with thinning grey hair. He wears a sweater with no tie and appears shy and uncomfortable at the prospect of being interviewed. He is exactly the kind of small entrepreneur that prison industries are attracting across the country - not so big he can locate overseas, but not so small as to go belly up in the first months of operation. And in order to attract businesses like his, Wackenhut arranged a sweetheart deal that defense contractors could only dream about.

LTI, which assembles and repairs circuit boards for companies such as IBM, Dell, and Texas Instruments, got a completely new factory assembly room, built to specifications by prison labor. It pays only $1/year rent and gets a tax abatement from the city to boot. Hill closed his circuit board assembly plant in Austin, laid off 150 workers and moved all the equipment to Lockhart, where he pays prisoners minimum wage, as required by federal law. (28) The prison then takes about 80 percent of inmate wages for room and board, victim restitution and other fees. Wackenhut argues this work benefits both the prisoners and society. But Hill is no do- gooding liberal out to help inmates. He made a hard-headed business decision to relocate inside the prison because he eventually expects to rake in bigger profits.

"Normally when you work in the free world", says Hill, "you have people call in sick, they have car problems, they have family problems. We don't have that here." Hill says the state pays for workers' compensation and medical care. And, he notes, inmates "don't go on vacations".

Union Labor And Prison Labor

Under federal law, Wackenhut was supposed to consult with local businesses and unions before allowing LTI to set up shop. But the Texas AFL-CIO was never consulted, according to its president, Joe Gunn. Gunn too sports a huge Stetson and has a penchant for string ties held together with a silver clasp in the shape of Texas. But Gunn is no mirror image of Warden Comstock.

Wackenhut violated the law by not consulting with labor, he charges, "and we're going to pursue it". He calls this kind of prison labor "absolute indentured slavery. [Wackenhut] puts people to work under conditions that we criticize China for." (29)

Wackenhut denies any violation of the law, saying it followed guidelines established by the Texas Employment Commission (TEC), the state agency regulating such matters. But the TEC's guidelines follow a rather crabbed interpretation of federal law. The TEC claims Wackenhut needed to consult with unions only in the county where the plant was set up. Since there are no electronic unions in largely rural Caldwell County where Lockhart is located, Wackenhut had no one with whom to consult. (30)

The Texas AFL-CIO begs to differ. The TEC should have required Wackenhut to consult with the AFL-CIO office in Austin in neighboring Travis County, where 150 jobs were lost, says Gunn.

The experience of the Texas AFL-CIO and the laid-off Austin workers explains why the trade union movement has been among the most active opponents of private prisons and prison labor in general. In a few cases, unions have successfully fought prison industries. United Auto Workers (UAW) union members were shocked when they learned that Weastec Corporation in Ohio hired prisoners to assemble Honda parts. The company paid the state $2.05 an hour for inmate labor. From that, the prisoners got 35 cents an hour.(31)

UAW Region 2 Director Warren Davis says the deal threatened union jobs even more than cheap parts imported under NAFTA. "No smaller employer could compete for that contract with Honda", says Davis. (32)

Crying foul,the UAW Community Action Program contacted local legislators, other unions, and the media. State Rep. Rocco Colonna successfully sponsored bills in the Ohio House of Representatives banning prison industries from taking over civilian jobs. Although the legislation never passed the state senate, the pressure forced Honda to eliminate the prison labor contract in 1992.

"Honda backed off", says Davis, "because they didn't feel the negative publicity was worth it."

Dead End Skills?

The debate about privately run prison industries extends far beyond their impact on free labor. Wackenhut and other private companies claim that they, unlike state prisons, actually rehabilitate inmates. That's no small issue when most states have given up rehabilitation as even a stated goal. Lockhart does have more education and training programs than many similar state operations. Some prisoners appreciate the difference.

Derek Hervey is serving a 15-year sentence for drug dealing. The slightly built African American is dressed in the green uniform worn by all LTI "employees". He says field work at the state- operated medium-security Sugarland prison was "hot, hard work, very abusive". At Lockhart, he got some basic education and works in a clean, air conditioned plant. (The air conditioning is for the circuit boards, not the men.) He hopes to get a job after release, noting that many companies in Texas manufacture circuit boards. "It's something I can apply for."

But the direct skills learned at LTI aren't going to get Hervey or anyone else a job. Owner Hill admits that most circuit board assemblers on the outside are immigrant women. "I think those people are not goingto get jobs identical to what we're doing here", he admits. Hill argues, however, that the work discipline and general familiarity with electronics should make the men more employable.

Helping Prisoners Profit

In theory, any prison job that involves good training and skills could eventually threaten free-world employment. And any well-manufactured prison product could end up undercutting sales of a small company. Yet some union officials have worked with prison administrators and reformers to establish meaningful training programs.

Unions can help "break the cycle of crime, prison, parole and crime again", says Jack Buckhorn, training director for an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) program at San Quentin Prison, near San Francisco. (33)

Since 1978, the IBEW and the local building contractors association have trained six San Quentin inmates each year as apprentice electricians. Of the inmates who continued the program after release, 90 percent stayed out of prison. In most American prisons, over half the ex-cons return within three years. At San Quentin, the recidivism rate tops 80 percent. (34)

But most inmates don't have the opportunity to become apprentice electricians. San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey runs an innovative jail labor program that both helps keep order and rehabilitates less-skilled prisoners. Inmates can take classes in English as a Second Language, classes to get high school equivalence diplomas, and a class in modern printing techniques. (35)

Hennessey also reopened a long abandoned agricultural field and set up a small farm. Inmates grow specialty fruits and vegetables, which are sold to local restaurants. Released prisoners are encouraged to continue their education in community college. And the Community Garden Project was established in San Francisco to help employ excons. Local restaurants are able to buy competitively priced and high-quality produce from the privately run garden.

Such efforts provide a concrete alternative to the "lock'em up and throw away the key" mentality currently in vogue. And they avoid the exploitation of captive labor typical of profit-driven prison industry programs. Prisoners, like anyone else, do need training, skills, and experience to help them compete in a dog-eat- dog labor market. Likewise, civilian workers and businesses need guarantees that their jobs won't be taken over by profit-hungry prison industries.

While programs like those in San Francisco are relatively small, they could be replicated anywhere. For prisoners, they would be an improvement. The current system certainly doesn't work, except for those who profit from prison labor. As long as the U.S. remains hell-bent on packing the prisons, meaningful work programs that actually prepare inmates for life on the outside are worth a try. Otherwise, prisoners may as well be making license plates.

[Reese Erlich, a free-lance reporter, teaches journalism at California State University, Hayward. Portions of this article appeared in the UAW's magazine "Solidarity". Erlich co-produced the PBS-TV documentary "Prison Labor/Prison Blues" for We Do the Work productions. For VHS tapes, call 510 547 8484, Kyung Sung Yu provided invaluable reporting and research for this article.]


1. On-site interview, Mar. 1994.

2. Interview with Warden Mai Lin Hua at the Shanghai Jail, July 5, 1994.

3. Interview with Fred Nichols, Oct. 17, 1994.

4. Interview with Brad Haga, Jan. 28, 1994.

5. Steven A. Holmes, "Ranks of Inmates Reach One Million in a 2- Decade Rise", New York Times, Oct. 28, 1994.

6. Speech to National Rifle Association, May 20, 1995.

7. Taped interview with historian Paul Lucko, Austin, Texas, Jan. 29, 1995.

8. Interview with Rep. Kevin Mannix, Oct. 27, 1994.

9. Statistics provided by fax by Correctional Industries Association and in phone interview with Department of Justice official. Figures for 1994 from Justice Department spokesperson, phone interview.

10. Interview with Fred Nichols, Oregon Prison Industries, Oct. 17, 1994.

11. Tom Pelton, "Union hits inmate labor at Toys R Us", Chicago Tribune, June 24, 1994, sec. 2, p. 4.

12. Aaron Bernstein, et al., "There's Prison Labor in America, Too", Business Week, Feb. 17, 1992, pp. 42, 44.

13. Taped interview with Rob Sexton, legislative aide, Ohio State Legislature, Dec. 1994.

14. Steven A, Holmes, "The Boom in Jails is Locking Up Lots of Loot", New York Times, Nov. 6, 1994, sec. 3, p. 4.

15. Yurni Wilson, "Prisons Get Bigger Slice of the Pie", San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 11, 1995.

16. Holmes, op. cit.

17. Ibid.

18.Kevin Helliker, "Expanding Prison Population Captivates Marketers", Wall Street Journal, Jan. 19, 1995, p. B1.

19. Alix M. Freedman, "Phone Firms Wrestle for Prisoners' Business in Hot Phone Market", Wall Street Journal, Feb. 15, 1995, p. A1.

20. Alisa Solomon, "Yearning to Breathe Free", Village Voice, Aug. 8, 1995, p. 26.

21. Anthony Ramirez, "Privatizing America's Prisons, Slowly", New York Times, Aug. 14, 1994, sec. 3., pp. 1, 6.

22. Ibid.

23. Corporate Yellow Book, Winter 1995, pp. 1032-33.

24. John Sullivan and Matthew Purdy, "In Corrections Business, Shrewdness Pays", New York Times, July 23, 1995, pp. A1, 28.

25. Ibid.

26. All information on Lockhart Correctional Facility from on-site interviews, Jan. 30, 1995.

27. Interviews with Comstock and Hill, Jan. 30, 1995.

28.The federal Prison Industry Enhancement Program, passed during the Carter administration, requires prisoners be paid at least minimum wage if they work on products sold interstate. No such requirement exists for goods exported outside the U.S. or for those sold within a state.

29.Interview, Jan. 30, 1995.

30. Interview with Texas Employment Commission representative, February 1995.

31. Information about Weastec and UAW actions from interview with UAW International Representative Jim Harris, Dec. 1994.

32. Quoted in Reese Erlich, "Prison Labor, Prison Blues", Solidarity, March 1995, p. 10.

33. Interview, Jan. 1995.

34.The recidivism rate is so bad at San Quentin that a prison spokesperson giving the information requested anonymity.

35. Jim Balderston, "Start the Presses", San Francisco Bay Guardian, Apr. 13, 1994.

Private Prisons: A Bargain?

Private prison officials argue that their operations are more efficient than state facilities and give taxpayers a better bargain for their money. Most private prisons are too new to make any final judgment on that claim. So far, virtually all U.S. private prisons handle low and medium-security prisoners, leaving the tougher criminals to state care. Private prison companies thus skim off the easiest and least expensive prisoners to handle.

But it is not entirely clear that private companies can even operate medium-security prisons more cheaply when there's a fair comparison. The state of Louisiana is running an interesting experiment. It set up three medium-security prisons at the same time, one run by the state, one by Corrections Corporation of America, and one by Wackenhut. In March 1993, a legislative review committee found the per prisoner cost for each facility was virtually the same. (1)

Critics have long argued that private prisons are tempted to abuse inmates by skimping on food and other basics in order to increase profits. The privately operated Immigration and Naturalization Service detention center at Elizabeth, New Jersey, is a case in point. Immigrants charged with illegal entry into the U.S. had long complained about inedible food, dirty clothes and insects in the beds at the Esmor Correctional Services facility. Their complaints were ignored. Then, on June 18, hundreds of detainees rebelled, nearly destroying the prison. (2)

An INS report on the incident concluded that Esmor had skimped on food, building repairs, and guard salaries in order to make greater profits. The report said some detainees were abused by guards. INS cancelled its contract with Esmor in New Jersey, but will continue contracts with Esmor and other private companies elsewhere in the U.S. (3)


1. Interview with Peggy Wilson Lawrence, spokesperson for Corrections Corporation of America, Oct. 4, 1994.

2. Richard Perez-Pena, "Aliens' Melee Closes Center in New Jersey", New York Times, June 19, 1995, p. 1.

3. Ashley Dunn, "U.S. Inquiry Finds Detention Center Was Poorly Run", New York Times, July 22, 1995, p. 1.

Good Ol' Days

In 1885, Texas forced mostly African American inmates to haul granite for building the new state capitol. These men, some of whom had been born into slavery, had become slaves once again. The skilled granite cutters union strongly objected to the use of prison labor and boycotted the building project. The contractor imported 62 scab cutters from Scotland to break the boycott.

The use of prisoners to take away civilian jobs has a long history in the U.S. For most of the last century, prisoners were regularly leased out to plantation and factory owners. Guards whipped inmates for failing to meet quotas or for other work infractions.

Prison labor led to the Briceville, Tennessee, Coal Creek Rebellion in 1891-92. When coal owners insisted on a contract barring union membership, coal miners were locked out, and leased convicts were forced to scab in the mines. Miners stormed the convicts' stockade and freed the prisoners. The company gave in, rehiring the miners and halting the use of convicts.

By the early 1900s, most states banned prison contract labor as the public became aware of the brutal conditions facing prisoners. Citizens also objected to the corruption of prison officials who took bribes to provide inmate labor to selected companies. The infamous chain gangs of the South weren't completely abolished until the 1950s.

Just this year, Alabama and Arizona reinstituted chain gangs to do road work. Prison authorities are also bringing back inmate labor for private companies. Too bad they haven't read their history. Then again, maybe they have.
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