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Prison Labor and the Need for Representation

By H. Rosenberg

The 1993 session of the Washington State Legislature, passed a bill into law, mandating that Washington State DOC double the size of the Institutional Industries program within the next several years. The bill in essence creates more higher paying jobs for prisoners. To some this might sound good, but do not be fooled, the last thing on the State's agenda is to provide meaningful employment that might provide for a nice nest egg for prisoners upon release. They were responding to a notion that has become fashionable as of late, and that is: Make those scumbag prisoners pay for their room and board!

In careful analysis this is Capitalism doing what it does best--the rich profiteering off the work and misery of others, with no concern for those who are performing the labor. The courts have long held that prisoners in no way enjoy the same rights as other workers. The truth of the matter is slave labor is alive and well in the prisons of America, as well as the rest of the world. If a prisoner does not "program," i.e. work, he/she can lose good time, be thrown in the hole, not be allowed to live in the better housing units, and in other unique ways pay for not going along with the "program." In some prisons they have school that can count as "programming," but the majority of prisoners in all main line prisons work institutional jobs. The majority of these jobs, are either in the kitchen, laundry, or are in the living units where the work is janitorial in nature. The prisoners in Washington are paid between 20 and 38 cents for this their labor, which makes it impossible to save any money for one's release.

There are also a handful of "Industry" jobs, where outside contractors manufacture items like clothing, concrete products, or furniture, all in sweatshop like conditions. The majority of these "Industries" would in no way be competitive in the real world. But with the substandard working conditions, lack of safety provisions, slave wages, and not having to pay health, or other benefits, they are able to turn a profit.

Someone might argue that the prisoners that are working these "Industry" jobs in many cases earn minimum wage, and the prisoners are learning a trade. Both of these are weak points when scrutinized. Yes, some prisoners do make minimum wage, but after the usual taxes are taken out, the State takes out more money for "Room and Board," court costs and fines, and what ever is left over is put in a "Trust" account. All of this is at the expense of the prisoner worker being exploited in such a manner that makes us the lowest of all human classes, that of the slave class. As for these "Industry" jobs preparing us for a job on the streets, the training that is offered would at best qualify us for nothing but the most menial of tasks, and any job on the street that the prisoner worker could get, would ensure the prisoner of a lifetime of poverty. So the benefit of these jobs are little if any for the prisoner, and the benefit to the Powers that Be is that of huge financial gain.

So the writing is on the wall, prisoners will be expected to work under the most unsafe, and harshest of conditions. We will not enjoy any of the most basic worker rights, and we will be aiding our captors keep the jack boot firmly in place, right on our throats.

What can we do about this? The answer is Representation, or in other words Organize! The greatest fear of the Prisoncrats is a Prisoner Union, and their fear is rational. For if we act with unity to improve the conditions under which we work and live, we will be successful, and that success would spell the end of the strangle hold they have on all of us. For those of you who are aware of how the Powers that Be feel about Prisoner Unions, what I am suggesting is tantamount to war. But I am not talking violence, I am talking Education, and Organization. We must completely change the way we think, we must think of what is good for us all, and not what we can gain for ourselves individually. We must not look at our fellow Prisoners and see an enemy because he/she is not the same race, we must not look at the sex offender and see a rapist, or child molester, we must not look at the weak, and see him/her as our next victim. What we should see in other prisoners is what they are, victims of a cold and calculating system, and potential brothers, and sisters in the Struggle. There is one prisoner who we should see as threat to us all, and that is the informant. Again I am not advocating violence, but I do advocate ostracizing them because they are a threat to any prisoner right movement. We ostracize them by not eating with them, if they sit at our table, we move, no threats just move. We do not talk to them, we do not recognize them, they just become non-people.

What I am calling for when I speak of a Prisoner Union, will be fought tooth and nail by the prisoncrats, those who are found to be organizers, will draw time in the hole, and be transferred, liberation is not for the weak of heart. But if a we unite in great numbers, they cannot punish us all, if we stay true to ourselves, we will prevail.

Such a union can not just be a local organization, it must be global. We must form networks of supporters on the streets, as well as in the prisons. We must not be violent, for to do so will justify the use of force against us. The power of the worker strike will be our greatest tool, this hits them where they live, and that is in their wallets.


1. Minimum wage for all prisoner workers.

2. The right to organize without retaliation.

3. The right to collective bargaining.

4. The right to a safe work place, with proper safety equipment, clothing, and extensive training on dangerous machines that prisoners operate.

5. Overtime pay for any time over forty hours worked in a one week period.

6. One week paid vacation a year.

7. Workman's compensation benefits that are the same as free workers who are hurt on the job.

8. Elimination of tying job performance to earned good time.

9. Never have more than 50 percent of a prisoners pay deducted for taxes, trust accounts, or room and board.

10. The creation of hiring practices that insures for racial fairness, and that the same job programs are available in women's prisons as in mens.

11. And above all the right to strike over any working condition

The above is only a rough outline. In this day and age of "three strikes you're out," something needs to be done before matters get worse than they are.


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