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Convict Mine Labor in the Information Age

One hundred years ago the U.S. economy was in the heyday of its Industrial Age. Steel was king. Railroads, machine tools, heavy manu- facturing. All fueled by coal.

Some of that coal was hacked out of the earth by companies in Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia that utilized convict `.lease labor" to extract the black gold. But coal wasn't the only "black gold" from which profit was extracted. Southern sheriffs were paid bounties by these companies to scour the countryside for "idle Negroes" to arrest under vagrancy laws. Once convicted, this human "black gold" was converted to slave labor in the mines, producing coal for less than half the labor cost incurred by rival companies that employed "free labor".

A hundred years later the U.S. economy is in the throes of a booming "Information Age". Marketing is king. Targeted direct mail, telemarketing, consumer preference profiles. All fueled by data. And just as convict labor was harnessed a century ago to mine the lifeblood of industry, prisoners today are increasingly used in "data mining" operations.

In 1993 and 1994 hundreds of thousands of "Shoppermail" surveys detailed product preference questionnaires filled out by consumers and mailed to P.O. Boxes in Nebraska and New York on the promise of coupons and free samples were shipped by Metromail Corporation to Texas prisons where convict "data miners" keyed the information into vast marketing databases. Metromail paid the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) $150,000 to process the surveys which were commissioned by Seventeen magazine, L'Oreal, Six Flags Days Inns, R.J. Reynolds, and Time Life, among others.

However, none of the more than 140,000 prisoners in Texas all of whom are required by the state to work are paid for their labor. Cotton pickers in Louisiana's Angola Prison earn 4¢ an hour. Texas prisoners grow cotton and mine data at less than "slave wages". They are quite literally slaves of the state. And in 1994, one of these TDCJ slaves secreted a consumer survey questionnaire back to his cell and turned it to his own purpose.

A Public Relations Nightmare

Beverly Dennis, an Ohio factory worker, came home from work one day to find a 12-page handwritten letter with a Texas postmark in her mailbox. It was from a stranger who seemed to know all about her, from her birthday to the names of her favorite magazines, from the fact that she was divorced to the kind of soap she used in the shower. And he had woven this personal information into a rambling, twisted sexual fantasy.

"It can only be in letters at the moment," the TDCJ data miner wrote after describing graphic sexual acts he planned. "Maybe later, I can get over to see you."

It took months for an explanation to emerge, but eventually Ms. Dennis, with investigative help from a Cleveland television station, discovered that the letter writer was a convicted rapist and burglar serving a 7-year sentence in a Texas prison. What followed was a public relations nightmare for Metromail, the TDCJ, and the data mining industry. In the media frenzy that followed, the Texas Legislature quickly passed a law barring sex offenders from data entry work in prison.

"We lost some damn good [computer] programmers pedophiles," bemoaned John Benestante, director of the state prison industries. "Some of our best computer operatives were sex offenders."

Metromail, which had $281 million in revenues in 1996, budgeted $1.5 million to fight a class action lawsuit that Ms. Dennis filed against the corporation and its subcontractors. The company, a leading member of the Direct Marketing Association, called the case "an aberration" and was quick to add that it no longer uses prison labor.

But prisons in at least five other states report contracts to process information for private business. And 28 states employ prisoners to process public records like motor vehicle registrations and titles, criminal investigation records from police and the state attorney general's office, court records, election commission records, welfare applications virtually any data computerized by the state. Federal prisoners process data for the Internal Revenue Service and other federal agencies.

Increasingly, cash-strapped government agencies are selling packaged public information to private businesses or entering joint ventures to repackage the data to create information more attractive to the marketing titans of the Information Age.

G.I.S. -- Mining Data for Gold

Fourteen states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons use prisoner labor to convert detailed maps and high resolution aerial photographs into Geographic Information Systems, or G.I.S., databases. G.I.S. is on the cutting edge of information technology, a way to pinpoint individual households and correlate that information into a wealth of other information, including data culled from the kind of public records that prisoners routinely convert into electronic form.

Only a decade ago, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation sought unrestricted access to all national databases, including public records, Congress said no.

"Now the commercial market has done it for them," points out Harlan Onsrud, chairman of the University of Maine's department of Spatial Information Science, who helped develop G.I.S. technology. Government agencies like the F.B.I. can now access the kind of data Congress denied them a decade ago. "They just have to pay like anybody else," Onsrud says.

G.I.S. technology is proving to be an astonishingly powerful and lucrative commercial data processing tool used to swallow millions of gigabytes of information from public records and private sector data banks and spit out house-by-house information that can include everything from the tax assessment and make and model of the occupant's car, to details of consumer preferences collected by the likes of Metromail.

One place where G.I.S. data entry work is done is the Ferguson Unit prison near Midway, Texas. Supervisors proudly displayed to a NY Times reporter the modern-looking facility where 120 Texas prisoners (serving sentences averaging 32 years in length) convert maps into "Gigabytes of Gold". When the Times reporter visited the Ferguson site in 1997, the unit was digitizing Van Zandt, Texas, county maps for $19,880, compared to a private sector bid of $60,000

"If you don't send this [type of work] here, the next stop is India." said Marilyn Buck, the Fergusan Unit plant manager, referring to information sweat shops in Asia, Mexico and the Caribbean where much data entry is now done.

The Privacy Issue

According to 1994 and 1995 Harris polls, 4 out of 5 Americans are concerned about threats to their privacy posed by the Information Age. But Angela Pugh, a supervisor at the TDCJ Ferguson Unit prison's G.I.S. unit, shrugged off the issue.

"Is the government going to sacrifice the money that can be made for a little bit of privacy?" Ms. Pugh asked.

But that "little bit of privacy" is becoming the centerpiece of a battle being waged by Beverly Dennis and millions of Americans like her who want stringent privacy laws and regulatory oversight of companies like Metromail.

Chet Dalzell, a spokesman for the Direct Marketing Association, says the industry should regulate itself on privacy issues, and downplays public outrage over abuses.

"This isn't a war,' Dalzell said about data mining and privacy issues. "This is the marketplace just trying to be intelligent."

To Ms. Dennis, a woman in her 50's who grew up in the coal country of Ohio, Metromail's prison data mining operation was like having her privacy strip mined by the dark side of the Information Age.

"They are making millions of dollars off other people's lives who don't even know what they are doing,.. Ms. Dennis said. "They have turned my whole life upside down."

New York Times , 1996 Correctional Industries Association Directory, The Nation , et al.

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