Me, I still like to think about the struggle. I'm doing time in an 800-bed prison where about 150 are employed in Class I Industry (a.k.a. "Free Venture" or "PIE") jobs. Most of these PIE workers consider themselves unbelievably lucky to earn more than the 42¢ an hour they'd get from a state job. Yes, they're paid minimum wage for work that in today's tight labor market pays twice that. Yes, payroll deductions for "cost of corrections", victims compensation, mandatory savings, taxes, and social security reduce their "take-home" pay to about $2.50/hour. And, yes, these workers are laid off at the bosses' whim for days or weeks at a time. Still, they say, it beats mopping a floor for 42¢/hour.
Over the years many of these guys have taken a dim view of PLN's editorial stance on prison labor, thinking PLN is out to ruin their hustle. Heck, there used to be a rumor in this joint that I applied for a Class I Industry job, was turned down, and only then started writing "anti-prison labor" articles in a fit of pique.
After penning one article about the largest PIE employer in this prison, I remember facing a group of about 10-15 angry workers in a pod dayroom. They wanted to know why I was giving their employer bad press. Was I trying to close down the company? I stood my ground and defended the article point-by-point. They weren't hearing it, though. And there's been tension ever since.
So recently I was delighted when some of these same prisoners started coming to me with questions about state and federal prison labor statutes. Seems that one of them looked up the state prison labor law and found out that their employer was supposed to be paying them "the prevailing wage" for similar work performed in the local labor market. These guys earn minimum wage for stuffing bulk product into individual retail packaging. They read the want ads and see $10-11/hour jobs listed for doing the exact same work. And they want to know how their bosses can get away with that.
So now our interests converge their interest being the size of their paychecks, my focus being more on the "big picture" of how corporations exploit prison labor as a way to put downward pressure on all workers' wages. Either way you look at it, when prisoners are paid lower wages for doing the same work as outside workers, the bosses win and the workers lose.
"So what can we do about it?" they ask me. I don't have an easy answer there isn't one. But at least now we've got a dialog going. I don't know where it will lead. But I know where it needs to end: The PIE workers in here need to believe that only with solidarity, not only among themselves but solidarity with outside workers, will the battle be won.
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