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One of the Largest Solar Power Companies in the U.S. has Ties to Prison Slave Labor

One of the Largest Solar Power Companies in the U.S. has Ties to Prison Slave Labor

by Panagioti Tsolkas

Prisoners at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, Oregon are making solar panels at a UNICOR factory for 93 cents an hour under a tax-break incentivized contract that claims to favor local manufacturing for a large photovoltaic system installed at two Oregon university campuses. The project was launched in 2012 by SolarCity, one of the most well-known solar energy installation companies in the country, founded by “cleantech” business magnate and poster-child for green capitalism, Elon Musk.

Instead of generating green jobs to boost the regional economy, as was intended by the Oregon Department of Energy’s $11.8 million in tax credits connected to the universities’ $27 million solar plan, the state simply bolstered corporate profits by allowing SolarCity to purchase through a vender, Suniva, which uses federal prisoners forced to work for sweatshop wages to manufacture solar panels.

According to the online environmental news outlet Grist, Suniva never responded to queries nor would UNICOR provide copies of contracts between the two, citing confidentiality provisions.

In an email to Grist, UNICOR spokesperson Marianne Cantwell claimed that the arrangement “provides inmates with meaningful training and job skills.” But the Sheridan prison is not certified under the Department of Justice’s Prison Industry Enhancement (PIE) program. In fact, UNICOR has only two PIE programs in place for manufacturing where prisoners even have a chance at earning a wage comparable to that of freeworld labor.

The prisoners who made the panels for Suniva, which were later sold to SolarCity, saw none of the financial benefits associated with the incentives and tax credits from which Musk benefited. And while UNICOR can claim to provide training for future employment after prisoner workers are released, there is certainly no guarantee in that.

Companies hire prisoners for one reason: because they are cheaper than non-incarcerated workers. In this case, using prison labor was less expensive than buying panels from a factory in Hillsboro, Oregon, where workers make above minimum wage.

SolarCity spokesperson Jonathan Bass told Grist that he didn’t know prison wages were less than a dollar an hour, and that using solar panels made with prison labor isn’t in line with the company’s commitment to sustainability. However, the company refused to confirm whether or not it will use panels made by prison labor in the future.

SolarCity alleged that purchasing solar panels from Suniva was fueled by a fear that the Hillsboro factory was on the verge of bankruptcy. The factory did not actually go bankrupt, but it did report having to lay off workers after SolarCity cut it from the university deal.

In addition to the university project in Oregon, Suniva has supplied solar power systems to Whole Foods in Texas and the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, among other locations.

Sources:, Reuters, The Oregonian


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