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Prison Work Programs: “Cost-Effective Labor Pool” or “Slave Labor of Yesterday”?

by Christopher Zoukis

According to a 2017 survey by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), of the more than 2.2 million people incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails across the United States, 61 percent hold some form of job.

In marketing materials prepared for Federal Prison Industries, also known as UNICOR, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) invites freeworld businesses to leverage its “skilled workforce” at “low labor rates” and take advantage of its “cost-effective labor pool.”

Created in 1934, UNICOR pays prisoners between $0.23 and $1.15 an hour. According to the agency’s most recent annual report, about 17,000 prisoners in 50 manufacturing centers are paid those low wages to make products ranging from air filters and clothing to office supplies and furniture.

Many of the items produced by UNICOR are purchased by the federal government – the agency had over $502.8 million in sales in fiscal year 2018. Since 2011, Congress has also allowed the prison industry program to produce and sell millions of dollars worth of prisoner-manufactured goods to private companies. Even military goods are produced by UNICOR, some of which end up in the hands of foreign governments.

Billed as a way to prepare prisoners for life after release, as well as a tool to keep U.S. firms from exporting jobs to lower-wage countries, UNICOR’s private-sector work programs have also put it in the calling center business, advertising its prisoner-staffed call centers as one of the “best-kept secrets” in the industry. In a recent article, an unnamed CEO touted the benefits of using prisoner labor.

“We would receive services from an onshore agent – a U.S. citizen – but at offshore prices,” the CEO said. “It’s a win-win for everyone involved.”

Not everyone agrees, though. Northstar Asset Management, which focuses on socially responsible investing, released a report in April 2018 that warned “[t]he supply of prison labor today offers companies in the United States access to the slave labor of yesterday.” Businesses that make direct or indirect use of prison labor, it added, “are participants in an exploitive practice that is likely in conflict with many companies’ stated values.”

The report also pointed investors and companies to a potential PR nightmare, highlighting the cases of Victoria’s Secret, Wal-Mart and Whole Foods. All three firms found themselves mired in controversy over the use of prison labor in their supply chains, because “prison labor takes advantage of a captive workforce that has no ability to speak out against unfair conditions, and it robs inmates’ families of supportive wages.”

For companies that find prison labor in their supply chains, Northstar urges them to “refuse to accept excuses, trivialization, or dismissal by those who tolerate and perpetuate the exploitation of incarcerated humans in order to slash costs and reap higher profits,” noting that “good corporate citizens will ask hard questions of their suppliers and insist on better conditions for any inmates who work in the supply chain.”

UNICOR operates a small number of industry projects under the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP), in which prisoners earn at least minimum wage for work that benefits freeworld companies. Part of their pay is seized to cover incarceration costs, along with any alimony, child support or court-ordered restitution they owe. Some is also placed in a savings account for their use upon release.

A study conducted in the 1990s and early 2000s by the National Institute of Justice found that PIECP participants were twice as likely as other UNICOR-employed prisoners to find and hold steady employment upon release. As of 2017, however, just two UNICOR factories were participating in PIECP.

Some state-level prison programs have had success in paying prisoners more for their labor, though they operate on a very small scale. In 2010, venture capitalist Chris Redlitz co-founded a nonprofit – The Last Mile – to teach website coding and business start-up skills at California’s San Quentin State Prison, paying prisoners up to $17 an hour. [See: PLN, Feb. 2018, p.20]. Two years after his release from a five-year drug sentence, Tulio Cardozo, one of the first participants in The Last Mile program, landed a job as a lead web developer at a San Francisco tech startup.

Taken together, these prison labor programs represent the opportunity to recover just a small fraction of the cost of incarcerating America’s 2.2 million prisoners, which a 2017 PPI study pegged at $182 billion (other estimates range from $80 billion to over $500 billion).

Despite the very low pay that most prisoners receive, work programs remain so popular there is often a waiting list for potential prisoner workers – partly because such programs are the only way to earn wages, and thus buy items from institutional commissaries and make phone calls. Plus they provide prisoners with something to occupy their time besides sitting in their cells; they are literally a captive workforce, and thus easy to exploit.


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