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Corporations Using Prisoners to Fight Phantom Labor Shortage

by Matt Clarke

Recently, during an industrial conference, executives from Waste Management Services (which recorded $15.22 billion in 2020 revenues), discussed using immigrants as truck drivers, and other industry executives suggested using prison or work-release programs to fill openings in the sanitation, waste, and recycling industry.

But Chuck Stiles, director of the Teamsters Union’s solid waste and recycling division, which represents about 32,000 private waste industry workers, told Business Insider for its July 20, 2021, report on the topic that “talk about immigrant labor, prison labor, it’s all about exploitation, nothing else.”

“There is no driver shortage,” Stiles insisted. “There is a huge wage and benefit shortage [because] these waste companies refuse to give up anything on the bottom line.”

Still, some corporations are looking to prisons to fill a perceived labor shortage that has arisen during the COVID-19 pandemic, a perception that persists despite the fact that economists say the nation’s job-recovery data shows no economy-wide labor shortage.

That has not kept business groups and employers from using the perception of a labor shortage to lobby Congress to address it, asking for the cap to be doubled on work visas for immigrants and pushing states to expand the use of prison labor in private industry.

Some restaurants in Delaware, Michigan, Ohio, and Texas have turned to prison work-release programs to fill jobs in the food service and hospitality industry.

In April 2021, Russell Stover began using prison labor at its candy production facilities in Abilene and Iola, Kansas. About 150 state prisoners from the Topeka Correctional Facility (TCF) for women hop on a bus and commute to late shifts at the candy plants. For those going to Iola, the trip starts at around 1:15 p.m. and lasts nearly two-hours. After an eight-hour shift, they shuffle back onto the buses at around 12:30 a.m. and are returned to the prison, arriving around 2:30 a.m.

The prisoners are paid a flat rate of $14 per hour with no benefits, which represents quite a savings for the company over the $l5-to-$22 hourly starting wage—plus benefits—it offers non-prisoner employees. From the prisoners’ paychecks, TCF deducts 25% for “room and board,” another 5% for a Victims’ Fund, about 6% for a mandatory savings account plus $50 a week to pay for gas for the bus. A prisoner whose gross pay for two weeks of work is $917.60 then ends up with $453.35 after deductions—or about $5.89 an hour, and that’s before taxes. Given the alternative of little to no pay while imprisoned, this is a sizeable sum. Just as poor people labor in sweat shops in third world countries for dollars a day working for American corporations, they do so, not because the pay is great but because the alternatives are worse.

Brandilyn Parks, president of the Kansas Coalition for Sentence and Prison Reform, said work-release programs can benefit prisoners, but they can also simply be an effort by employers and the prison system to use and exploit a vulnerable population to drive down wages while taking jobs away from the community. Which is the historic and current use of prison slavery. They also perpetuate mass incarceration. Worse, some of the companies that employ prison laborers then refuse to employ them after release due to their criminal record.

Parks believes that employers’ refusal to pay a living wage is the primary factor behind the perceived labor shortage and that expanding prison work programs is not a good faith effort to solve the problem.

“Hiring people who are at their lowest in life and then throwing crumbs at them is despicable,” she said. “The contract guaranteeing this amount of people makes it difficult to release people because they’re making the Department of Corrections (DOC) money. So the DOC and private industry win and they try to make it appear as though the incarcerated win, when really they’re being taken advantage of.”

Some TCF prisoners working for Russell Stover disagree. The average pay for a job in Kansas Prison Industries is 33¢ an hour, less than one-seventeenth of the post-deduction pay at the candy factory. The company has also been noteworthy for both treating prisoner workers fairly and offering them jobs after they are released.

“[T]he cool thing about Russell Stover is they don’t designate between prison and non-prison. When you come in, bam, you’re in the job,” said TCF prisoner Jan Vicory, who plans to continue working for the company after she is released. “There’s no other plan but to continue making the candy.”

A fellow prisoner, Lisa Pereira, noted another benefit of working for Russell Stover—re-socialization. After five years in prison, she worried about her social skills, but she said work soon became “the best part of my day.”

“I’m learning to interact with people on a normal basis,” Pereira said.

Both women intend to take Russell Stover up on an offer of post-release jobs. Neither said she feels exploited. They cite the training they are receiving and the fact that the company needs some incentive to hire prisoners as reasons they feel the lower pay is fair.

But Russell Stover may be the exception that proves the rule. Prison labor has a long history of exploitation—especially in former slave states, where convict labor was used to replace slaves for over a century following the Civil War, and prisoners were literally worked to death.

“These programs can very quickly become exploitive,” according to Kansas Legal Director Sharon Brett of the Kansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “While work-release programs in general are a good thing, the contours of the program—and how much money people get to take home at the end of the day—are certainly appropriate questions to be asked.”

Editor’s Note: HRDC has long advocated that prisoners be paid at least the prevailing community wage for the work they perform and keep all of the money subject only to the same taxes and deductions non-prisoners pay.
In recent years Agri business attempted to use prison slave labor to fill in for immigrant farm labor after a number of states in the late 2000s passed anti immigrant laws. While the prison slave labor was introduced with great fanfare it quietly fizzled. The security costs borne by tax payers tend to consume whatever nominal profit is being made. And each prison slave labor project is one escape and one murder away from being a local or national headline. Prison slavery is no longer in widespread use primarily because it is not economical to do and most of the low wage, no/low skill jobs have long since been exported offshore or are performed by recent immigrants.

Sources: The Guardian, Business Insider, Iola Register, The Flashpoint

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