An article published in The Nation on March 10, 2023, chronicled the experience of former New York prisoner Johnny Perez. He spent over four years in a factory making hundreds of bedsheets daily, before ascending near the top of the pay scale to earn a whopping 32 cents an hour. But that was nearly double his initial wage. Within Coxsackie Correctional Facility, Perez was one of the highest-paid prisoners.
Upon release years later, Perez had a jarring revelation: the sheets he had meticulously stitched for pennies an hour during the late 2000s were being sold at a staggering markup under the Corcraft brand. New York’s state prison industry – with an extensive inventory of products that includes furniture and uniforms – Corcraft vends its wares to state agencies, schools, and other public entities. A dozen Corcraft sheets currently command a price of $73.
The experience underscored for Perez an economic disparity. Contemplating the market value of his daily output—approximately 360 sheets—he realized, “You do the math, and you’re like, I made these people millions of dollars… this is really wrong.”
Corcraft, however, considers Perez’s work a means of rehabilitation. The company’s website asserts, “We employ incarcerated individuals to produce goods while preparing them for release by teaching them work skills, work ethic, and responsibility.”
But can working for minimal or no compensation be considered an educational or therapeutic experience for the incarcerated? Isn’t it just more punishment?
Not that this would make it illegal. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, except “as punishment for a crime.” But for Perez, now the director of the U.S. prisons program at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, that was the point: What he was supposed to be grateful for had been only nominally voluntary.
“What makes it forced … is that if you quit, you’re punished,” he explained. “What makes it forced is that you can’t take a day off when you don’t want [to work]. What makes it forced is that if somebody dies, you’re going to get no bereavement time, you’re going to get no sick time.… In prison, there’s no calling in [sick] for Covid, you’re going into solitary or you’re going to get a behavior report, etc. So, that’s what makes it forced, even though people still have to qualify to be able to get the job.”
Prison labor is common across the U.S. According toa recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union, nearly 99% of public prisons and 90% of private lockups operate work programs, using over 790,000 incarcerated people – nearly two-thirds of the country’s prisoners (currently numbering about 1.2 million, excluding those at jails, immigration detention centers, and juvenile detention facilities). See: Captive Labor, ACLU (June 2022).
A survey conducted by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2016 revealed that almost six of every ten state prisoners held work assignments. For about 70%, their participation was involuntarily. While the majority worked in maintenance roles, such as food preparation, groundskeeping or managing prison libraries, a mere 6% were involved in formal “prison industries” producing goods and services for state agencies or private firms – products like office furniture, police uniforms, even face masks during the pandemic. A small fraction of incarcerated workers were contracted to corporations. Around 40% reported earning nothing.
Although efforts to address the issue are gaining traction, the use of prison labor in the private sector remains hidden behind opaque supply chains and regulatory gaps. Noam Perry, of the American Friends Service Committee, estimated that “all major retailers in the U.S. have prison labor in their supply chains. They just don’t know it, and they don’t know it because they choose not to know it.”
From convict-leasing systems in the postbellum South to modern prison industries helping maintain supply chains, the issue remains contentious. Advocates push for legislative changes to extend the Fair Labor Standards Act’s protections to incarcerated workers, ensuring their health, safety, and collective bargaining rights. Grassroots movements have taken aim at the 13th Amendment itself, pushing for a constitutional amendment to end forced labor all together. Growing public awareness may help reform initiatives gather momentum, paving the way for change that aligns more closely with principles of justice and fairness.
Source: The Nation
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