Amendment XIII. Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude,except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
So reads the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified by the states on Dec. 6, 1865. Amerikan slavery remains an explicitly legal form of exploitation. According to Clinton's secretary of labor, Robert Reich, this should put the united states "outside the community of civilized nations." Writing about the question of trade sanctions over human rights cases, Reich said: "Some labor practices simply place countries outside the community of civilized nations. A consensus list of 'core' labor standards will certainly proscribe goods produced by prison or slave labor."(1)
We know that Amerikan law clearly permits both slave and prison labor, a fact that is not relevant in mainstream debate because of the mandatory assumption of Amerikan democratic virtue. But to more than a million prisoners of Amerika, who labor under slave conditions, this hypocrisy is the very heart of the matter.
A Michigan prisoner wrote to MIM in April:
"Inside prison, the prisoners are slaves, the warden is the slave master, the guards are the overseers, the jobs are the product that we slave over. In prison one makes 25 cents an hour, some much less. This prison has contracts with big corporations. We make sofas, chairs, desks, nightstands, etc. for a quarter an hour. Then they are sold in stores for hundreds of dollars, but you wouldn't know this because you're on the outside. You probably don't believe that prisoners are slaves, but doesn't it make sense? I mean, we are treated like dogs. Matter of fact, if we were treated like dogs, it would be much better."
Prison labor, slave labor
Prison labor has been a part of prison systems throughout the history of prisons. In socialist China (1949-1976), prisoners performed various forms of labor as part of their rectification and to contribute to society. There is nothing inherently wrong with prisoners working; just as labor under imperialism is exploitative but that does not make labor inherently oppressive. The class content of the system is decisive as long as there are classes. Under communism when there are no classes, there will be no more need for prisons or prison labor.
The Amerikan prison system is a tool of oppression, especially national oppression. It is a system that perniciously incarcerates people based on their nationality and class. Amerika not only lets the most guilty go free, it lets them run the society and the prison system itself. Amerika incarcerates people for property "crimes" that actually bring society closer to equality rather than hurting the people. In those instances when Amerika does incarcerate people who have committed real crimes against the people, it seeks to destroy their lives and their families without trying to help them make appropriate rectification and meaningful self-criticism.
In such a system, where the labor of prisoners is a part of their oppression and a part of the profit-making system that dehumanizes them and everyone else, where they have no control over their labor or its products, and where they are instruments of production to be used at the whim of their masters, then we must call their prison labor what it is - slavery. We do not use this term in the rhetorical sense of "really bad exploitation," but in the specific sense of forced labor by captive workers, for the profit of others.
This is true in general even though, as we will see, there are some modifications to the prison labor system that make it in some ways approximate a wage labor system - with the obvious fundamental difference of captivity. We find, however, that wage labor in prison mostly represents a concession of the state to capital - to let capital in on some of the slave profits. It also may make prisoners more willing to engage in prison labor, for the same reason that slaves everywhere prefer wage labor. In this case more than most others, however, the economics and conditions of the work are hardly changed at all by the intervention of private capital. We now turn to this in more detail.
Government prison industries
Government-run prison industries dominate the prison labor system despite increasing inroads by private prison industries. In 1995 government agency prison industries had sales of $1.2 billion, and private prison industries had sales of $83 million, 6.4% of the total sales.(2) These government sales may be undervalued, however, because their sales are to other agencies, so the prices are arbitrarily fixed.
Of the 1.1 million prisoners in state and federal prisons in 1994, almost half a million (44.6%) were in prison work programs. Another 65,000 were in work release programs.(2)
Wages in government prison industries, if they are paid at all, are as low as 13 cents per day, in Louisiana.(2) Several states - Arkansas, Georgia and Texas in 1994 - give prisoners no compensation at all.(3) In at least 34 states prisoners make license plates, but also do other manufacturing, as well as undesirable jobs like asbestos removal and waste recycling, and phone work like telemarketing and phone reservations.(4) In a 1994 survey, 31 out of 45 states said their prison labor programs paid for themselves, although with all the funny-money in government industries it is not clear how this is measured.(3)
The Federal Prison Industries, which goes by the trade name UNICOR, has been "satisfying Federal customers" since 1934.(5) It is the labor system of the federal prisons. All of its products are sold to other federal agencies or to federal government contractors. And as UNICOR reminds us: "UNICOR is still a mandatory source: UNICOR has a procurement preference granted by Congress which means that if we can meet the current market price, and your requirements for quality, and a time of delivery, your purchase must by made from UNICOR."
In a supposedly free market, a system of forced labor supplying state-run industries with no competition looks a little awkward, something that has not escaped the UNICOR publicists, who write: "We want you to use us because you want to, not because you have to." They could say the same thing to the workers, if the workers' perceptions mattered as much as the buyers'.
UNICOR says its "primary mission is the productive employment of inmates," although not necessarily to the benefit of the prisoners themselves. They also say UNICOR is "a self-sustaining enterprise, receiving no congressional appropriations for its operational funds. Our income is derived from the products we sell."
Of course, "operational funds" are only one part of industrial expenses. In fact, in UNICOR as in other government-run prison industries, it does not appear that prison labor alone produces enough to make the system as a whole profitable, yet, for the state - although it is profitable for many companies. Through prison labor the imperialists are able to recoup some of the expenses of their expensive genocidal incarceration system, but profit from prison labor is not the primary goal of the system - which serves important political functions, provides profits to the corporations who build and run prisons, and provides jobs to the labor aristocrats who guard them even as it indoctrinates them with fascist ideology. To pay for all this, the imperialists invest some of their superprofits from Third World nations. If prison labor is more fully used and more efficiently exploited, however, the system as a whole may yet turn a net profit. Preventing that eventuality is one goal of revolutionary prisoners and their allies outside.
UNICOR workers produce furniture, metal products such as shelving and stainless steel food equipment, electronics, signs and decals, envelopes and letterhead, and clothing and textiles. And they sell services such as data services, furniture refinishing, laser toner cartridge remanufacturing, and so on.
The case of toner cartridges, incidentally, shows the unity of mainstream environmentalism and imperialism. UNICOR writes: "Environmental Protection Agency guidelines mandate the use of recycled toner cartridges in all Federal agencies. Recycling and remanufacturing works. It saves you money while reducing the amount of waste being discarded in landfills, and therefore benefits our environment." The sickly-sweet green tree in the electronic brochure perfectly supports the point.
States each run their own prison labor system as well. Last year Alabama, Florida and Arizona made headlines by reintroducing chain gangs - groups of prisoners working outside, chained together. Later, under pressure of lawsuits, Alabama agreed the prisoners would no longer be chained together, although their ankles could still be chained together.(6) The chain gang - often engaged in work that is deliberately nonproductive, such as breaking rocks for no reason - is a good example of the motives of the prison system, as Mumia Abu-Jamal explained: "The return of this practice, one which has similar symbology as slavery, is a testament to the ulterior motive of U.S. corrections: humiliation. ... For 12 grueling hours a day, men in chains, chafing, biting leg irons, slash and chop at weeds, making Alabama beautiful for tourists. While the highways of 'Bama are beautified, their treatment of sentient humans are uglified. As an act of State Power, corrections is a synonym for 'humiliation,' a legislative echo of degradation."(7)
In Kentucky, more than 2,000 prisoners work in community service outside of prisons. Daviess County claims to have saved more than $600,000 in 1994 by using prisoners to do menial government work. Mason County says it saved $200,000 by using prisoners at their recycling center. They pay $1.25 per day. Statewide, jail prisoners earn $1.25 a day, and prison prisoners earn 75 cents a day on average. Some prisoners get other rewards for volunteering: weekend furloughs, face-to-face visits, and sometimes smoking on the job.(8)
In Carrboro, N.C., prisoners spent one of the hottest days of the year outside chopping grass and picking up trash - their captor said suffering was part of the purpose of their labor. Twelve prisons were renting out 650 prisoners - men and wimmin - as cheap labor to local municipalities. The prisoners get 70 cents per day.(9)
As prisoners shipped across state lines soon learn, state practices vary. A group of prisoners exported from Colorado to the Bowie County jail in Texarkana, Texas, in 1995 found out that the maximum daily wage in Texas was $1, compared to the possible $2 they could receive in Colorado.(10)
Private prison industries
In the state-run system prisoners don't have to be paid for their labor. If they work for private companies, they are required to be paid minimum wage. In either case, their "earnings" may be docked to cover "costs of incarceration," taxes, victim restitution funds, and so on. The most common arrangement for prisoners to work in private industry now is the Prison Industry Enhancement (PIE) program set up by the federal government. This allows prison-labor companies to sell their products on the market. Prisoners are supposed to get prevailing local wages or minimum wage - but then up to 80% can be deducted.(4)
Previously, the state had the slaves all to itself, and capital became jealous. So they struck a deal, and called it PIE.
A great proportion of prisoners had nothing before they went into prison, and they will have nothing when they leave, if they leave. The question for the state to work out, then, is what to do with them while they are behind bars. Just like old slavery in the South, the question is less how long a slave will live, but how productive he or she will be as a worker while alive.
Another concern, however, is control over prisoner/slave labor. Prisoners technically volunteer to work for the waged jobs in prison or for prison-labor companies. Karl Marx has explained why this appears an attractive option to many slaves. "In the eyes of the slave a minimal wage appears to be a constant quantity, independent of his work. For the free worker, however, the value of his labour-power and the average wage corresponding to it does not appear to him as something predestined, as something independent of his own labour and determined by the mere needs of his physical existence."(11) This is an incentive for prisoners to choose waged over unwaged prison labor, even when the economics are not very different.
In the mystification of labor under capitalism, Marx also explained, it looks like the slave's whole day of work is producing wealth for the master. In fact, some of the day's work is used to produce the slave's livelihood. For the waged worker, it appears that the whole day's work is for the benefit of the worker, when in fact some of the day's work goes to produce profits for the capitalist.(12)
So the use of private companies in the prison labor system - paying wages, even if they are low and then docked up to 80% - helps capital share in the benefits of prison labor, and it helps the prison system provide more justification for its use of prisoner labor.
For the reactionary middle class and labor aristocracy, clamoring for more and more punishment of "criminals," prison labor is used to justify the billions of dollars poured into the prison system. Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, in his State of the State address in January, announced the sale of prison labor: "We're putting prisoners to work, both inside our prison walls and alongside our roadways. Next month I will announce the first three companies that will come into our prisons and put inmates to work in activities no other workers want. No more sitting around. Prisoners are going to start working. And they're going to help pay their keep."(13)
He added that the state would start banning pornography and movies in prisons: "Prisoners won't have time for these things anyway," he said. "They'll be too busy working." His plans include chain gangs of a "high-tech" variety, with stun belts and shackles instead of chaining prisoners together.
Wisconsin had already begun advertising the PIE program to companies: "Can't find workers? A willing work force awaits." Wisconsin's director of the "correctional enterprises bureau," Stephen Kronzer, said there were more than 500 prisoners in the program, and none was forced into the work. Gov. Thompson says it costs the state $22,000 per year for each prisoner in the system.(14) As MIM explained in MIM Theory 10 (and elsewhere), $22,000 - more than $10 per hour of full-time work - is more than the value produced by a worker in North America today. And since the state spends the $22,000 on the system for each prisoner, and rents the prisoner/slave out for less than that, this amounts to a state subsidy to corporations.
The PIE program has proved very popular among business and the reactionary public. A local business reporter reflected this, writing: "Looking for dependable and motivated employees who are eager to work for minimum wage, won't take vacations or expect even a penny in raises? The state has a labor force for you." At the time Arizona had three companies in the PIE program. There, employers pay minimum wage plus 10% extra to the state for the favor of recruiting workers, then the state takes the usual costs out of the prisoners paychecks. The prisons also provide the convenience of temporary labor. One company hires wimmin from the Arizona Center for Wimmin only when they have peaks in demand.(15)
Another eager reporter wrote: "Instead of sponging off taxpayers, inmates soon could be growing sponges." That was about a loofah farm. Loofahs are the yuppie natural shower sponge that may have medicinal properties as well. With PIE, it became "a cash crop for Florida's prison system ... although it is a labor-intensive crop, the prisoners have plenty of manpower."(16)
At the Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana, operated by private Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), prisoners work in a clothing factory in the prison making disposable protective clothing. Elsewhere in the Louisiana system, prisoners earn 20 cents or less per hour. In PIE they get minimum wage - and then lose up to 80% of it. The company hoped to get state preferences for their products because of the PIE program. The local AFL-CIO didn't oppose the factory because no one else locally was making the same product, and because minimum wage was the going rate for such work. At another private company within a Louisiana prison (Dixon Correctional Institution) chicken-deboning workers were paid less than minimum wage, even before deductions.(17)
Oregon hosts one of the prison-labor success stories, the Prison Blues brand jeans factory. The state DOC built the factory at Eastern Oregon prison. Their jeans are sold domestically and exported (just like the products of China's prison labor). Prisoners get 75 cents per hour for the first six months, then minimum wage, and eventually up to $6.50 per hour - before as much as 80% is deducted. The factory has a capacity of 175 per shift, two shifts per day. Sales were $914,000 in 1994.(18) Prison Blues markets aggressively, appealing to liberal shoppers with the slogan: "support the rehabilitation of prison inmates."(19)
Naturally, pro-prison zealots are also users of prison labor. In April, a Virginia prisoner sent MIM proof that U.S. Representative Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) was using prison labor at a UNICOR plant to print newsletters for his political campaign.(20) McCollum is a death penalty advocate in favor of taking away habeas corpus appeals. In the last session he sponsored a bill, which passed, to increase sentences for sex offenders and child pornographers (he needs them to print his campaign literature - showing how tough on sex offenders he is). And he sponsored a bill, which passed the House, declaring that "the sentence for trafficking in crack cocaine should generally exceed that imposed for trafficking in a like quantity of powder cocaine," quoting the House digest. Finally, he sponsored a bill to require restitution as a part of sentencing for federal crimes, which was absorbed into other legislation.(21)
Similarly, Rep. Jack Metcalf, (R-Langley), used prisoners at the Monroe state prison to make calls for his campaign - an anti-"crime" campaign. He won. Metcalf's staff claim they didn't know it was prison labor when they hired the company to do the work. The Washington Marketing Group, which did the work, is based at a prison - pretty subtle - one of 12 such companies in Washington in early 1995. Other politicians, no doubt jealous over the cheap labor, tried to create a scare by complaining that prisoners could be memorizing names and phone numbers to commit future crimes.(22)
Like any cheap labor alternative, the prison labor system has drawn criticism from the labor aristocracy. As much as they need imperialism to use cheap labor to keep the trough full, they still don't want that labor to hurt their job opportunities or drive down their wages. Unions have complained, and so have competing companies. In 1993, for example, a coalition of federal contractors asked Congress to keep UNICOR out of their markets. At the time, UNICOR had 16,000 prison laborers in 89 factories, $417 million in sales for 1992, and was growing rapidly. The government contractors claimed UNICOR was driving other companies under, and had eliminated 2,000 jobs.(23) The complaints didn't get very far: the imperative for prison labor was too great.
Work and resistance
Corporate advocates and some prison officials say that prison labor is good for prisoners, because it gives them experience they will need to get jobs on the outside. In one sense, MIM could agree: like any disciplined labor system, it serves the ideological function of preparing workers for wage work in an alienating, hierarchical economy. If prisoners have not had proper "education" before going to jail, teaching them how to be good workers, then the prison might play that role. And, they might even be better off for it when they get out than some other prisoners. But by the same logic, slaves in the old South who learned how to grow cotton might have made better sharecroppers than those who did not. Either way, first they were slaves, then they were sharecroppers. MIM's criticism is of the system. If the system wanted people to get good jobs, they never would have made them penniless "criminals" in the first place.
From reviewing the economics, it appears to MIM that prisoners in the wage-slave jobs have more to gain than those who don't get that work, in the narrow economic sense. However, for a political struggle, refusing to work in these industries throws an important wrench in the works. As with all oppressive labor systems, refusing to work is the first tool of the rebel worker.
The power of the prison strike has not escaped revolutionaries in prison, as MIM's mail reflects. One West Virginia prisoner wrote in March:
"I have been seriously thinking of means to knock the prison industry off its foundation. And the only way I can see it, is for prisoners to quit working for UNICOR. This would have to be a plan implemented through out all the U.S. prisons. I'm sure that the results would be devastating to the prisons themselves in six months or less.
"Prisoners would have to gradually quit the UNICOR. Unfortunately the ones who are paying for incarceration, assessment, FRP, etc., would be hit the worst. They could be subjected to segregation, put on refusal status, or face being shipped to another facility. But you could only do this with so many prisoners. Mass shipment to me is highly unlikely especially with the prison space growing more scarce each day.
"The prisoner would also have to use a backup buddy system. The backup friend, if you can find someone you trust, would receive money on their account, small amounts, to buy for that friend his personal needs at the commissary. If a person tried to stock up on many items before quitting UNICOR, if that person was to be shipped, they would lose everything, since everything is now being shipped home to your family. We have been receiving many women from other institutions and their attempts to stock up on items and clothing has backfired.
"I realize that this would cause a lot of hardship for people. But as I see it, it would be a temporary setback, for a short time, in comparison to the many years that many prisoners have received on petty drug charges. I feel strongly that this plan will work. We need to pull together and knock the wheels off and take the money out of this slave labor operation. Crack the foundation of the prison drug war. Quit UNICOR."(20)
A member of the Texas Prisoners' Labor Union wrote in April:
"The Texas Prisoners' Labor Union is established to provide inmate laborers with a social and political forum from which to promote principles of social justice in a manner consistent with human rights.
"The Texas Penal Colony is one of the most expansive industries in the United States. However, while the populations have swelled to over capacity, the Texas Correctional Industries programs have not kept in step. As a result, basic concepts of imprisonment in Texas remain unchanged from the prior plantation dictates that induced slavery. Inmate laborers in Texas are wholly uncompensated for their work. Conditions remain barbaric in spite of twenty years of formal litigation, offering inmate laborers little hope for the future.
"There are no effective programs which would allow for an environment wherein rehabilitation and productivity are synonymous. Therefore those of us who remain confined within the penal colony are doomed to remain chained to the revolving door that has long become the accepted policy of incarceration in Texas. Legislators are happy to accept this concept of incarceration as it provides Texans with an ever growing industry, which in turn provides the citizenry of Texas with jobs in various areas of corrections.
"This insane policy must be stopped and it is up to us to stop it. We must bind together so as to form a political base from which we may collectively assert our human rights and negotiate collective bargaining for improved working and living conditions, wages and rehabilitative programs that will allow us to develop skills and habits which will lend to our once again entering society as responsible and productive citizens. Daily the current Texas government is stripping more and more away from us and will continue to do so until there is nothing left. Only WE can stop this onslaught against human rights and social justice. Only WE can help ourselves."(24)
These prisoners show the way toward a new path for organized resistance to the system of prison slavery.
1. Robert B. Reich, Washington Post, May 22, 1994, p. C1.
2. The Corrections Yearbook, Criminal Justice Institute, 1995.
3. Corrections COMPENDIUM, October 1994.
4. Corrections Today, August 1995.
5. Information on UNICOR from their Internet web site: http://www.unicor.gov.
6. Associated Press June 20, 1996.
7. Mumia Abu-Jamal, column May 11, 1995.
8. Lexington Herald-Leader, July 14, 1995.
9. News & Observer (North Carolina), June 9, 1995, p. B6.
10. Denver Post, Aug. 14, 1995, p. A1.
11. Karl Marx, Capital, Vintage Books: New York, 1977. p. 1031-2.
12. Ibid., p. 680.
13. MIM Notes 114, May 15, 1996. For full text of the State of the State address by Tommy Thompson, see http://www.wisgov.state.wi.us.
14. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Oct. 22, 1995, p. 1.
15. Arizona Business Gazette, Nov. 9, 1995, p. 1.
16. Orlando Sentinel, April 24, 1995, p. C1.
17. Advocate (Baton Rouge, La.), March 12, 1995, p. A1.
18. Oregonian, Feb. 16, 1995, p. E1.
19. http://www.big-house.com. Inmate photos by Giovanni Stefano Ghidini.
20. MIM Notes 116, June 15, 1996.
21. Bill information from the House of Representatives on Internet at http://www.house.gov.
22. Seattle Times, Feb. 4, 1995, p. A1.
23. Wall Street Journal, Oct. 4, 1993, p. B2.
24. MIM Notes 115, June 1, 1996.