Although the economic exploitation of prisoners may be insignificant on the scale of the greater imperialist economy, it is very real on the scale of the individual prisoners and CO's involved in this abuse.
One prisoner in New York sent us a copy of a claim he made, which read in part:
The complaint/grievance was the result of the claimant's having been enslaved by Mr. Snye, the horticulture instructor of Riverview. The claimant was forced to choose between completing a web-site for one of Mr. Snye's personal business ventures or punitive physical measures (being forced to shift enormous stones and to engage in other extremely demanding physical labor) and, if the claimant continued to refuse, expulsion from the program. Threats of bogus charges and accompanying disciplinary measures were consatntly looming, along with vague, yet clear indications that there would by SHU time, if anyone found out. (1)
Even in California where CO's made an average of $62,230/yr in 2007, with some exceeding $130,000/yr, these amerikans still aren't satisfied. (2) In a couple of recent cases CDCR employees have received additional pay when they were not supposed to. In one case 9 office technicians got raises of $16,530 for 3 years prior to being caught, that they were not entitled to. In another, 2 CDCR doctors scammed an additional $108,000. (3) And as a comrade reported in ULK 6, nurses within CDCR make up to $582 a day for about 2 hours of work. (4) With all that money from the state, you'd think exploitation of prisoners would be the last thing on their mind. Yet, again so-called "vocational" programs are tools of exploitation where prisoners being taught auto body and paint work on the pigs' BMWs, Porsches and Corvettes for free. (5)
"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..." —Thirteenth Amendment, United States Constitution
History of Legalized Slavery
The Thirteenth Amendment was ratified by Congress by the required three-fourths of the States (27 of 36) on January 31, 1865, and declared an amendment December 18, 1865. To understand it in a prison setting, it is important to look at the history after it was ratified until today.
It was during the time of the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment that "slaves", or better yet, the offspring of slaves had heightened their resistance to this torture and inhumane treatment that they inherited by bad luck. Slave leaders like Fredrick Douglas and Harriet Tubman started to educate themselves, assist in the escape of other slaves, and lobby for the rights that they felt they were due. Former slaves, escaped slaves, and others sympathetic to them led negotiations of the Thirteenth Amendment.
Once enacted, what was to be a victory for slaves, the Thirteenth Amendment later became nothing more than a smoke screen. When southern slave owners figured out that the second part to the amendment gave exception "as a punishment for crime" crafty southern lawmakers substituted various equivalents. One of these was "peonage." Peonage is a labor system in which the worker, who owes money to his or her employer, must "work off the debt." The term also can be defined, however, as virtual slavery or serfdom. Southern states enacted a series of laws that required, as punishment, high fines. Poor, now-"free" slaves were forced to borrow money to pay the fines and "work off" the debt, often times never paying off the interest. Some "crimes" included breaking curfews, and vagrancy.
The Freedman's Bureau, a government agency established to help former slaves assume responsibility as free citizens, attempted to replace "Peonage" with contracts. However, southern " Black Codes" prevented much progress. Vagrancy laws were abundant, and slavery was still existent, just under an alias.
In 1867, Congress enacted the Peonage Act in New Mexico, applying it to all of America. Now it was a felony to hold a person in Peonage or to seize or arrest a person to enforce Peonage. This same act outlawed any state law designed to enforce Peonage. In the 1900's the Peonage Act was accepted in full.
As we'll see below, modern laws and policies continue this legacy with many of the same oppressor nation motivations as in the 19th century.
Control those who can't be exploited
Every year, hundreds of thousands of mostly Black and Latino men from the 5 boroughs of NYC go thru the biggest county jail in the united $tates: Rikers Island in New York. After being convicted (which happens 70% of the time), private contractors bus them to state prisons upstate, more than 2/3rds of which are in rural areas with almost all white populations. Most of the officers, nurses, vocational instructors, etc. are from farming populations that lost their traditional economies largely to imperialist expansion into foreign markets in the Third World where they can exploit the people and buy food for excessively cheap prices.
Prisons are now the epicenter around which many towns have sprung up, reviving the dying rural communities. The local populations compete for these jobs, which are unique in their high wages and pension plans, while requiring minimal thinking ability.
No one can deny the stark increase in incarceration of Blacks within the past three decades. This increase is largely due to policies and harsh laws which are racially motivated. One notorious example is the federal guideline that sentences people to 10 years for possession of 5 grams of crack or 500 grams of cocaine, when whites are much more likely to be caught with cocaine. No study has ever proven that crack - cocaine in its coagulated form - is more harmful than its powder form. And though this law was modified recently, its purpose has already been served.
Since the end of slavery's role as a profitable enterprise by the u$ farming industry, the principal question for law officials has been, 'What is to be done about the fast growing population of restless young Black men?' - Prison has become the solution to this never ending problem. A population that is no longer a significant source of labor to be exploited, nor allowed to be junior partners to the imperialists, has no role to play in the modern imperialist economy. Hence, we have seen the growing lumpen class behind u$ prison walls.
Prison serves three valuable solutions, or better yet, prison has been the solution which can be explained in three forms.
Prison is used as a social contraceptive to reduce and control population growth.
Prison is a way to ebb the radical political consciousness of the people. To separate those radical elements among oppressed nations from influencing others to seek change rather than reform.
Prison has been used as a way to deal with rising unemployment and stem entry into the already declining job market. (This is true despite the fact that after years of incarceration, most Blacks and Latinos are released to their communities with little hopes for employment, regardless of any participation in vocational programs.)
As we can see, the prison system is much more than an economic force exploiting labor. This is not to deny economic benefit that is reaped by the corporate elites and the amerikan so-called "worker" stooges. Prison, as a part of the capitalist system, has a further implication beyond jobs; it is also a way to repress other nations of people: the Black, Latino and indigenous nations, as well as migrants from the Third World.
Economics of NY Prisons
New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS), has approximately 60,000 inmates. In this system, "programs" are mandatory. Programs range from industry work, to maintenance, to pseudo-rehabilitative or educational programs. Most people work to keep the facility up and running. The five pay grades are as follows:
16¢ per hour
25¢ per hour
32¢ per hour
38¢ per hour
42¢ per hour
Each facility is limited to a small number of people being paid grade five, so in all actuality Grade 4 is top pay. Grade 4 is reserved for foremen, who are a special class within themselves where the old rule of divide and conquer prevails. They have proven their loyalty to the system through years of hard work and often report other prisoners if something goes wrong - many of these positions are given to white prisoners.
There are "industries" in several facilities: Attica specializes in making lockers that you find in state office buildings; Great Meadow specializes in manufacturing various chemicals such as liquid soap to clean public transportation and soap that is given to inmates; Coxsackie manufactures bed sheets, pillow cases, clothing worn by doctors and nurses, as well as money bags used by banks. All of these items are manufactured under the name "CorCraft." CorCraft made over $40 million in 2005, while prisoners were paid pennies. CorCraft is a government industry so the $40 million all goes back into the state General Fund, essentially offsetting some of the cost of running prisons or other public "services."
A "bonus" is given based on the individual productivity of every prison. For example, at grade 2 my base pay for a 40 hour work week is $10.00 (all programs other than Industry work 25 hour work weeks). With a 50% bonus I would make $15.00. Unlike all other prison programs, Industry workers punch a time clock and are forced to punch out whenever they leave their shops, even for meals which are in most cases mandatory.
An inmate in DOCS, comes in with a substantial debt to pay automatically: $40.00 Gate Fees, $150.00 Surcharge, $50.00 DNA fee, $20.00 Victims Fee. Additional debts may include restitution, child support, appeals fees, legal fees, processing fees, disciplinary sanctions (if incurred), etc. Oftentimes these amounts run into the thousands of dollars, and higher.
The cost of Commissary staple items, hygiene supplies, stamps, etc., have increased so dramatically that, in proportion, the payment DOCS pays in exchange for hard work becomes virtually worthless. For example, at $0.13 an hour, after a three hour work day mowing lawns in 90-degree weather, an inmate still cannot afford even one $0.42 stamp. The pay deteriorates even more if a percentage of the inmate's earnings must go toward fees, surcharges, fines, or other obligations.
Where it leaves us
Previous challenges to DOCS Peonage system of pay have been unsuccessful because DOCS maintains that they are not "paying" but rather "compensating" inmates for their "program" participation. International Law, such as the Geneva Convention, is pretty clear that prisoners of war cannot be "forced to work" without compensation. However, it does not state what compensation is. The Japanese, for example, compensate their prisoners with food.
In fact, food is one of the greatest incentives for New York inmates to work inside of prison. The Mess Hall is one of prison's more unpredictable locations. While the Mess Hall is mandatory for all meals in some prisons, here in DOCS, attendance is elective. In order to avoid potential conflicts, when possible, many inmates choose to skip the Mess Hall meal and eat a quick sandwich with Commissary items. A positive account balance is required in order to purchase food from the Commissary.
Another great incentive for prisoners to do work is postage. Years of study have proven that inmates who work to maintain family ties strive to do well in general prison populations. Inmates who receive visits do even better, and those who do not maintain family ties are statistically more vulnerable to problems. The ability to correspond with family is usually essential to maintaining family ties. If a person cannot afford a stamp after three hours of hard labor, the incentive for that person to be positive for the remainder of the day greatly diminishes.
DOCS originally established a system to pay inmates, in order to prevent theft and encourage inmates to work. However, by not paying a meaningful wage, what DOCS actually creates is a mirror of the Peonage System. An inmate in prison for ten years, without the assistance of family, may leave prison, not only still in debt, but convinced that hard work is useless and that society is inherently unfair. This is one of the results of a system based on punishing individuals, rather than changing the system that created their bad behaviors. In contrast, a socialist prison system serves to turn those who commit crimes against the people into productive contributors to society.
If the DOCS simply raised the "compensation" from pennies to even just $1.50/hour, this financial outlay surely would pay for itself. An inmate who has no hope of meeting his needs through legitimate earnings is likely to attempt to get what he wants, i.e. stamps, food, cigarettes, etc., by illegitimate means: thievery, violence, extortion, gambling, etc. Such activity increases the likelihood of claims for property, of altercations and of injuries, which lead to civil actions brought against the State.
It is time for the State to increase "compensation" for inmates - compensation that will assist inmates in maintaining hope and in maintaining family ties while inside of prison, and compensation that will convince inmates that there truly is benefit in working hard to earn one's way toward productive life, once they get outside.
MIM(Prisons) supports the application of a global minimum wage under capitalism. Although it would have to be taken into consideration that prisoners are provided with most basic needs before being paid - as poor as they may be.
Recientemente acabo de recibir una edición de MIM(Prisons) la cual me hizo sentir lleno de energía positiva y fuerza para continuar la lucha en contra del opresor. El sistema encarselario de los U$ es evidente ha sido formado con el proposito de mantener las personas de los barrios pobres y los inmigrantes que no comprenden las leyes, o mientras fueron a la escuela nunca le hablaron del peligro que los asecha en las calles de sus barrios, la policía, que facir es venir a la prición en este pais.
Yo me encuentro en los U$ desde abril del 1993, diez años de mi estadía en este pais ha sido en las granjas (prisión) por un robo a mano armada. Aunque esta es mi primera ofensa, donde no hubo sangre, ni victimas, fue sentenciado a 15 años en las granjas (prisión), pero no como un obrero sino como un animal.
Aunque para el sistema soy considerado un criminal, yo me considero un individuo que cometió un error en una etapa de mi vida cuando no estaba pensando apropiadamente. Apesar de que este sistema es un negocio que genera millones de dolares para ser gastado en cosas como "la guerra contra el terrorismo" y un grupo de cosas que solo ayudan a los que ya están en poder y no necesitan ningún tipo de ayudar. Es doloroso lo que ultimamente estoy viendo pasar en este sistema, un gran cantidad de los presos nuevos son niños, si niños con una sentencia de vida, muertos, basura en los ojos de este sistema diabolico. Es doloroso cada vez que hablo con alguno de estos muchachos, veo mi imagen en sus ojos, un niño que no va a tener una oportunidad de ser libre, tener una familia, hijos, etc. Y su algún día tiene la oportunidad de salir de este lugar, su mente estará tan doblada y confundida que se convierte en un producto del sistema, un verdadero criminal.
Es facil jusgar, apuntar el dedo y hablar acerca de las cosas que uno no comprende. Yo fue una de esas personas. Este gobierno colonialista, capitalista, nos mantiene ignorante, crellendo que ellos están trabajando para un mejor mañana. La guerra hasta que se da cuenta el verdadero propocito, colonialismo, es el verdadero proposito. Esta gobierno sabe que no importa cuantos niños y mujeres mueran, el mundo cuntinua su curso, mientras el pueblo esta comodo no habra revolución.
Yo soy parte de una organización la cual es catalogada como un grupo terrorista, somos catalogados como STG porque no estamos de acuerdo con las idiologias de este gobierno, porque nos catalogamos como un movimiento revolucionario, porque amamos nuestra jente del tercer mundo, nuestra gente oprimida. No importa el nombre que se nos de, nosotros no morirémos, nosotros nos continuarémos multiplicando, en las acciones de nuestros guerreros es que se puede ver el hombre del mañana.
Yo voy a ser deportado para mi amado pais al final de mi sentencia y promento continual regando la semilla del cambio despertar a todo aquel que se encuentra dormido en el cementerio de la ignorancia. El camino es duro pero mi hambre por revolucíon es más grande.
I'm a mortal man I do what I can Just to withstand The pressure I feel From those who wanna steal All that is real Through my sensory loss Attempting to toss Silence across My very existence Waning resistance Till I break down Wearing a frown All beaten down But I simply refuse To let them abuse And give me the blues I will stand tall Not ready to fall That is my call
Back in 100 A.D. a greek philosopher named Epictetus uttered these five words: "Only the educated are free." Today these five words ring true to a lot of us who find ourselves in residence behind the walls of the United States prison system. The U.S. has 5% of the world's population, yet is responsible for 25% of the world's prison population. 1 in every 31 adults in the United States is in jail, prison, or on some sort of supervised release. Now, with that in mind, we prisoners should have a strong voice, and I applaud MIM for trying to help us organize that voice for the common good.
Where do we start? Go back to the quote I opened with, and then take a look at MIM platform plank number one: Primary, secondary and college education free to the whole world. Let's localize that to ourselves for the time being. As "guests" of the prison system, we have lots of free time. In case you have not noticed, the government has no problem with us using all that time to play cards, watch TV, maybe take a few of their so-called "educational" programs and basically kick us out the door no better than we were when we came in. There are a ton of correspondence courses available to prisoners from many different colleges in many different disciplines. Apparently though, a criminal seeking a higher education, to better himself while behind bars, scares those in charge.
In 1994, the government stopped awarding Pell grants to prisoners to pay for their education. Considering that, by the Bureau of Prisons' own statistics, 40% was the average recidivism rate for parolees in general compared to only 5% for those with college degrees. So one would have to ask, why would the government choose to promote recidivism versus education? There are two simple answers: money and fear. The government makes too much money off of prison and the fruits of prison labor.
As for fear, the government is scared that the prison population will become educated, vocal and organized, which is exactly what needs to happen. Groups like MIM are going to make it happen. I encourage all of you to start a writing campaign. U.S. Senator Jim Webb has vowed to look at every aspect of our criminal justice system from top to bottom to "fix" it. Well, here's a chance to let our collective voice be heard. Encourage other prisoners to write, encourage your families to write:
Senator Jim Webb 248 Russell Senate Office Building Washington, DC 20510
Ask why only the rich and the white collar criminals are deemed worthy of outside education and a realistic shot at not coming back to prison.
MIM(Prisons) adds: Send us copies of letters sent to Senator Webb so that we can also publicize this struggle. We also point our readers to Under Lock and Key issue #8 where we discussed in detail the economics of prisons. In reality the government is not making money off prison labor, but they are benefiting greatly from the social control provided by the prison system.
Como joven revolucionario, yo me encuentro acercandome a 10 años de ser miembro de los Almighty Latin Kings (Reyes Latinos todo Poderosos). Ha tenido sus altas y bajas, pero me ha convertido en el hermano que se encuentra aquí sentado escribiendo estas palabras. Algunas veces yo me molesta cuando leo MIM’s y alguien escribe hablando de que era ex-miembro de una Pandilla. Por que una persona tiene que dejar todo en lo que él cree por equis cantidad de años para cambiar su vida? Si yo tuviese que dejar mi nación para hacer un cambio para mejorar, estos ultimos 10 años de mi vida serían nada más que una mentira. Yo no miro a ALKQN como una Pandilla, porque nunca en mis 10 años yo he participado en pandillerismo, ni me he puesto colores. Pero eso no significa que como hombre yo no he cometido errores. Yo he estado viviendo en los campos de concentración de Amerika por una mejor parte de mi vida. Aquí yo he aprendido a leer y a escribir, y como ser un hombre. Sino fuese por la ALKQN, yo todavía fuese un alma perdida, sordo, estupido, y ciego justo como los imperialistas nos quieren.
Cuando yo leo MIMs y eschuo de hermanos en Nueva Jersey que estan enseñando a otros Reyes y a miembros de UBN (United Bloods Nation) a leer y a escribir, y no solo pasando revistas XXL y VIBE, de eso es lo que Reyismo se trata. No pandillerismo. Siendo yo de Brick City, yo se directamente es el NJDOC, asi que mi amor va para todos esos camaradas que se encuentran en el GU, sin importar cuales sean sus afiliaciones. Tu no tienes que dejar de ser tu para mantenerte fuera de la prisión. No los dejes que te engañen, joven hermano.
Como una vez dijó uno de los hermanos más revolucionarios de nuestra bella isla (Albizu Campos) “Despierta Boricua; defiende lo tuyo!”
MIM(Prisiones) responde: Nosotros aprendemos cosas atravez de nuestras vidas que nos lleva a hacer cambios en lo que pensamos y hacemos. Aprendiendo sobre politicas revolucionarias y moviendose fuera de una organización callejera para estar envuelto en organizamiento no hace la historia de uno una mentira. Algunos camaradas trabajando con MIM(Prisoniones) se quedan con sus organizaciones callejeras y otros eligen dejarlas cuando entran en politicas revolucionarias. Muchas veces estas deciciones tienen base en lo que sus organizaciones callejeras estan metidas, y en lo que individualmente una camarada piensa que puede hacer como miembro. Si una persona es miembro de una organización callejera que no soporta el trabajo anti-imperialista, puede ser tiempo de moverse de esa organización callejera. Sin embargo, nosotros respetamos a esos camaradas que quieren quedarse con sus organizaciones callejeras y promover anti-imperialismo dentro del grupo. Hay papeles importantes para ambos acercamientos.
It has come time for all of us who have become politically active to stand together as one united front, proselytizing unity amongst the Black street tribes. It is time for the warriors of our people to lock flags and step into history. It has become increasingly clear that our continued genocidal tendencies are at our own destruction, peril and demise.
We are constantly under attack by the paramilitary style police units in every city that brutally occupies our communities, the very unrighteous injustice and revenge procedures masquerading as a fair and balanced judicial system, and of course the modern day slave plantation known as prison with its oppressive family-destroying, man-breaking psychological warfare. We have endured much pain inflicted by these forces, but it pales in comparison to the pain, sorrow and death we have inflicted upon each other.
Just imagine the beautiful power that is in our uniting against the elements that thrive successfully because of our difficulties and divided strata. It is time for all the warriors of the street tribes to realize that together we are unstoppable. It is time for those of us with influence, stripes, rank and respect to start believing in and advocating the uniting of the lumpen organizations.
Brotha Frantz Fanon said "Every generation has a mission, it is up to that generation to fulfill or betray that mission." I believe our generation's mission is uniting. It is in the best interest of not only our individual tribes, but most important it is in the best interest of our people as a whole. It is up to our generation, this generation, to evolve from so-called criminals, gangstas and thugs, into men, human beings who believe in our ability to be warriors and souljahs in one united front fighting on the front line to ensure the life of our people.
Revolutionize yourself, become new men, liberate yourself mentally. The honorable brotha Malcolm X once said "I do not pretend to be a divine man...I am not educated nor am I an expert in any particular field but I am sincere and my sincerity is my credentials."
Being confined in this new millennium has caused me to wonder about the intelligence of prisoners who receive benefits from the theft, conversion and criminal actions of those charged with enforcing laws, rules and regulations. Here you have prisoners who accept from correctional officers magazines, books, and other items of value that belong to other prisoners and smile and grin saying they came up. Basically at the expense of another prisoner. It's the same old practice used by law enforcement time after time on unsuspecting prisoners they see as potential sources of intelligence and are used until they have no further use and are tossed back to the lions with the customary amusement.
I can not, for the life of me, understand why a prisoner will go out of his way to provide correctional staff and officials intelligence that establishes that a prisoner has membership or association with a prison gang, street gang, or other disruptive group which automatically requires special attention and placement considerations which could include being indefinitely confined in a security housing unit until that individual rats out his comrades, dies or paroles, yet there seems to be new acceptance.
It's amusing to me when I see some of these characters bragging and boasting being validated by the prisoncrats as a gang member while making it a point to ask others, typically around the picklesuits, "are you active". It's as if the new concept of the penal system is to not only tell on yourself but trick others to tell on themselves! It's as if prison agent provacateurism has gained tacit acceptance, and some new status symbolism.
When asked if I am active, I have to ask "active in what?" Since as with so many other English language concepts the word has been coopted into supposedly meaning one thing for the dumb down prisoner but in reality meaning something significantly more onerous to the prisoncrats. And it's no secret but many in the prison population have yet to understand or realize the significance and these concepts and ideas are becoming interwoven into the fabric of prison social structure, forcing many real men to adopt anti-social positions in order to stay out of the cross.
Being a general population prisoner of consciousness, I do not miss much. However I have noted that there are so many idiots who are sycophants to an old concept that has morphed and changed into something that is truly malevolent. One has to go back to the number one concept of "trust no one" with anything of any import. Those who are real you will be able to tell, and those who are not will eventually expose themselves. Educate yourselves and pay attention is all I can advise you in this CDCR trap in which many do not seriously consider the reality of the struggle, but instead practice acceptance.
Greetings comrades! I am writing to you today to first and foremost thank your organization for all the work being done to educate the sleepers.
I received your notice and letter about the pigs refusing the literature you sent to me. I was not even issued a copy of the rejection slip by the prison mail room. They are by policy required to notify prisoners of any and all mail refused by the facility, but following policy is not of concern to the oppressors! I am glad to have received ULK #7. There was plenty of good info in there and I have passed the newsletter around to others.
In regards to money being made by the prison, I am a witness to the way prisoners are performing cheap labor in this hell hole as the prison gets contracts with outside corporations. For example, UCI (Utah Correctional Industries) employs prisoners to make products for any corporation including the united states military. The prisoners are paid anywhere from 90 cents to $5.45 to work for UCI an hour. They must give back 60% of their total pay to the prison. So each prisoner is roughly making $1,144.50 a month, but they only bring home roughly $400 bucks after the prison gets their cut off top.
Then the prisoner must turn around and buy food off of commissary, which is extremely overpriced. So the prison is again making money. The UCI job is the best one as far as pay, that a prisoner can get.
The section jobs (in house stuff like food handler, section cleaner) only pay $62 a month. These jobs are what keep the prison functioning and the pay is a joke to say the least. There are not enough pigs to fill the positions prisoners hold and if the convicts would stand in solidarity to demand higher pay it would make some changes have to be made or the institution would not function.
Yet problem number one is the lack of solid convicts who will stand as one against the oppressors. Number two is that only a handful of prisoners have any income from family or friends, so they must work and accept the low pay, just to purchase general needs such as soap, deodorant and other hygiene.
The system is well designed to stay with a full belly at the expense of the poor, oppressed prisoners it houses. Prisons are huge money makers for somebody, and its time for the people to come to power and take control of our environments to live righteous lives!
Keep up the good work MIM!
P.S. Here’s a list of some more jobs that prisoners perform to keep this place running: laundry services, food prep, grounds keeping, plumbing, and the UCI makes all clothes issued to prisoners and for purchase of commissary.
Issue 8 of Under Lock and Key takes on the topic of Amerikan prison economics and prisoner labor. Prisons in the United $tates are funded by the states and the federal government, and they are quite expensive. The United $tates spends about $60 billion a year to house over 2.3 million prisoners and yet, as readers of Under Lock and Key well know, these expenditures result in no reduction in crime rates. Instead this is the high price tag for the most elaborate prison system of social control in the world.
Prisoners are useful as workers because they can be paid very low wages or none at all, they are always available and can be employed when needed without the difficulty of having to lay off workers in downturns, and they are literally a captive workforce who can be punished if they refuse to work. In many respects prisoners are similar to migrant workers who take the jobs that Amerikan citizens don't want except that migrant workers are at least free to move on or go home at night or pick between jobs.
There are many aspects to the topic of prison economics and prisoner labor, but they all tie back to the question of who is making money off all the prisoners who work for free or for very little money, and the bigger question of whether there is profit to be made off prisons in general. The main position that we challenged in ULK 2 was that the prison boom is motivated by a system of modern day slavery that is exploiting the masses through forced labor. In this issue we will further demonstrate that exploitation in prisons is not a source of private profit and discuss how profiteering on mass incarceration really evolved.
Profiteering Follows Policy
The importance of our point that prisoners are not generally exploited for economic profit is in understanding the real motive force behind the U.$. prison boom. Fundamentally, prisons are a money losing operation. It costs more money to run prisons than is generated from prisoner labor or any other aspect of the "industry." If prison labor was a gold mine for private profiteers, then we would see corporations of all sorts leading the drive for more prisons. On the contrary, though the fifth largest prison system in the United $tates is the private Corrections Corporation of America (CCA),(1) the government still runs over 95% of the prisons overall.(2) So if Amerikans didn't build the largest prison system in the history of humynkind for slave labor profits, then why did they do it?
As a parallel example, consider the war-profiteering of Halliburton and KBR through the military industrial complex; it was the government who started wars, and then the contractors appeared. In fact, the stories of most of these contractors start with people with political connections, not with any particular interest or knowledge of the product or service in demand.(3) War was created for the overall economic benefit of the imperialist system, but not by the companies that most directly profited. Once the profits start flowing, the intertwining of interests between politicians and their private benefactors creates conflicts between the imperialist interests abroad and those who are just trying to make a quick buck. Hence, we see some backlash against Halliburton and, their former subsidiary, KBR's corruption within the White House and the Senate (including the Senate hearing on May 4, 2009).
Similarly, the prison boom originated in government policy, and then new companies formed to profiteer, or in the case of telephone and commissary, old companies adapted their product to a specific opportunity. Prisons serve U.$. imperialism in controlling the local population, while placating the demands of the oppressor nation as a whole. Only now, with the emergence of mass incarceration, the demands of Amerikans for more prisons are more economically oriented, rather than just social. And most of that economic interest is among state employees and unions, not private corporations.
In Ohio, the Department of Corrections had to go to the state Supreme Court in order to close prisons over the protests of the guard union.(4) The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, notorious for being the strongest in the country, has applied similar pressures preventing the state from cutting anything from the CDCR budget except for education programs in recent years.
Private industries are making lots of money off prisons. From AT&T charging outrageous rates for prisoners to talk to their families, to the food companies that supply cheap (often inedible) food to prisons, to the private prison companies themselves, there is clearly a lot of money to be made. But these companies' profits are coming from the States' tax money, a mere shuffling of funds within the imperialist economy. Some companies like AT&T or some of the prison package services are selling goods or services directly to prisoners at drastically increased prices from what you'd get on the street. But even then, they are not exploiting the prisoners' labor, they are merely extorting their money. The private prisons are the only example where prison labor that is used to run the prisons may come into play in determining corporate profits.
Some activists see opportunity in the current capitalist crisis; perhaps states will be forced to listen to arguments claiming that prisons are a money pit for tax funds. However, Governor Quinn of Illinois responded to the crisis in his state last month by canceling plans of the previous governor to close Pontiac Correctional Center, citing "fiscal responsibility" and the protection of 600 local jobs and $55.4 million in local revenue.(5) Pennsylvania is continuing down its path of prison expansion with plans for 8,000 more beds in the next 4 years for the same reasons.(6)
These governments could generate jobs and revenue in countless ways. The reason that prison guards are generally funded over teachers is initially a question of the government's goals and priorities. While there is much public pressure to fund schools over jails, this battle is one for the labor aristocracy's unions to fight out. Revolutionaries have no significant role to play in such debates. We can combat national oppression with institutions of the oppressed, not by more jobs for Amerikans in one government sector or the other.
Meanwhile, the capitalist will invest in operations based on where the funding goes, so it is not really the evil corporations that are directly to blame for the U.$. prison boom. The government decides whether prisons are built. The U.$. government serves the overall interests of the imperialist class first and then must answer to its Amerikan constituency. It is the combination of these two interests that have led to the largest mass-incarceration in history. Currently, the strategy to dismantle this massive humyn experiment must recognize these two forces as the opposition, and then mobilize forces that have an interest in countering both imperialism and Amerikanism.
After publishing an article entitled Amerikans: Oppressing for a Living, we received some criticisms from comrades of our position that corporations are not profiting from prison labor in a significant way. We then made a call to our correspondents on the ground across the United $tates to research this issue further. Not only did we receive much data to back up our position, but many wrote in to say that our analysis was right on.
In this issue of Under Lock & Key we are printing data on the prison labor going on in New York, Texas, California, Florida, Colorado, Oregon, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Washington, Utah and the Federal system. These systems represent over half of the U.$. prison population, so we feel confident that our conclusions are fairly accurate for the system as a whole. We still welcome reports from correspondents in other states and prisons for future research.
In summary, all states have industries that produce goods for sale. Most if not all of those products are sold back to other state agencies, mostly within the Department of Corrections itself. Workers in these industries usually make more than those doing maintenance and clerical work, with a max of a little over a dollar an hour. While we don't have solid numbers, these are generally a small minority of the population and not available at most prisons.
Maintenance workers are also universal across all prison systems. Even most supermax prisons have lower security prisons adjacent to them, providing a labor source for running it. In many places such work is not called a job, but "programming." In some states, like New York, your programming can be pseudo-educational or rehabilitative programs instead of labor. Programming is often required. When it is paid it is usually less than fifty cents an hour.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons has one of the largest prison industries selling goods outside of the prison system, but it is selling mostly to the Department of Defense — another government agency.(7)
The UNICOR annual report boasts the benefits of prisoner labor: "With an estimated annual incarceration cost of $30,000 per inmate, FPI's programmatic benefits represent significant taxpayer savings, while restoring former inmates to a useful role in society." They claim "a 24% lower recidivism rate among FPI participants."(8) There is no information on how this number is calculated but we suspect that it is flawed because the selection of UNICOR workers from the general prison population is not random. On the other hand, we do know that there are few opportunities for prisoners to acquire any useful skills prior to release. If UNICOR training truly reduces recidivism, this should be an obvious and compelling argument that prisons need more such programming. It does not have to be tied to low pay and forced labor.
Jobs related to running the prisons (cleaning, library, administrative roles, etc.) help reduce the costs of running prisons but clearly don't create any new wealth. UNICOR and its parallel industries in the state systems merely allow the Departments of Corrections to obtain money from other state agencies that they were going to spend anyway, or directly benefit the DOC by providing it with supplies. Even with requirements that state agencies purchase from such programs, they do not come close to covering prison expenses.
It is a dangerous proposition to tie financial benefits to prisons as this gives those who profit an interest in growing the prison population. However, at this point in time only a small minority of prisoners are actually employed, so prisoner labor does not appear to be a major drive behind the ongoing rapid growth of the U.$. prison population.
Modern day slavery or exploitation?
Many prisoners raise the question of whether forcing prisoners to work for no pay violates the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery. The 13th amendment abolished slavery "except as a punishment for crime." The article by some New York prisoners in this issue of Under Lock & Key does a good job of explaining the history behind this exception.
Slavery is a system characterized by the capture or purchase of humyns for the purpose of exploiting their labor. As Marx explained "As a slave, the worker has exchange value, a value; as a free wage-worker he has no value; it is rather his power of disposing of his labour, effected by exchange with him, which has value." Marx is clarifying the distinction that slaves, as objects to be purchased, have exchange value. While capitalist workers are not purchased, they are selling their labour instead.(9) While prison labor is similar to slavery in that it involves workers who are receiving virtually no pay for their labor but are being provided with housing and other basic necessities, there are a few factors in prison labor that distinguish it from slavery as we use that term to define a system of exploitation. First, states have to pay other states to take their prisoners, implying they have no exchange value. Prisons are used as a tool of social control, with the use of prisoners' labor only as an after thought to try to offset some of the operating costs. Which leads to our second point: there is no net profit made off the labor of prisoners - because of the cost of incarceration, the state is only able to offset a portion of the cost of providing for a prisoner by using his/her labor. Because of these features of prisoner labor, we do not call it slavery.
Even if prisoner labor is not slavery in the economic sense of that term, it is still possible that prisoners are exploited. Exploitation means that someone is extracting surplus value from the labor of someone else. The profit or surplus-value arises when workers do more labor than is necessary to pay the cost of hiring their labor-power. This is the way that capitalists make a profit — they pay people less than their labor is worth and then sell products for their full value. The difference is the profit.
In the United $tates, the imperialists are paying workers more than the value of their labor. They can do this because of the tremendous superprofits stolen from exploiting the Third World workers. And they want to do this because it maintains a complicit population at home which has a material interest in imperialism and keeps capital circulating with its excessive consumption. Amerikans support their imperialist government because they benefit from it. They may not all earn the same as the big capitalists, but even in a recession they can look to the Third World and see that they don't want to share the wealth around the world evenly because that would mean a step down for First World workers.
There are some notable exceptions within U.$. borders: non-citizens are often forced into jobs that pay far below minimum wage (or often don't pay them at all) as they are in a shady sector of the economy. Many migrants in the United $tates are exploited, but they make up a very small portion of workers in this country.
Using the term exploitation to describe prisoner labor is complicated. Prisoners certainly earn very little for their labor, but we also have to include the cost of providing prisoners all of their necessities (although with very poor quality that leads to many unnecessary deaths). Of course much of what is being provided "for" prisoners is not part of their cost of living but rather part of the cost of keeping them captive and providing a high standard of living for their captors.
It is fair to say that prisons are stealing the labor power of prisoners. They have made it impossible for prisoners to refuse to work and the actual pay prisoners receive is far less than the value of their labor. By stealing labor power, the U.$. prison system also prevents the self-determination of the Black Nation and First Nations whose people are vastly over-represented in the system.
To the extent that the states can't continue to run prisons on tax money they don't have, prisoner labor is a valued part of the money going to the many labor aristocrats working in the prison system. An offset to the cost of running prisons is useful, even if that offset does not come close to covering even the cost of those prisoners doing the work. But it's important to remember that this labor is only useful because expensive prisons existed first.
A number of articles in this issue include calls from prisoners to take actions against the prison industries that are making money off prisoners, and to boycott jobs to demand higher wages. All of these actions are aimed at hitting the prisons, and private industries profiting off relationships with prisons, in their pocketbook. This is a good way for our comrades behind bars to think about peaceful protests they can take up to make demands for improved conditions while we organize to fundamentally change the criminal injustice system.
Prisoners are employed by the DOC, and most do maintenance and clerical work. No Florida DOC inmates are paid for work, with the exception of inmates assigned to work in the inmate canteens(making $65 a month) or the few locations in the state where they have PRIDE factories, which are manufacturing-type businesses run by DOC to make goods for correctional use (clothing, cleaning supplies, etc). Even these inmates are paid a few cents an hour.
Denver Women’s Correctional Facility has a capacity of 900. Everyone is assigned for work unless they have medical excuses. Those not assigned to a job make 25 cents a day, 7 days a week. Those assigned to standard prison work make 60 cents a day, 5 days a week. Prison Industries jobs are a sewing factory, print shop, and dog training program. These jobs may pay up to $40 per month. All salaries are automatically docked 20% if restitution, court costs, or child support is owed.
SCI Fayette has about 1800 to 2100 prisoners, of those 1200 to 1400 work for the DOC doing various work assignments. Jobs are related to running of the facility, such as maintenance, commissary, grounds crews, schooling, laundry, barber shop, library and janitors. Some also work for "Correctional Industries." The pay scale is as follows in $/hour:
People usually work from 120 to 160 hours per month, so top pay would be $50.40 to $67.20. Correctional Industries (CI) makes 51 cents or about $81.60 a month. Like similar programs that exist in all 50 states, Pennsylvania Correctional Industries produces things such as furniture, clothing and personal care products primarily for purchase by state agencies.
Washington State Penitentiary holds about 2240 people. Of those around 250 work for correctional industries . Most of those sew clothes for inmates, the rest do welding of furniture for cells and make license plates. They pay up to $1.10/hr.
"Inmate duties" pay from $35 to $55 a month, and include cooking, cleaning, serving food and washing clothes.
In MacDougall-Walker CI only about 25% of prisoners have jobs here. Some pay rates here are:
In Texas, every general population prisoner is required to work. They either work in the service of prison upkeep (i.e. maintenance, food service, field labor, support service inmate, etc.) or they work in one of the various factories owned by TCI (Texas Correctional Industries). There is no pay for work.
For wages between 8¢ and 34¢ an hour prisoners do normal maintenance work as well as produce clothing, food, bedding, cleaning products, tables, chairs, modular offices, license plates and the tags that go on them for the state.
Wisconsin pays for programming including educational programs, prison maintenance and Badger State Industry jobs. The pay ranges for non-industry work are: 12 cents ($9.60 every 2 weeks) to 42 cents ($33.60). At Green Bay CI, with about 1050 prisoners, about 300 work maintenance and only 18 prisoners work industry, which makes from 79 cents to a dollar an hour. They make clothing for outside vendors and to sell to prisoners around the state.
Utah pays $7 a month and has thrown out a lot of work positions that use to be available. The prison does manufacture houses in their carpentry program, and UCI commisary has convicts making sweats and shorts down in Gunnison, then selling these products back to the U.$ and community.
In Coleman II, 90% of prisoners work, most of them do facility maintenance for $12 a month to work 8 hour, 5 day workweeks. A minority get to work for UNICOR.
The private industries run by UNICOR employ 21,836 prisoners across the country, with pay ranging from 23 cents to $1.15 per hour. In 2007 UNICOR showed profits of over $45 Million, with most of their products being military supplies for the Department of Defense.