The film 13th was released on Netflix in October 2016, just prior to the U.S. presidential election. It is clearly an anti-Trump film, although it is not clearly pro-anyone else. In April 2020, Netflix released the film for free on YouTube. It has been abuzz lately as a “must watch” film in the wake of the George Floyd uprisings.
The title 13th gives the impression that the film will focus on the 13th Amendment, and we assumed it would push the narrative that modern-day prison expansion is motivated by profiting from prisoner labor. We also thought it would be a film pushing people to focus on reforming the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Longtime readers of Under Lock & Key have likely already seen pieces debunking the line that the prison boom was motivated by exploiting prisoner labor. With our expectations from the title, we were pleasantly surprised by the film.
The film first focuses on the 13th Amendment, and explains the South needed labor after slavery was abolished. Where once there were slaves, there were then prisoner laborers. The exception in the 13th Amendment which allowed slavery for people convicted of a crime was primarily economically-motivated. From there, the film tracks prison expansion, which really took off after the exploitation of former slaves had ended, in response to social movements.
How the title relates to the theme of the film may be in that the 13th Amendment satisfied a dominant need of the time – white Amerika’s economic need for Black labor – and white Amerika has been adapting to meet its needs at the expense of New Afrikans ever since. 13th spans almost two centuries of U.$. history, and draws attention to many ways Amerika has adapted to meet its needs, whether they were economic needs or social needs.
13th does touch on the topic of prisoner labor for profit for private corporations, but doesn’t overly focus on it. Is prisoner labor for private profit a bad thing? Yes. Being that fewer than one percent of prisoners are engaged in productive labor for private profit, should we focus on it with all our energy, as if it is the main push for prison expansion?(1) MIM(Prisons) would answer this in the negative.
There are some economic motivations for prison expansion in recent-decades, but not for exploiting prisoner labor. 13th spends quite some time exposing the lobbying group American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) role in prison expansion, as well as its present role in pushing for “community supervision” (read: ankle and wrist bracelet GPS trackers, and privatized probation and parole).(2) The economic interest in prison expansion is in job security for Amerikans, and state funding funneling into private corporations for services. There is a socio-economic benefit to Amerika in draining the oppressed internal semi-colonies of time and resources through expensive phone calls, long drives to visit families, and other exorbitant and arbitrary fees and expenses.
In the end, the audience is left with a call to remain vigilant to what’s coming next. It leaves the focus on ALEC and corporate influence in legislation. A take-away of 13th is that nothing has worked to get the white oppressors’ boot (or knee) off of New Afrika’s neck. Amerikkka just changes tactics, but the effect is the same.
That’s what we’re seeing today with the recent Black Lives Matter movement upsurge. We don’t need a less-funded Amerikan police force. We need New Afrikans to have their own police, and military, AND state to do as they please without having to cooperate with this clearly sociopathic Amerikan nation. On the whole, 13th affirms our view that prisons are primarily a tool of social control, and we will answer the film’s call to remain vigilant so Amerika can’t continue oppressing New Afrika any longer.
I hope these words surmount the many communicational barriers that have been put in place to suppress my voice. I'm currently being held at North Carolina's supermax facility. I came across issue 66 of ULK and I read where the prisoners of Pender razor-wire plantation are being exploited and seeking guidance and assistance in redressing this issue.(1)
North Carolina is home to 32 Correctional Enterprise plantations that exploit prisoners for their labor in the name of rehabilitation. As the komrade mentioned, these plantations are profitable enterprises that range from producing janitorial products to a metal plant in Polkton, North Carolina that makes industrial sinks for schools and contraband lockers for the police. Each of these 32 plantations produces goods to be sold to tax-supported entities such as municipal and county governments. So yes it's a fact that prisoners are being exploited and you seek guidance on how you and others can organize to redress this issue.
First and foremost, you must purge the fear you admitted to having, komrade. As the beloved komrade George Jackson stated, "Don't fear the specter of repression, for we are already repressed." The fear of reprisals is what keeps us in bondage. Yes we're held captive by concrete and razor-wire barriers, but it isn't the physical chains that keep us oppressed and exploited. It is the mental chains of ignorance and fear that impede us from liberating ourselves from under the rule of the enemy. Fear is our greatest hindrance. We have been conditioned to believe that the enemy's retaliation will be so brutal that any thoughts of standing up are neutralized by this fear. Nelson Mandela said it best: "In prison, no improvement happens without a reason."
However, you are correct that you must have assistance. You cannot fight this Hydra alone. North Carolina isn't known for its progressive political activity within these razor-wire plantations, nor are there any notable revolutionaries or political prisoners. Being the deputy minister of defense for the White Panther organization, which is an arm of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party - Prison Chapter, under the umbrella of the United Panther Movement, we have been on the front lines and working diligently to transform these slave pens of oppression into schools of liberation.
There are outside supporters here that are very loyal to the prisoners of North Carolina. They provide us with a local newsletter, FloodGates, to serve as a platform for us to network with others and express ourselves. They also organize outside protests and mass call-ins. As of now, we are focused on redressing the new JPay restrictions. You can receive the FloodGates newsletter by writing:
PO Box 15401
Durham, NC 27704
MIM(Prisons) responds: In ULK 66 we asked for input from other folks in response to the writer from North Carolina who asked what they can do to fight back against the extortion of money, both through their labor and petty fees. This writer offers some good thoughts about building a network both behind bars and on the streets. We work for Under Lock & Key to also serve as a resource to help with this organizing.
As we've discussed in our recent updated "Survey of U.S Prisoners on Prison Labor" in ULK 62, prisoners are mostly working for the state.(2) The examples given by this writer confirm that this is the case in North Carolina as well. This labor is subsidizing the state budget, but it falls far short of covering the cost of imprisonment. So we don't describe prison labor with the term "exploitation" which, in Marxism, means transforming labor power into goods to be sold for a profit. The goods being produced are for state institutions, and just offset the costs to run these institutions. There's no profit involved.
Instead, we say the prisons are extorting this labor. Basically the prisons are stealing it from prisoners, not giving them a choice about work, and paying only a pittance. Still, there's no profit.
Prisons are about social control and national oppression, not profits. The prison movement needs to focus on the anti-colonial battle, and the struggle against prison labor can be a part of this. We support the struggles many of our comrades are fighting against prison labor, because we are against extortion and imprisonment of the lumpen class and oppressed-nation peoples. This is one of many ways to weaken the criminal injustice system.
At the latest Democratic Party debate among candidates for U.$. President, Tulsi Gabbard made headlines by appealing to emerging views on the criminal injustice system among younger Amerikans. Ey did so in attacks on former California District Attorney Kamala Harris. Gabbard focused on two issues of particular interest to the petty bourgeoisie: drug decriminalization and prison labor.
Senator Gabbard opened eir comments by expressing concerns for the "broken criminal justice system that is disproportionately, negatively impacting Black and Brown people all over this country." Ey went on to say that Harris "kept people beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California" and condemned Harris for imprisoning people for marijuana possession and then laughing when ey was asked if ey had ever smoked it.
The prison labor point was specifically about concerns Harris's office raised about losing firefighters if they complied with court orders to reduce the prison population.(1) The court had ruled that overcrowding in the state had led to cruel and unusual punishment. As we've established in our own surveys and research, most prison labor is for the state, and most of it is to maintain the prisons themselves. Fire fighters are the exception in terms of the important role their work plays in protecting humyn life, and no doubt Harris's legal team was playing that up at a time when wildfires were a major headline in California. But the fire fighters are typical in that they are not producing value or part of the profit-making of private corporations.
Prison labor (and the privatization of prisons) has been an ongoing issue of concern for Amerikans in the age of mass incarceration. MIM(Prisons) has long demonstrated that there is a myth that exploiting prison labor is a motivating force for mass incarceration in this country.(2) It is important to point out that the petty-bourgeois obsession with this myth is largely based in class interests. On the one hand there is a fear among the labor aristocracy about competition with prison labor resulting in lower wages and higher unemployment. This has been the major political barrier that explains why prison labor for profit is so rare in the United $tates. More generally, there is a contradiction between the petty bourgeoisie and the big bourgeoisie that causes the former to be skeptical and fearful of the latter, because the petty bourgeoisie favors small-scale capitalism. This results in a general sentiment against corporations profiting off prison labor, even without the direct concern of wages. In a recent campaign ad, Gabbard condemns private prisons for profiting off prisoners.
Drug decriminalization is also very popular among the Amerikan petty bourgeoisie, in particular the movement to decriminalize marijuana. In 2016, Pew Research found 57% of Amerikans supported legalization of marijuana compared to just 12% in 1969.(3) And the younger generations were more favorable of course. In this case, public opinion is based in class interests around economics and leisure time. While there is a financial interest in the booming legal economy of marijuana products for young Amerikans, the broader public opinion is based in leisure-time interests.
The movement to legalize weed will often give lip service to condemning the blatant racism in many U.$. drug sentencing laws, similar to Gabbard's opening statement against Harris's criminal injustice record (above). Yet the scale of your average weed festival/rally versus that of the size of your average protest against torture (of primarily New Afrikan and [email protected] men) tells a clearer story. These reformists for persynal freedoms of the petty bourgeois individual are not going to do anything about national oppression in the form of targetted arrests, sentencing, concentration camps and torture chambers that make up the U.$. criminal injustice system.
MIM has long used the "Willie Horton"-style of campaigning as an example of Amerikans support for national oppression, especially of New Afrikans.(5) While "tough-on-crime" politics is finally waning, we have yet to see whether Amerika can really start to decrease its prison population now that the infrastructure and economic self-interest has been built up around it.(6) Beyond that, the national question is only more at the forefront today, with Amerikans chanting "send them back" at a recent rally held by current President Trump, where they were calling for female Senators who are not white to be sent back to the countries their ancestors came from.
It is important to be aware of these shifts, as they may provide opportunities for the anti-imperialist prison movement. But there has been no change in the overall orientation of the Maoist Internationalist Movement that sees nation as the principal contradiction both internationally and within the United $tates. We continue to organize with the medium-term goals of building dual power and independent institutions of the oppressed and the long-term goal of national liberation and delinking from imperialism.
by a North Carolina prisoner February 2019 permalink
Myself and two other prisoners currently being held at Pender Correctional in North Carolina have founded a band of like-minded brothers that are fed up with the way the state and prison systems have found a way to excuse slavery. They are preying on people's downfalls, and use them for their own gain. In North Carolina there is a lot of overcrowding and the only way to get on good time is to work, which saves them money, not having to pay prisoners minimum wage. This work also makes income for the prison at their enterprise plants, where prisoners work for 40-55 hours a week for $10.50-$21.30 in pay (for the week). They have the workers making officers' uniforms, chemicals, working farms, making eye wear, and a laundry service that not only cleans prison clothes but also hospital and rest home clothes.
If you are one of the lucky ones that gets to go to a minimum camp and go out on work release to work an outside job, they charge you $150 a week for room and board. Hold on, that's double dipping. They get paid by the federal government to house us. Then they write us up for every petty thing they can, such as too many clothes, disrespect, profanity, etc. and take $10 from us each time. They also invented a way to charge us every time we receive money from our family.
We decided that we won't go for it anymore, but we are limited to what we can do while we're in here, for fear of retaliation. We're already suffering because we refuse to work. We are building steam every day by spreading the word. We need help from someone that knows the best ways to organize and lead. So can you please help us with advice and resource list and materials to pass out? Also we could really use law books to help further some various lawsuits we have filed and need to file. Please help in any way you can. We are a band of your fellow brothers seeking guidance. Thank you for your time!
MIM(Prisons) responds: These comrades organizing against the extortion of their labor are setting an example for others. Getting like-minded people together and coming up with a unified plan of action is an accomplishment in and of itself. We will send some materials, grievance petitions and other resources that may be useful. But we also call on other prisoners to respond with any advice you have for these organizers. What can we do to have the best chances of success? Are there problems these comrades should look out for? This is the dialectical process that revolutionaries use, summing up our practice to learn from successes and failures. And sharing that learning with others makes an even bigger impact. Turn your own organizing failures into successes by learning from them and helping others to avoid the same mistakes.
I am approaching from a background of having been held captive in general prison population where I am aware that at least a few of us subscribe to The BayView and Under Lock & Key and agreed the latter's issue No. 62 is controversial in criticizing a certain labor union.
One reason for focusing on this outstanding view(s) is because some of us are unionized with this entity which is the only one of its class that waves membership dues for prisoners and is also actively involved in the prison abolition movement. Specifically you allude in your article to, "Those organizations don't want low paid prisoners to replace high paid petty bourgeois workers."
Further what I think was more shocking is you attributed to outside support low, selfish motive by claiming, "They would be happy to see prisoners rot in their cells... it's higher pay for their class that the labor aristocracy wants." Indisputably your position is informative and generally supported by historical patterns, including Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow which illustrated how Capitalists successfully divided White and New Afrikan working class through granting pay raises and white skin privileges who in turn collectively advocated us decaying in segregation.
I would like to remain on Under Lock & Key subscription list because by far, it's more advanced than a number of other non-mainstream publications, in that yours boldly challenges general thought trends. One case-in-point is an Elder had cautioned us to be vigilant on what Under Lock & Key also affirmed about those who share sentiments identified as "the mass base behind the prison craze." We see clear signs they are present, active and have self-centered agendas.
But in contrast to what you promoted, I don't think our struggle has yet nor is on the verge of being co-opted by selfish motives — though potentially via "Incarcerated Organizing Committees" — provided our focus don't prioritize amending the 13th Amendment over acquiring human rights and Independence, attacking deceptive parole mechanisms. In this regard, MIM(Prisons) provides a vital source exhorting the prison movement to re-evaluate the ramification of amending the 13th Amendment. Perhaps the pendulum will sway away from giving successive energy to the 13th Amendment when factoring that many prison systems already pay money of account for prisoner labor; but yet, both sides of the spectrum agree mass incarceration is the core problem.
In ULK 62, among other issue numbers, you criticize massive prison work strikes. The perspective MIM(Prisons) is herein asked to ponder upon is the impact of "sustained" general work strikes will have on the bottom lines of private sectors; namely, commissary stork, telephone companies, choicey livestock parts that never reaches our food supply, etc.
MIM(Prisons) responds: First, we must make a disclaimer related to this discussion. We've learned of a recent article in Turning the Tide by a couple of United Struggle from Within comrades that calls out IWOC, among other organizations, as "ghost organizations." This is NOT the position of MIM(Prisons) or ULK. We will likely address this in more detail soon. However, we hope our readers can distinguish our approach here in criticizing the political line of other organizations and the effects of that line, rather than disparaging them for not doing anything just because they aren't working with us. No one can deny that the IWOC has done a lot to successfully publicize recent prison struggles and actions.
Overall it seems we have a lot of agreement with the writer above, but areas of debate are well worth addressing. The main point raised here is whether labor unions are selfishly pushing their own agenda for higher wages for the Amerikan labor aristocracy, or if these labor unions can really be putting the interests of prisoners first in prison labor struggles.
As this writer notes, we have plenty of historical evidence of labor unions in the United $tates promoting the interests of the Amerikkkan nation at the expense of oppressed nations.(1) And this promotion of national oppression includes support for the expansion of prisons to lock up oppressed nations. In fact, those prisons provide well-paying jobs for many labor aristocracy workers. So the contradiction between prison employees and prisoners is amplified, as this incarceration is essential to their livelihood.
Many corporations can't take advantage of cheap prison labor because labor unions have put provisions in their contracts and state laws to force consultation with labor leaders before establishing a contract for prisoner labor. It is clear the cheaper labor available in prisons is a direct threat to the high wages paid to people outside of prisons for work that could be done by prisoners. Many labor unions are quite clear about their position on this point.
But the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is different from other labor unions in that it claims to be international and anti-capitalist. The IWW is the labor union offering free membership to prisoners and actively campaigning on behalf of prisoners. The IWW also actively campaigns for higher wages for Amerikan workers. So they are walking a fine line between progressive work supporting prisoners' struggles, and reactionary pro-labor-aristocracy politics. The history of the IWW includes some clear examples benefiting white workers at the expense of colonial labor, as is documented in J. Sakai's book Settlers: Mythology of the White Proletariat.(2)
This doesn't mean the IWW is always working against the interests of prisoners. In fact they have waged some progressive battles. But their goal of raising wages for Amerikan workers is still fundamentally reactionary. The Amerikan labor aristocracy is the mass base for fascism, not a base for revolutionary organizing. They continue to come down on the side of imperialism, and are well bought off with the spoils of conquest and exploitation of oppressed nations around the globe.
In all of our prison struggles we need to keep the contradiction between internal oppressed nations (locked up, killed by police, flooded with drugs, denied economic, educational, and work opportunities, etc.) and the oppressor nation at the forefront. Why do we have such a huge prison population in the United $tates? It comes back to national oppression.
Battles around prisoners getting access to education, or getting paid for their labor, can be progressive parts of the struggle against the criminal injustice system. As long as they are framed in the context of the battle for liberation of oppressed nations. Opportunistically tying the prison labor battle to the broader Amerikan labor union struggles will only drag us down into reactionary oppressor-nation politics which builds up the labor aristocracy at the expense of the world's oppressed.(3) The oppressed, around the world and within U.$. borders, are always the losers in Amerikan labor union wage struggles.
While many euro-Amerikans languish and suffer in U.$. prisons, it is those whose land the Amerikans seized and occupy, and those the Amerikans enslaved and exploited, who disproportionately rot here. The First World lumpen are an excess population, that imperialism has limited use for.
One solution to this problem has been using the lumpen to distribute and consume narcotics. Narcotics, and the drug game itself pacify the lowest classes of the internal semi-colonies, by providing income and distracting drama, while circulating capital.(1) Of course, rich Amerikans play a much larger role in propping up drug sales.
Another solution to the excess population has been mass incarceration. Prisons serve as a tool of social control; a place to put the rebellious populations that once spawned organizations like the Black Panther Party and Young Lords Party. Meanwhile, imprisonment serves to drain the resources of the internal semi-colonies in numerous ways.(2) This reinforces their colonial states in relation to the Amerikan empire. As an institution, mass incarceration serves as an outlet at home for the racist ideology that imperialism requires from its populace for operations abroad. The criminal injustice system sanitizes national oppression under the banner of "law and order," reducing the more open manifestations of the national contradiction within the metropole that brought about the recognition of the need for national liberation in the 1960s and 1970s.(3)
The following are excerpts from a Minnesota comrade's response to "MIM(Prisons) on U.$. Prison Economy", originally published in ULK 8 currently available in the "13th Amendment Study Pack"(updated 8/10/2017).
"In as much as I agree with MIM's positions in this study pack, I find it beyond the pale of relevance in arguing over whether the conditions We now exist under are in fact slavery or exploitation or rather oppression that revolves around laws devised to ensure that the first class's social, political and economic control is maintained. Mass incarceration might be all of those above or none at all, to those of Us in the struggle. What we all can agree on is that mass incarceration is a machine being used to exterminate, as the imperialists see us, the undesirable sub-underclass.
"...Prisons are being used to remove black and brown males at their prime ages of producing children, going to college, and gaining meaningful vocational training. This loss of virulent males in Our communities does more than weaken them. It removes from the female an eligible male and acts no different than sterilization. Instead of incinerators or gas chambers, We are being nurtured, domesticated, doped, and fed carcinogens. Moreover, prisons have provided us with disease-ridden environments, and poor diets, minimum ambulatory exercise, poor air and water. Lastly, the removal of cognitive social stimuli necessary for the maturation of social skills has created an underdeveloped antisocial human being lacking in compassion and individuality.
"...the reason that the slavery or exploitation argument doesn't resonate for those of Us who are on the front line, I think, is because it's muted by the point that incarceration is an institution created by the oppressor. It will have vestiges of slavery, exploitation, and social control within it. To what degree? is arguable."
So far we have no disagreements with this comrade. And while we have long upheld this point to be important for our understanding of mass incarceration in the United $tates and how to fight it, we do recognize that the slavery analogy will resonate with the masses on an emotional level. The comrade later goes on to reinforce our position:
"Eradication is where slavery and mass incarceration split. Although slaves were punished and victims of social control, they had value and were not eradicated."
A crass example of this was exposed last month when Kern County pigs turned on one of their own and released a video of Chief Pig Donny Youngblood stating that it's cheaper to kill someone being held by the state than to wound them. These are state bureaucracies, with pressure to cut budgets. While keeping prison beds full is in the interest of the unions, it is not in the immediate financial interest to the state overall.
Whereas we agree with this comrade when ey discusses the role of convict leasing in funding southern economies shortly after the creation of the 13th Amendment, we disagree with the analogy to funding rural white communities today.
"The slave, instead of producing crops and performing other trades on the plantation is now a source of work... So to insist states aren't benefactors of mass incarceration is incredulous. Labor aristocrats and the imperialist first class, who are majority Caucasian males, have disproportionately benefited."
The difference is a key point in Marxism, and understanding the imperialist economy today. That the existence of millions of prisoners in the United $tates creates jobs for labor aristocrats is very different from being a slave, whose labor is exploited. And the difference is that the wealth to pay the white (or otherwise) prison staff is coming from the exploitation of the Third World proletariat. And the economy around incarceration is just one way that the state moves those superprofits around and into the pockets of the everyday Amerikan. The "prisoner-as-slave" narrative risks erasing the important role of this imperialist exploitation.
Another reason why we must be precise in our explanation is the history of white labor unions in this country in undermining the liberation struggles of the internal semi-colonies. Hitching the struggle of prisoners to that of the Amerikan labor movement is not a way to boost the cause. It is a way to subordinate it to an enemy cause — that of Amerikan labor.
There is a cabal of Amerikan labor organizers on the outside that are pushing their agenda to the forefront of the prison movement. Their involvement in this issue goes back well over a century and their position has not changed. It is a battle between the Amerikan labor aristocracy and the Amerikan bourgeoisie over super-profits extracted from the Third World. In this case the labor aristocracy sees that prisoners working for little to no wages could cut into the jobs available to their class that offer the benefit of surplus value extraction from other nations. Generally the labor aristocracy position has won out, keeping the opportunities for real profiteering from prison labor very limited in this country. But that is not to say that exploitation of prison labor could not arise, particularly in a severe economic crisis as Third World countries delink from the empire forcing it to look inward to keep profits cycling.
While our previous attempt to tackle this subject may have come across as academic Marxist analysis, we hope to do better moving forward to push the line that the prison movement needs to be tied to the anti-colonial, national liberation struggles both inside and outside the United $tates. And that these struggles aim to liberate whole nations from the United $tates, and ultimately put an end to Amerikanism. Selling those struggles out to the interests of the Amerikan labor movement will not serve the interests of the First World lumpen.
Prison labor is an interesting concept. Compared to the enormous expenditures (financial, mental, physical, etc.) the rewards/benefits of prison industrial labor are trivial in the extreme.
Excluding coveted "prison industry" posts, over 95% of prisoners are employed in prison maintenance, construction, administrative/educational labor). [This figure may be accurate in this comrade's state. Our preliminary results across 22 systems in the U.$. show almost 25% working in manufacturing and agriculture. — Editor] Indeed, such work does prove beneficial (in the case of kitchen labor — invaluable) to prison operations. Kitchen work notwithstanding, the sum total of benefits is small. So why do prisons use prisoner labor? Especially considering it does little to lessen the economic burden of penal institutions on society. There are two plausible answers to this question. Surprisingly, neither is directly linked to financial interests.
In the first place, prisoners are employed to reinforce socially acceptable behavior and occupational patterns (by capitalistic standards). While this may sound perfectly justifiable and even admirable; truth is, it is far less altruistic. Reinforcement of socially accepted roles is an integral aspect of the subjection-manipulation cycle (see ULK 52 – An Invaluable Resource? And ULK 54 – The Adaption of Capitalistic Controls), which through an invasive, subtle and constant life-long indoctrination, endeavors to create a homogeneous populace. Prison labor is meant to be a control for inducing conformity in prison which later translates to the same out in society. An objective achieved through subjection (mandatory labor) and manipulation (rewards or reprimands, restrictions and sanctions) in a never-ending cyclic process. A process similar to Pablo Escobar's approach to business — plata o plomo (silver or lead). In simple terms, accept my favor or risk my displeasure. This reality is paralleled throughout society. Contribute to capitalism, strive to become a capitalist, or experience privations, marginalization, ostracization, imprisonment or worse. In a way, prison labor is a form or reeducation, along capitalist lines.
In the second place, labor in prison provides an added buffer against unrest and radical organization among prisoners. Prisoners structure their days around their jobs, giving it importance and prominence in their daily lives. Many would feel lost at sea, wayward, direction-less without it. It gives the prisoner a focal point distinct from and meaningless to their best interests – toppling the penal system. Distracted by menial duties, most prisoners never bother to contemplate their plight, subjection/manipulation, origins of their situation and the oppression, which made it all possible (eventual?); not even mentioning the oppressors who become an abstract "them."
As such, prison labor does four important things for capitalism:
Reeducates deviants (self-determinants)
Drains on and distracts prisoner intellect
Impedes any meaningful development (mental, physical, political and social)
Prisons are gargantuan popular control systems. Prison labor is a system within a system created for the advancement of a thriving capitalist state — inequality and an overabundance of commodities. Considering how many prisoners work prison jobs, join society's labor force and become re-acclimated to capitalist control, the effectiveness of prison labor as a process is quite horrifying. Ignorance is a capitalist's bliss. Knowledge is a revolutionary's power. Understanding reality as it confronts us is the first step to dismantling the penal institute as a whole.
MIM(Prisons) adds: The point that much prison labor is not actually saving operating costs is an important piece to our analysis that we have yet to quantify. According to our survey, some 460,000 prisoners are working in prison maintenance jobs in the state and federal systems at a median of 150 hours per month. To hire that work out at $10/hr would cost around $9 billion, or what would amount to 10% of the money spent on the criminal injustice system.
However, it is not uncommon for state-funded programs to hire more people than they need to complete a job, because profit is not the motive. And it makes sense to pay prisoners for attending schooling and other programming activities when the motivations above are considered. This is another perspective on prisons as social control. Socialist states have and will also use prisons to shape populations in a certain direction. Of course, the state apparatus serves that economic system. In socialism, prisons combat classism. In capitalism, they reinforce it.
The Western press often aims the disparaging term "labor camps" at Asia and the former socialist countries of the world. Yet, with the largest prison population in the world, it should not be surprising that it is the Amerikans who have more prisoners working for them than any other nation. And their labor subsidizes the cost for Amerikans to maintain a highly structured and institutionalized system of national oppression in this country.
While prisons do "cost" taxpayers money, Amerikans benefit directly, indirectly and psychologically from the criminal injustice system. There is a lot of money being made off the system, not by exploiting prisoner labor, but in the form of public employee salaries. In Pennsylvania, for instance, prison guards are among the state's highest paid employees.(1) And in many states these jobs are so important, the guard unions will successfully fight against any prison closures, even when there aren't enough prisoners to fill the cells. Meanwhile, prisoners are doing much of the maintenance work in these institutions, for little or no pay. In the vast majority of U.$. prisons, the state would need to hire more people if they couldn't use prisoners to help with prison operations.
In this article we will look at the relationship between prisoner labor and the cost of running prisons. Our goal is to understand what work prisoners are doing, what they are being paid, what the impact of that work is, and how battles around prisoner labor can be a progressive part of the fight against the imperialist criminal injustice system.
This winter MIM(Prisons) conducted a survey of ULK readers regarding prison labor, in part in response to many organizations' recent focus on this topic. The results are what we believe to be the most comprehensive dataset on prison labor in the United $tates.
In our 2009 issue on this topic, we reported on prison labor in 11 states and the Federal system, representing over half the country's prison population. In 2018, we received reports from 20 state systems and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. This survey far exceeds our 2009 survey in content and consistency. This article will present our preliminary results, with the full report to come in a later, more in-depth publication on the economics of the U.$. prison system.
How many prisoners have jobs?
Overall, 44% of prisoners have a job assignment, which includes school and other programming in some states. This varied greatly between prisons, from less than 1% to a maximum of 100% where working is mandatory. Of those who do work, most are engaged in work related to maintaining the prison itself.
What do prisoners do?
The chart below shows results from our survey showing at least 63% of prisoners engaged in prison maintenance. There is a significant "Other" category that may or may not fall into prison maintenance. While our survey results so far show 25% of prisoners working in agriculture or industry, this does not correspond with other information available. UNICOR, the state-run industries for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), accounts for less than 7% of those held by the BOP. Yet UNICOR is the biggest user of prisoners in the country, with half the revenue of all other state-run industries combined.
While our results confirmed a majority working in maintenance of prisons, we believe this to be greatly underestimated and will work to refine our figures. Meanwhile the three biggest prison states only use 2-6% of their prison population in their state-run industries.
How much are prisoners paid?
Working prisoners mostly fall into two categories: prison maintenance and state-owned industries. The latter generally offers higher wages. Below are averages for all U.$. prisons from a Prison Policy Initiative survey of state agencies(2):
Our statistical analysis of low and high wages by state matched up quite closely with the Prison Policy Initiative survey, with many states being right on. This helped us confirm the numbers reported by our readers, and substantiates the Prison Policy Initiative data set, which covers every state and comes from state sources.
From our data we can say that almost half of prisoners who work in the United $tates make $0.00. Generally in lieu of pay, 43% of jobs in our survey offer credits of some sort (usually promising time off their sentence). Though states like Texas are notorious for these credits being meaningless or not applied. About 11% of prisoners who work do so for neither pay nor even the promise of credits, according to our preliminary results.
Who do prisoners work for?
The portion of prisoners working for private industries is very small. We've long been frustrated with the outdated, self-referential, or complete lack of citations used by most when writing about private companies using prison labor.(3) Our initial results only returned 4.3% of prison jobs being attributed to a private company, and of those who produce a product, 1.8% being sold to private companies. While we will continue to tally and interpret our results, these are in the ball park of what we can infer from a literature search of what is going on in prisons across the United $tates.
As John Pfaff pointed out in eir book Locked
In, “Public revenue and public-sector union lobbying are far more important [financial and political engines behind prison growth].” These state prison industries are becoming sources of revenue for state budgets. This could be worse than private corporations lobbying for more imprisonment. It's the very state that decides policy that is directly benefiting financially.
A U.$. Proletariat?
Of all the so-called "workers" in the United $tates, prisoners, along with non-citizen migrants, are some of the only people who face working conditions comparable to the Third World. OSHA has no real ability to enforce in prisons, and in some cases prisoners do hazardous jobs like recycling electronics or the tough field work, that many migrants perform. A recent expose of a "Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery (CAAIR)" program in Oklahoma documented that prisoners were promised drug treatment but when they joined the program were forced to work in chicken processing plants. The prisoners suffered gnarled hands, acid burns, injuries from machines and serious bacterial infections.(4) While this is only a tiny minority of prisoners, the fact that they are susceptible to such conditions does speak to the closeness this class of people is to the Third World proletariat.
While at first glance the pay rates above clearly put U.$. prisoners with full time jobs in the exploited classes, we must consider that by default prisoners' material needs are covered by the state. However, there are still some basic needs that are not covered in many prisons. Many prisoners face conditions with insufficient food, exorbitant co-pays for medical care, and a requirement to purchase hygiene items, educational materials and other basic necessities. And for the lumpen who don't have money in the bank or families who can cover these needs, pay for work in prison is essential.
Labor Subsidizes State Budgets
But even where prisoners are expected to pay for these basic necessities and are not paid enough to cover the costs, we don't find net profit for the state. In spite of prisoners' work, facilities are still run at a huge financial loss to the state, and profits from prisoner labor are going to subsize the state budget. Sure lots of individual guards and other prison staff are making good money, and corporations are also cashing in by selling products to the prison and to prisoners. But none of this is coming from prisoner labor. Prisoner labor is just helping to cut the costs a bit for the state. Below we lay out our calculations on this question.
Ultimately, we're talking about a criminal injustice system that costs $80 billion a year. There are profits from the 4.3% of prisoners who work for private industries. But most of the revenue comes from state-run prison industries. These state-run industries bring in a revenue of $1.5 billion a year.(5) At a generous profit rate of 10%, that would be $150 million in net gain, or 0.2% of costs. Because so many prisoners aren't paid or are paid very low wages we could even double that profit rate and still have a very small gain relative to the cost of prisons.
Another way to look at this calculation is to consider the costs to house one prisoner compared to the potential revenue they generate when working full time. It costs about $29k/yr to house a Federal prisoner. If these prisoners are leased out to private companies for $10/hr and the state keeps all the money, the state only makes about $20k, still losing money on the deal. Obviously, when the state undercharges for labor, private companies can make a profit. But that profit is subsidized by the state, which has to pay for prisoners housing and food, with the greatest expense being in how to actually keep people locked inside.
We can also calculate savings to the state from prisoner labor using our survey numbers. We chose $10 per hour below as a rough compromise between the Federal minimum wage, and a typical CO's hourly wage. In reality, no U.$. citizen would work maintaining prisons for minimum wage. And a negligible number of COs would bring themselves to do something "for" prisoners, such as cleaning their showers. If non-prisoners were needed to maintain prison facilities, we suspect only migrant workers would be up for this task.
Another consideration is that jobs in prison are mostly used to keep people busy (i.e. keep people not reading, and not organizing). If paying "freeworld" people to do these jobs, they would certainly hire many fewer employees than they have prisoners doing the same tasks.
These calculations are primarily to demonstrate magnitude, not actual budget projections.
62% of 800 thousand prisoners (percentage with state-run jobs) = 496 thousand prisoner workers
150 hours/mo work on average * 12 months of work = 1,800 hours of work
So we estimate that hiring non-prisoners to do the work that prisoners do would cost about $8.9 billion, which adds up to an additional 10% of the overall costs of running prisons. That's a sizeable increase in costs, but prisons are still far from profitable. We can add the two numbers above together to estimate the total earnings + savings to the state from using prisoner labor. That total is still less than $10 billion. Bottom line: the state is still losing $80 billion a year, they're just saving at most $9 billion by having prisoners work and earning back another $150 million or so of that $80 billion, through exploitation.
Those arguing that a massive prison labor strike will shut down the prisons may be correct in the short term, to the extent that some prisons which rely heavily on prison labor will not be able to immediately respond. But that certainly doesn't mean prisoners being released. More likely it means a complete lockdown and round the clock johnnies. And historically states have been quite willing to pour money into the criminal injustice system, so a 10% increase in costs is not that far-fetched. On the other hand, states are even more willing to cut services to prisoners to save money. So the requirement to hire outside staff instead of using prisoner labor could just as likely lead to even further cuts in services to prisoners.
History of Prison Labor in U.$.
In 1880, more than 10,000 New Afrikans worked in mines, fields and work camps as part of the convict lease system in the South. This was shortly after the creation of the 13th Amendment, and eased the transition for many industries which made use of this prison labor. In the North prison industries were experimented with around this time, but imprisonment costs prevented them from being profitable. And in response labor unions began opposing the use of prison labor more and more. By the Great Depression, opposition was stronger and the government banned the use of prison labor for public works projects.(5)
In 1934, the Federal Prison Industries, or UNICOR, was formed as a way to utilize prison labor for rehabilitation and state interests without competing with private industry. This protection for private industry was ensured with strict restrictions on UNICOR including limiting them to selling only to the states. This has maintained the primary form of what might be considered productive labor in U.$. prisons. UNICOR does function as a corporation aiming to increase profits, despite its tight relationship to the state. While state agencies used to have to buy from UNICOR, this is no longer the case, making it fit better into Marx's definition of productive labor. Those running the prisons for the state, whether public employees or prisoners preparing meals, would not fall into what Marx called productive labor because neither are employed by capital.
Starting in the 1970s, there has been legislation to loosen restrictions on prison labor use by private industry.(5) (see Alaska House Bill 171 this year) However, we could not find in our research or our survey any substantiation to claims of a vast, or growing, private employment of prisoners in the United $tates.
The Future of Prison Labor
The key to all of these battles is keeping a focus on the national liberation struggles that must be at the forefront of any revolutionary movement today. There are Amerikan labor organizers who would like to use the prisoner labor movement to demand even higher wages for the labor aristocracy. These organizers don't want low-paid prisoners to replace high-paid petty bourgeois workers. This might seem like a great opportunity for an alliance, but the interests of the labor aristocracy is very much counter to national liberation. They are the mass base behind the prison craze. They would be happy to see prisoners rot in their cells. It's not higher pay for prisoners that they want, it's higher pay for their class that the labor aristocracy wants. On the other hand, the prison movement is intricately tied up in the anti-colonial battle, by the very nature of prisons. And to move the needle towards real progress for humynity, we must reinforce this tie in all of our work. This means we can't allow the labor aristocracy to co-opt battles for prisoner workers' rights and wages.
While U.$. caselaw does not recognize prisoners as employees, there continue to be new lawsuits and arguments being made to challenge prison labor in various ways.(6) We see these challenges to certain aspects of the law on unpaid labor as reformist battles, unlikely to have much bearing on the future of the prison movement. It is unlikely the courts will see prison maintenance as labor requiring minimum wage protection. So if changes are made in the law, we expect them to be very marginal in scope, or to actually encourage more private employment. In contrast, the mass mobilizations that have focused on pay, among other issues, are advancing the struggle for prisoner humyn rights by organizing the masses in collective action.(7)
While half of prisoners work in some form, about half of them aren't paid. And this is because an income from work is not a condition of survival when food, clothes and shelter are provided by the state. However, we have noticed a trend (at least anecdotally) towards charging people for different aspects of their own incarceration. The narrowly-focused movement to amend the 13th Amendment could have the consequence of expanding such charges, and actually making it affordable for the state to imprison more people because they are paying for their own needs. While we concluded in ULK 60 that there has not been a strong decrease in imprisonment in response to the 2008 financial crisis, the rates have certainly stagnated, indicating that we may be bumping up against financial limitations.(8) A scenario like the above could undermine these financial limitations, unless they are accompanied by laws prohibiting the garnishing of prisoner wages.
The delinking of Third World countries from the U.$. empire will create more economic crisis as wealth flow from those countries to this one will decrease. This would create more incentive for forced labor in prisons that is productive, providing value for the rest of Amerikans. This is what occurred in Nazi Germany, and could occur in a future fascist scenario here. While we can definitively say the last prison surge was not driven by profits, that doesn't mean it couldn't happen. And if it did, it would be a very dangerous thing. On that we agree with the mass sentiment opposed to prison labor. But to date, in this country, it's been more expedient to exploit value from elsewhere. Even the convict leasing of the late 1800s was the vestiges of an out-dated system of exploitation that was eventually abandoned.
Very few prisoners in the United $tates are close to the means of production. Therefore it is not the role of the prison movement to seize the means of production, as it is for the proletariat. It is our role to build independent institutions of the oppressed. And this has often meant seizing institutions like churches, schools and even prisons in the examples of Attica and Walpole. Ultimately, such acts must build support for larger movements for national liberation. Prisoners have an important role to play in these movements because they are one of the most oppressed segments of the internal semi-colonies. But they cannot achieve liberation alone.
05/05/2017 — I don't know what prisons people are talking about when they say that they don't make a profit, because here the furniture factory is almost all profit. The wood is donated from the free world on a tax write off, they buy glue, paint, nails, etc. And the state pays the guards. The electricity is paid on a scale. They pay a set price no matter how much they use because they couldn't afford to pay for all that they use.
The bus shop where they rebuild buses in the free world is almost all profit because the freeworld people pay $5 to bring it in to get fixed. They pay only for materials and the prison furnishes free labor.
We have thousands of acres of land where we grow our own food plus prisons ship stuff back and forth to other prisons. We have hogs, chickens, cows and slaughter houses so our prisons in Texas are pretty self-sufficient in food. So cost is the guards, the rest is profit here in Texas. The little things like fuel, tractors and such is cost which they are all paid for.
Here's some more examples from Prison Legal News:
"Rep Alan Powell of Georgia says the state gets better results out of a prisoner in 12 months hard labor than sitting in a cell. If the tax payers pay to build roads or pick up trash, they let the prisoners do it. In keeping with that philosophy, Georgia's Department of Transportation is using parole violators to clean up trash on highways statewide. It costs the department millions of dollars every year to pick up litter along Georgia's 20,000 miles of state and federal roads. ...
"In October 2011, Camden County, Georgia considered a proposal to place two prisoners in each of the county’s three firehouses. The prisoners would respond to calls alongside firefighters, who would be responsible for supervising them. It was hoped that using prisoners convicted of non-violent offenses rather than hiring more firemen would save the county $500,000 annually. The prisoners would not receive any pay but would be eligible to be hired as firefighters five years after their release...."
"In Washington, with a $1.5 billion apple crop at risk, state officials ordered prisoners into the orchards in November 2011."
I've been to prison 7 times in 4 states and I have 20 years done. I'm on this side where you can actually see this kind of stuff happening from day to day. They do illegal stuff all the time to cover up stuff, and freeworld people never hear this because they try to keep it all on this side of the fence.
"Colorado has used prison labor on private farms since 2005, when the state enacted stricter immigration laws. Around 100 female prisoners from La Vista Correctional Facility are employed weeding, picking and packing onions and pumpkins under the supervision of prison guards. The prisoners receive $9.60 an hour, of which about $5.60 goes to the state. At least 10 Colorado farmers use prison labor....
"In Arizona, Wilcox-based Eurofresh Farms employs around 400 prisoners through an Arizona Corrections Industries program. The prisoners are paid close to minimum wage. ...
"Florida is another state that has put its prisoners to work on farms, including a program that began in 2009 which uses work crews from the Berrydale Forestry Camp on a 650-acre publicly-funded farm at the University of Florida’s West Florida Research and Education Center. The prisoners grow collards, cabbage and turnips in the winter, while the spring crop yields snap peas, corn and tomatoes.
"The arrangement provides the University with agricultural research and supplies vegetables for prisoners’ meals. In 2010 the farm program resulted in $192,000 in food cost savings at the prison and saved the University $75,000 money that otherwise would have been spent on paid staff."
MIM(Prisons) responds: This letter is interesting in that it provides an array of examples of what prisoners are doing in their jobs. Just looking at agriculture, the examples from Texas and Florida involve prisoners producing of the food they eat. This is not economic exploitation. But what are the conditions that they have to work under? We would support prisoners fighting for proper sun protection and water breaks at such a job, but do not see a good economic reason to oppose working to produce food for one's own population.
In the other scenarios, the prisoners are producing food for private companies, who are profiting off the sale of their product. In the Colorado example prisoners are being "paid" $9.60, which is well over the U.$. minimum wage, and well over the global average value of labor.(2) So if the prisoner actually received all that money, ey would be participating in the exploitation of the Third World proletariat, receiving superwages. This becomes more true when you consider that the prisoner has food and housing provided.
In reality, the Colorado prisoners receive less than half of the wage, which is less than minimum wage. Arizona prisoners also receive minimum wage. This puts them near the average value of labor. If they were paid, say, $2 per hour, then we could say they are clearly making less than the average value of their labor and being economically exploited.
By virtue of being in the heart of empire, we are all benefiting from the economic system of imperialism. Even to some extent most U.$. prisoners are better off, compared to life in the Third World. It is this reality that makes battles over wages and labor organizing in general rarely a progressive battle in this country. It is only when talking about populations who do not enjoy full citizenship rights, such as prisoners and migrants, that we can even consider progressive wage battles.
Seven out of every ten parolees will be arrested sometime after their release. Nearly half will return to prison someday. The plague of recidivism hangs over every releasee's future like the scythe of the grim reaper coming to cut short their potential beyond the concrete walls, iron bars, and razor-wire of the perpetually proliferating injustice system. The very dehumanizing experience of imprisonment itself plays a significant role in criminal conditioning. For many, it is the influencing factor of imprisonment that detrimentally affects them the greatest. Many learn from those mistakes of their past and some don't. For those with the ability to endure the physical and psychological terrors of "doing time," the lack of skills acquired leaves them with few options other than crime for economic survival after release and leaves the parole board wondering whether or not it made the right decision in granting parole in the first place.
More often than not, it is overlooked as to what may have led to someone's imprisonment and what may be done to help them overcome the struggles or obstacles in their path and in order for them to have a successful reintegration into society. The feeling of defeat is often a temporary condition, but there is never a better measure of what a person is than when they're absolutely free to choose. Removing the individual's choice leads to a lack of inspiration and motivation to overcome one's struggles, and they eventually give up hope. Giving up is what makes the temporary condition of defeat permanent. Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is; treat a man as he can and should be, and he will become as he can and should be.
In prisons the use of manual labor is considered by several states to be rehabilitative for those given the duty of performing labor that could be done by an advancement in technology through farming equipment. In all actuality, this manual labor is of no use to the prisoner and further hinders true rehabilitation. More money is put into prisons, county jails, and other state penal institutions than there is put into the actual rehabilitation of the prisoners. The addition of more educational programs throughout the state penal institutions would serve a greater good and present people with more opportunities for a successful reintegration into society. "Hoe squad" and "regional maintenance" are a hindrance to the efforts to rehabilitate criminal behavior and thinking modification efforts of the individual prisoners.
Forcing a prisoner to perform such tasks of manual farming and regional clean-up to replace that of existing farm equipment and jobs that are the responsibility of our city labor forces, and without an incentive for possible job placement upon release, serves no greater purpose to the individual prisoner and proves to be more dehumanizing than rehabilitative. It has been declared by many that we can change our circumstances by a mere change of our attitudes, but when placed under duress with no choice in the matter there becomes no room for progress. In regards to rehabilitation, it should and must be the objective of our state government and legislature to seek out better avenues by which to lower our states' recidivism rates, and use education as an avenue by which to rehabilitate our states' prisoners. The person everyone wants returning to their community is an educated, empowered taxpayer who has the skills to help make our society safe and healthy.
As an ex-convict, I understand the limitations placed on our states' prison populations by the use of "hoe squad" and "regional maintenance" as a form of rehabilitation. The value of post-secondary correctional education programs prove to be very beneficial. As this article is written, I am in progress of putting together business plans for an outreach program entitled "A New Leaf Outreach Program" aka "My Brothers' Place" that will serve as an avenue by which convicts / ex-convicts and parolees / probationers, as well as the community, may come together and organize our knowledge — not denying one another the opportunity to teach what we know and learn what we may not know — and bring about a solution to our society's problems.
One may choose to be a part of the problem or choose to be a part of the solution. Regardless of one's past mistakes, one always chooses to be a part of the solution. Once you are challenged, you find something in yourself. Adversity causes some men to break, others to break records. Success is based upon how one rises above his defeats.
MIM(Prisons) responds: This writer explains well the importance of education for prisoners and the uselessness of many of the "jobs" programs that currently exist. This failure of the work programs is specific to the criminal injustice system that seeks to control populations rather than educate and rehabilitate.
In communist China under Mao we have examples of prisons where people were sent for genuine rehabilitation and education. These prisons integrated work programs for the prisoners, to help them contribute productive labor to society and learn skills they might use on the outside. When prisoners were released in China it was after undergoing intensive education, which included reading many books and discussing these books with others. This process of study and criticism/self-criticism helped them see why their actions that harmed other people were wrong, and giving them a sense of purpose to their lives that did not involve harming others.
All of this occurred within the greater context of a society where everyone was given a role, and expected to participate in transforming society. We can't expect the imperialists to implement such a progressive system because it would be counter to their use of prisons for social control and impossible in a capitalist dog-eat-dog society. But we can, as this writer says, build together to be part of the solution. We can build our own educational programs, study groups, and organizations independent of the oppressor. This is our job right now, as we build to ultimately take down this corrupt and unjust system.