Both Red and Blue States Rely on Prison Labor

(Photo: AP/Jae C. Hong)

Inmate firefighters cut down trees along the Highway 29 as wildfires continue to burn Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017, near Calistoga, California. 

Earlier this month, Steve Prator, who heads the sheriff’s office in Caddo Parrish, one of the largest in Louisiana, held a press conference in which he bemoaned the state’s newly passed prison reforms, which could reduce the inmate population by as much as 10 percent by gradually releasing nonviolent offenders who would be eligible for a new early-release program.

Why? Apparently, he didn’t want the parish to lose its captive labor pool.

“That’s the ones you can work,” Prator said of the people who could be soon be let go under the plan. “That’s the ones that can pick up trash, the work release programs. But guess what? Those are the ones [the state is] releasing.” He added, “In addition to the bad [prisoners], they’re releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchens, to do all that where we save money—well, they’re going to let them out.”

His comments drew swift backlash last week after writer Shaun King tweeted out video of Prator’s comments.

Prator’s comments bring into stark relief the ethical and moral problems that arise from states’ ever-increasing reliance on imprisoned laborers, especially as the push to reduce the country’s prison population reaches a fever pitch. About half of the country’s 1.6 million prisoners have some sort of job behind bars. Though prisoners technically volunteer to work many of these jobs, nothing is really voluntary in prison.

“My immediate reaction is what he’s talking about is the economic exploitation of human beings,” Angel Harris of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund told The New York Times. “He’s not opposing these individuals’ release because he’s afraid they will reoffend or because they’ll be a danger to society. He’s opposing it because he’s going to lose good workers. It reeks of the issue of slavery.”

While Prator was unusually blunt about his office’s dependence on exploiting prisoners, Caddo Parish is far from alone in its use of prison labor. Every state relies on inmates to not only make prisons run (for instance, by cooking and cleaning), but to make products and provide services for the state.

“We don’t want prison policy driven by a desire for cheap labor,” David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project,” tells The American Prospect. “When prisoners are used for cheap labor, there’s a risk that our criminal justice policy will be hijacked by desire to grow or maintain this literally captive labor force.”

In Northern California, inmates account for up to 40 percent of the firefighters trying to contain the widespread blaze. Thousands of state prisoners voluntarily work as firefighters, for $2 a day, or $1 an hour while on the fire line, providing the state with an incredibly cheap and accessible workforce to do the hard and dangerous work of combating wildfires.

“The pay is ridiculous,’’ La’Sonya Edwards, 35, told The New York Times reporter Jaime Lowe in August during a break from clearing a fire road. ‘‘There are some days we are worn down to the core,’’ she said. ‘‘And this isn’t that different from slave conditions. We need to get paid more for what we do.’’ As Lowe writes, “Edwards makes about $500 a year in camp, plus whatever she earns while on the fire line, which might add up to a few hundred dollars in a month; the pay for a full-time civilian firefighter starts at about $40,000.”

In 2014, during her tenure as California attorney general, Kamala Harris drew criticism when her top attorneys argued in court that if state prisoners were released early, as federal judges had ordered to reduce overcrowding, the state would be losing a critical labor pool. Moreover, they highlighted the importance of using inmates to fight fires. As Buzzfeed reported, “In a Sept. 30 filing in the case, signed by Deputy Attorney General Patrick McKinney but under Harris' name, the state argued that easing sentences for ‘all minimum custody inmates at this time would severely impact fire camp participation—a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.’”

Harris claimed that she did not know her lawyers were making that argument.

Prisoners make for a cheap, captive, and inherently exploitable workforce. While the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, a clause provides for involuntary servitude for convicted prisoners “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Prisoners can be compelled to work for any—or no—amount of money. They are not covered by state or federal minimum-wage laws, have no rights to unionize through the National Labor Relations Act, and have no right to workers’ compensation should they be injured on the job.

“Most prisoners in my experience want to work, and jobs for prisoners can be a very positive thing,” says Fathi. “But given vast power inequality between prisoners and those they work for and the lack of legal protections, there’s a real potential for exploitation and abuse that we need to be vigilant about.”

As prison populations exploded in recent decades, governments have increasingly relied on prisoners to provide services for the state. Research any state’s prison industries and you’ll find a long list of goods that inmates make for other state agencies—like license plates, furniture, uniforms, and dentures. As Heather Thompson, a University of Michigan professor who studies the history of prison labor, explains, labor unions ensured during the New Deal era that strong regulations on the use of prison labor were put in place, including a ban on selling prison-made goods across state lines.

However, as the prison population began growing in the 1970s, businesses began lobbying to undo many of those regulations. In 1979, Congress enacted a law that for the first time since the 19th century allowed private companies to “lease” prisoners for work.  

Since then, prisoners have increasingly become a cheap source of labor for private companies and a convenient source of revenue for states. “It created a huge opportunity for captive labor,” Thompson says. This situation presents “the worst of scenarios,” according to Thompson, as both state and federal prisons have increased their reliance on inmate labor but are also contracting out prisoners to the private sector at a higher rate.

Anderson Flooring opened a factory at a South Carolina state prison, as have many other manufacturers. Telemarketing companies also began setting shop in prisons, hiring inmates to make calls. Contractors for companies like Victoria’s Secret and Starbucks used inmates to sew lingerie or package coffee beans.  

After the massive BP oil spill in 2010 off the coast of Louisiana, the state with the highest rate of incarceration in the country, the British oil behemoth hired state prisoners, who are predominately black, to do clean-up along the beaches. While the company paid around $10 an hour, prisoners were required to work up to 12 hours a day, six days a week. The back-breaking, risky work exposed inmates to dangerous toxins.

Not only does the public and private sectors’ use of prison labor create a perverse incentive to slow the momentum of prison sentencing reforms, but this push also decreases worker wages, says Thompson. “It doesn’t even matter if jobs go somewhere else; the ability to send them inside prisons dampens wages [and] bring[s] a whole lot of low-wage jobs out of the mainstream economy,” Thompson says. She adds, “Nobody on the inside or outside is making money. That’s why it’s a working-class problem.”

Prison labor can also be used to undercut the power of organized labor. When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, ever the innovator of union-busting tactics, signed a law curbing public-sector unions’ collective-bargaining rights, he also opened the door for prisoners to do work traditionally done by state union workers.

What’s the solution? It’s tricky. Legal challenges are particularly difficult because the 13th Amendment clearly states that free prison labor is constitutional. Even though there’s increased support for removing that language from groups like the American Correctional Association, the leading organization for prison administrators, revising the Constitution is a very long shot.

The ACLU’s Fathi says that since litigation is not the most promising strategy, ultimately, state legislatures need to take action. “Prison administrators can do a lot to ensure better conditions for those who work inside prisons,” Fathi says, “but it’s really up to legislatures to recognize that these people are workers and they can enjoy same protections as other workers.”


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