Did you know that prisoners have to work too? That’s right. But unlike a regular job, they have little choice about it. They get paid a pittance (sometimes none at all), but they can’t complain or quit. Plus, workplace safety regulations can range from questionable to non-existent.
While this is very unfortunate for inmates, the same cannot be said for companies that benefit from cheap prison labor. Prison advocacy groups estimate that the prison labor industry is now worth a billion dollars. Apart from private companies, the government earns from it too. In fact, some states rely on income from prison labor so much that they publicly advertise it. They’ve got brochures, tarpaulins, billboards, and even websites. These abuses have caused a widespread calling out of companies that use prison labor.
Inmate jobs can vary depending on the facility and the labor needs of the company contracting their services. It can range from making vehicle plates sewing dresses to selling cattle. Some prisons would even send their prisoners out for construction work. (Related: The Problem With Private Prison Systems in the US)
HISTORY OF PRISON LABOR
Because of their oppressive nature, prison advocacy groups dubbed prison labor as a type of modern slavery. To this, we disagree. Prison labor is slavery, but it’s not a contemporary issue. Its roots go all the way back to the civil war era.
We all know that slavery sparked the American civil war. After it got abolished at the end of the war, labor was in short supply. Prisoners, however, were in abundance. So a system of “hiring out” prisoners was introduced, which is obviously just another form of slavery.
Freed slaves often get arrested for not carrying out their sharecropping commitments. Others were charged with petty thievery and sent to prison even without proper evidence. These slaves-turned-prisoners were then “hired out” to work in cotton plantations, coal mines, and railroads. In Mississippi, prison farms replaced slave plantations, and some of them existed until the 1970s.
IS PRISON LABOR LEGAL?
Even though the 13th Amendment prohibited slavery back in 1865, it did not get entirely abolished. This amendment also provides that the government can use it as punishment for crimes, provided that there’s a conviction. Thus, prison labor is (unfortunately) very much legal, according to our Constitution.
Although in November 2018, Colorado’s voting public decided to do away with slavery completely. 65% of the voters were in favor of abolishing slavery in all forms, including forced labor of convicted criminals. But Colorado is not the only state with a constitution that allows slavery as a form of criminal punishment. Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin (to name a few) also allow such practice under their constitutions.
COMPANIES PROFITING OFF PRISON LABOR
Prison advocacy groups blame prison labor as one of the contributing factors to a burgeoning prison population. Prison labor has become prevalent in many private companies that even several multinational companies have joined the bandwagon. The industry’s regular clients include silicon valley firms, fast-food chains, and even lingerie makers.
Until now, only a few companies have admitted to taking advantage of prison labor. Here are some companies that have profited off cheap prison labor:
- Whole Foods – This organic supermarket buys artisan cheeses and fishes from companies that employ inmates.
- McDonald’s – Certain McDonald store items such as cutlery and containers were made in prison. Prisoners also sew their employee uniforms, and they only make a few cents an hour from it.
- Target – Since the early 2000s, Target has relied on suppliers that are known to use prison labor.
- IBM – Apparently, inmates from Lockhart Prison in Texas manufacture this tech giant’s circuit boards.
- Texas Instruments – Like IBM, their circuit boards are also made by prisoners. They even got a new factory assembly room specially made for inmate laborers.
- Boeing – A subcontractor of Boeing was found to have used inmates to cut airplane components. Unsurprisingly, the prisoners only get paid less than a quarter of the usual wage for such type of work.
- Nordstrom – The company was once under fire for selling jeans made by inmates. They have since stopped the practice though, and have promised not to use involuntary labor of any kind again.
- Intel – Like other tech giants in this list, Intel has also outsourced labor from prison. Some of their computer parts were made in a prison manufacturing facility.
- Walmart – Despite pledging not to sell products made by prisoners, some of the retail giant’s subcontractors were using prison labor to dispose of customer returns and excess inventory.
- Victoria’s Secret – The top American underwear designer was paying inmates peanuts to make their expensive lingerie.
- AT&T – Rather than outsource their call centers to other English-speaking countries, AT&T hired prisoners instead. The problem is, they only receive $2 an hour for a job that usually pays $15.
- British Petroleum (BP) – In 2010, BP hired Louisiana inmates to clean up an oil spill. They received no payment from it.
- Starbucks – We all know that Starbucks employees make little hourly. But the prisoners who make the packaged coffee sold in their stores make even much less money. They only receive as little as 23 cents an hour.
- Microsoft – In the 1990s, Microsoft made a conscious decision to hire prisoners to pack their software and mouse. A spokesperson at that time even claimed that the company sees nothing wrong about it.
- Honda Motor Company – The Japanese car company hires inmates from Ohio Mansfield Correctional Institution to make some of its car parts. As expected, the company paid them next to nothing.
- Macy’s – Like Walmart and Target, this retail giant also uses prison labor to save on its operating costs.
- Sprint – Following the footsteps of its competitor, AT&T, Sprint also staffs its call centers with underpaid inmates.
- Nintendo – To pack their Game Boys, Nintendo hired a subcontractor who, in turn, hires prisoners at deplorable rates.
- JC Penney – Since the 90s, JC Penney has used prison labor for its clothing line. Female inmates used to sew leisurewear sold in their stores, and more recently, prisoners from Tennessee are making jeans for them.
- Wendy’s – As part of its cost-cutting measures, Wendy’s uses prison labor to process beef for their hamburgers.
HOW DO WE STOP PRISON LABOR?
Over the past few years, various prison reform organizations have tried to lobby for the eradication of prison labor. Even the inmates themselves resisted what they viewed as a modern form of slavery. Some prisons also send inmates isolation for speaking up against it. (Related: The Best and Worst Prisons in the US)
In August 2018, inmates launched a nationwide strike across the country. It was dubbed as one of the largest protests of incarcerated men and women in US history. Some inmates did a hunger strike while others refused to report to work assignments. In several facilities, inmates are boycotting in-prison commissary stores.
Whether or not you know someone in prison, we can all agree that prison labor violates the moral fiber of democracy, which is the foundation of this country. Therefore, it needs to be stopped immediately. As an outside observer, there is still a lot you can do to stop prison labor. You can start by calling out companies that use prison labor to increase their profits. Stop patronizing their products and spread this information so your friends and family can be made aware of it too. Together, we can help stop prison labor and end slavery in our country once and for all.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Judy Ponio is a firm believer in the power of sharing knowledge. Having extensive experience in the prison industry, she wants to share what she knows with the world. Judy also loves to write about political and legal topics.