Where the jobs are
March 1997

Private prison companies have been predictably enthusiastic about the booming market for convict labor. Between 1980 and 1994 the value of goods produced by prisoners rose from $392 million to $1.31 billion. Inmates now make articles such as clothes car parts, computer components, shoes, golf balls, soap, and furniture, in addition to staffing jailhouse telemarketing, data entry and print shop operations. Some states are assigning inmates to institutions after matching up their job skills with a prison s labor needs.

Prisoners at state-run institutions generally receive the minimum wage though in some states, such as Colorado, wages fall to as low as $2 per hour (workers receive only about 20 per cent of that amount, with the rest going to pay room and board, victims compensation programs and other fees). As an added bonus, companies that employ prison labor have no need to offer benefits, vacation days or sick time to employees and many states offer such firms tax breaks and other advantages as well.

Lured by such enticements, many big firms have moved eagerly into the prison-industrial complex. Trans World Airlines pays prison workers $5 per hour to book reservations by phone, less than a third of the rate it previously paid to its own employees. The United Auto Workers succeeded in shutting down a program at an Ohio prison where the Weastec corporation was paying prisoners $2.05 per hour to assemble parts for Honda cars.

For businesses the deal is even sweeter at private prisons when pay rates can be as low as 17 cents per hour for a six hour maximum day, which translates into a monthly pay check of about $20. The maximum pay scale at a CCA prison [Correction Corporation of America] in Tennessee is 50 cents an hour for what are classified as highly skilled positions. Given such rates it is not surprising that a prisoner there complained about the relative generosity of publicly-run programs saying, "At federal prisons you can take home $1.25 per hour and work eight hour days sometimes even double shifts. A two, three or four hundred dollars a month check isn't unusual in the federal."

Thanks to prison labor, America is again attracting the sorts of jobs that were formerly available only to workers of the Third World. A US company operating in Mexico's maquiladora zone shut down its data processing shop and moved it to the San Quentin State Prison in California. A Texas factory booted 150 workers and set up shop at a privately-run prison in Lockhart, Texas, where worker/inmates assemble circuit boards for companies including IBM and Compaq. Oregon State Rep. Kevin Mannix has even encouraged Nike to shift production from Indonesia to his home state, saying the shoemaker should "take a look at transportation and labor costs. We could offer competitive prison labor [here]."

Reprinted from CounterPunch, Vol. 4, No. 1, January 1#15, 1997. P.O. Box 18675, Washington, DC 20036.

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