On Sale Now: Prison Labor

prisoners haul bags through a field
Andrew Lichtenstein / Getty Images

Every day, incarcerated and detained people in both US government and private prisons perform labor during their sentences, with few exceptions. Many provide services for the prison itself, such as cooking, laundry, and maintenance tasks, while others make goods or provide services for the government or private companies. The prisoners and organizations that advocate on their behalf say they’re being forced to work in intolerable conditions for virtually zero pay.

While there may be some benefits for prisoners who work while incarcerated, the prison system strips many of these workers of their fundamental rights. 

Header photo caption: Prisoners from the Jim Ferguson Unit, a state-owned prison in Midway, TX, bring in the harvest from the prison’s cotton fields. A former slave plantation, the Ferguson Unit is a maximum-security prison and a working farmAndrew Lichtenstein / Getty Images

A History of Exploiting Prisoners

The use of prisoner labor has roots that go back to the system of slavery in the US. Passed three years after the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in Confederate states after the Civil War, the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution outlawed any continuance of slavery, “except for punishment of a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

The amendment created an incentive for the South to criminalize more people to replace the now-freed slaves on whose backs their entire economy once rested, say experts. Their main target: recently emancipated African Americans. 

The exploitation and dehumanization of antebellum slaves and modern-day prison workers aren’t that far apart, says Ashley Ragus, a member of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), a subgroup of the Industrial Workers of the World, one of the only labor unions fighting for incarcerated worker rights. 

“Imprisonment is total confinement, surveillance, loss of true physical autonomy, and lack of adequate food, shelter, and education within a completely toxic environment,” says Ragus, who was motivated to become involved in IWOC in part because she had an incarcerated parent. Ragus also notes, “slavery is not just about labor—it’s the total dehumanization and social isolation of an entire class of people.”  That kind of dehumanization continues to happen today to prison workers, she says. 

Cutting Costs with Prison Labor

In the US, many prisoners are assigned to labor programs run by either the local, state, or federal government, or by a private prison operator, the two largest being Core Civic (once known as Corrections Corporations of America) and GEO Group. Private prison operators are for-profit companies that receive government contracts to run prisons.

prison laborer working on the side of the road
Inmates on the Gwinnett County, GA, work crew cut grass at a park. The prison inmate labor program has saved the county millions in labor costs. Johnny Crawford / Associated Press

Public prisons, private prisons, and private companies lean on inmate labor as a cost-saving measure. Prisoners do not have the right to a minimum wage. The average wage for incarcerated workers is 86 cents an hour, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, and some prisons forgo a wage altogether.  

In federal prisons, incarcerated workers often produce goods including clothing, military garb, foods, electronics, and office furniture, or provide services like call-center staffing and warehousing through the UNICOR federal prison labor program, under the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Workers in private prisons often provide specialized industry services including electrical wiring, masonry, carpentry, and plumbing, which are hired out to other companies. But the bulk of the work inmates do in both types of prisons is in maintaining the prison itself, working as janitors and cooks, or doing laundry.

In 1979, Congress implemented the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification program (PIECP), which allows local and state prisoners to participate in work programs in the private sector. For the businesses involved in PIECP, the competitively cheap cost of inmate labor provides an enticing draw. Companies like Walmart, Victoria’s Secret, and Whole Foods have been outed by activists in recent years for ties to prison labor, which produces goods at a much lower rate than minimum-wage workers earn. 

Workers Without Rights

Incarcerated workers do not possess the same rights as non-incarcerated employees—and often suffer for it, according to nonprofits like the Prison Policy Initiative and Enlace. For example, prisoners do not have the right to unionize. Incarcerated workers don’t receive sick leave, nor do they have a human resources department to address concerns. 

Their working and overall conditions often leave a lot to be desired, as well. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2018, prisoners at eight Florida state prisons, operated by the Florida Department of Corrections, participated in a work stoppage known as Operation PUSH, in which incarcerated workers, who provide cooking, cleaning, and maintenance services in Florida prisons, protested longstanding grievances. Specifically, the prisoners called for payment for their labor, “rather than the current slave arrangement,” where they only receive a small amount of time deducted from their sentences. They also called for an end to “outrageous canteen prices,” noting that a $4 case of soup costs $17 in the canteen, a fact made more poignant when contrasted with their lack of earnings. 

“This is highway robbery without a gun. It’s not just us that they’re taking from. It’s our families who struggle to make ends meet and send us money—they are the real victims that the state of Florida is taking advantage of,” a group of prisoners said in a statement released by IWOC. “By sitting down and doing nothing, each institution will have the responsibility of feeding, cleaning, and all the maintenance. Do the math.”

The prisoners also called for an end to overcrowding and prison officer brutality, as well as to executions on death row. They also drew attention to the environmental conditions Florida prisoners face, “including extreme temperatures, mold, contaminated water, and being placed next to toxic sites such as landfills, military bases, and phosphate mines.”

Later in January, IWOC led a telephone and #OperationPUSH social media campaign in support of the strike, pressuring the Florida Department of Corrections to release an inmate pegged as an Operation PUSH leader from a freezing cell where he was being held in solitary confinement.

In fact, too often, incarcerated workers are forced to work under looming threats of solitary confinement and lost good behavior time, according to the Global Research Centre.

In addition, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which mandates that employers provide a workplace free from recognized hazards, does not cover federal and state prisoners. In 2010, a four-year investigation led by the Justice Department Inspector General found that incarcerated workers at ten federal prisons were exposed to toxic lead and cadmium while processing electronic waste. The New York Times reported that the investigation was prompted by complaints that the work made prisoners sick. 

Conditions like these, compounded with the fact that almost 600 US federal and state prisons are located within three miles of EPA Superfund Sites, make prisons dangerous places to work.

While prison labor programs can provide inmates with job skills and training, IWOC’s Ashley Ragus says, “It’s the low pay, exorbitant commissary pricing, forced restitution withholdings from prisoner paychecks, and arbitrary punitive measures within the prisons that make prison labor a problem.”

Private Prisons: Worst of All?

Private prisons hold eight percent of the US imprisoned population. To win contracts from the government, private prison companies offer their services for a cheaper price than what the government would pay to operate their own facilities. The inmates and staff who work in private prisons pay the biggest price, as cheaper costs usually means poorer safety and health standards. 

A 2016 report from the Justice Department found that private prisons have more safety and security incidents per capita than federal institutions. 

Unlike government prisons, private prisons are driven to increase profits, which gives them a perverse economic incentive to criminalize and incarcerate people, says Jamie Trinkle, research coordinator for Enlace.  

“Private prisons’ entire business model is based on the detention and incarceration and capture of Black and Brown people, and they lobby heavily to promote policies that encourage incarceration,” says Trinkle. 

She notes that cutting corners to save on operating costs also results in poor medical and psychological care for prisoners, human-rights abuses such as overcrowding or poor food and living conditions, and a lack of services that enable incarcerated people to re-enter society.

Undocumented Targets

Private prisons are profiting from the push under the Trump administration to incarcerate increasing numbers of undocumented immigrants. 

In 2010, Arizona passed SB 1070, a law that allowed police to ask anyone whom they suspected was an undocumented immigrant to provide proof of their legal status. SB 1070 targeted hundreds of Latin Americans in Arizona, and those who could not provide documentation were sent to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center—many operated by Core Civic.

“Core Civic ... was involved in the lobbying, promoting, and actual passage of Arizona’s SB 1070 law,” says Trinkle. “Core Civic already had many contracts with ICE for immigrant detention, so [the law] was a way to funnel more people directly into private prisons.”

Likewise, President Trump’s tough immigration policies are expected to increase the number of undocumented immigrants in the US—and thereby, increase the number of people in ICE-contracted detention facilities. 

For example, ICE under the Trump administration has been arresting and locking up those seeking asylum for prolonged periods, a violation of US and international law. In March, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit “to challenge the Trump administration’s arbitrary and illegal incarceration of thousands of asylum seekers who fled persecution, torture, or death in their countries of origin.”

Those in immigration detention centers aren’t immune to worker exploitation. Detained immigrants at an ICE detention facility in Aurora, CO, filed a lawsuit in February against the GEO Group for forcing detainees to clean the facility for free and throwing those who refused in solitary confinement, according to the American Bar Association. Another lawsuit alleged that GEO Group paid some detainees only $1 a day for cooking, laundering, and cleaning jobs.

In 2014, detained workers at the GEO Group-run Tacoma Northwest Detention Center organized a hunger strike to protest their labor conditions. 

“They were being forced to work for a dollar a day or for a candy bar, and if they didn’t work, they were put in solitary confinement,” says Trinkle. 

Divest, Break Up, and Vote

Activists are combating the unfair situation of prison workers through their investments. 

Enlace and other groups are calling for divestment from GEO Group, Core Civic, and the banks that fund them. A 2016 report from In the Public Interest found that six mega-banks are providing the bulk of financing to Core Civic and GEO Group: Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, BNP Paribas, SunTrust, and US Bancorp.

University students have racked up a couple of high-profile wins on this front. The entire University of California (UC) system divested $30 million from private prisons in 2015 in response to campaigns by the Afrikan Black Coalition, a racial-justice student group. The UC system also terminated more than $470 million in contracts with Wells Fargo over its financing of Core Civic in 2017. 

Perhaps the most beneficial part of prison divestment is being able to reinvest in communities, says Trinkle.

In 2016, Black students at California State University–Los Angeles got their school to divest from private prisons, and they also got the system to reinvest in Black students. 

“The Black Student Union there won prison divestment and immediately also got the promise of investment in retention and recruitment of Black scholars, a housing unit, as well as money for the multicultural center and psychological services for Black students,” says Trinkle. “That’s what we need to see, divestment as well as ties to concrete reinvestment in communities that are the most harmed by criminalization.”

Those wishing to divest from companies with prison labor in their supply chains will find it’s not always easy to tell which companies are involved. Even the research team at NorthStar Asset Management was shocked to discover via news reports that the socially responsible investments it made on behalf of clients included prison labor. 

“We pride ourselves on in-depth research to screen out a variety of exploitive companies and industries, yet when news broke that Whole Foods (a company in our portfolio at the time) had sourced products from suppliers using prison labor, we knew we needed to try to map exactly where prison labor might show up in the supply chains of our investee companies,” says NorthStar’s director of shareholder activism and engagement, Mari Schwartzer. 

Schwartzer notes that many companies do not have a clear picture of how they may be linked to inmate labor through suppliers, leaving them vulnerable to “an oncoming storm of bad press,” as happened with Whole Foods. 

Shortly after the news of the company’s ties to prison labor broke in 2015, consumers called for a boycott, and Whole Foods soon announced it would end its partnership with Colorado Correctional Industries. 

Schwartzer says that the company missed an opportunity to engage with suppliers on this issue: “We believe that Whole Foods could have advocated for improvements in the wages, working conditions, and benefits (such as job placement upon release) of the inmates.”

The Whole Foods news launched NorthStar into an investigation of the presence of prison labor in company supply chains. The resulting report, Prison Labor in the United States: An Investor Perspective, provides advice to help institutional investors avoid unwittingly supporting businesses using prison laborers. For individuals, the report recommends getting involved in shareholder advocacy. 

NorthStar filed one of the first shareholder proposals around prison labor this spring, asking Costco to “identify sources of prison labor in its supply chain and create a set of supplier guidelines for the use of prison labor.” The proposal received 4.8 percent of the shareholder vote, which Schwartzer calls “encouraging,” as it meets the threshold needed for NorthStar to refile the resolution next year.

NorthStar also filed a similar resolution at TJX, which owns TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and Home Goods. The TJX vote will occur on June 5th, as this issue of the Green American goes out to our members.

Schwartzer says NorthStar will continue to engage companies on prison labor: “Ethically, we are deeply concerned” about this issue, she says. From a financial perspective, she notes that “brands like Walmart, Victoria’s Secret, and Whole Foods have seen backlash and brand-name harm due to their connections to prison labor, and the negative associations can linger long-term.” 

Stop prisoner exploitation

The following action steps can help pressure prisons to stop exploiting incarcerated workers: 

  • Divest: Enlace is calling for divestment from GEO Group and Core Civic private-prison companies, as well as the six mega-banks that fund them: Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, BNP Paribas, SunTrust, and US Bancorp.
  • Break up with your mega-bank: Even if you don’t bank with one of the six banks, above, breaking up with your mega-bank and moving your money to a community development bank or credit union helps build communities. 
  • Vote: Look for shareholder resolutions on prison labor in 2019, and vote in support of them if you hold stock in the targeted companies. Also, ask political candidates about their stands on prison labor as you prepare to vote in the midterm elections. 
From Green American Magazine Issue