Part 1 of 3 documentary, about 10 minutes.

Pull one thread, and you begin unravelling the whole fabric of our society: unsavory preoccupation with crime and increasing demand for punishment, but ignorance of the root causes of crime and the goals of punishment; satisfaction with image over substance, sound bites over complexity; lip service to American ideals and simultaneous repudiation of the realities of democracy. The economic reality is that we are working harder and harder for less and less, and the psychological reality is that we are accepting this, because we can still see the grass when we look through the bars on our windows.

-Karen Miller

Two and one half million Americans, or one out of every one hundred adults, is incarcerated today. Most of these inmates are War on Drugs non-violent offenders. Why does this country hold 25% of the world’s prisoners? Mike Elk on Democracy Now! explains that ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council is, in large part, responsible.

The name of the game here is to lock up as many people as possible for as long as possible, and use them for free corporate labor, and the game is being played out in ever-increasing prison and jail privatization coupled with inmate production of product that can be sold locally and globally. Profits are huge because slave labor is essentially free. The breaded chicken patty that your child eats at school may have been produced by an inmate that received as little as twenty cents a day.

At first blush, inmates working seems like a great idea. When I found work in jail for sixty-three cents a day I was ecstatic; the dollar a day in prison was better than my wildest dreams. I was shocked to learn, however, that no jail or prison employer was allowed to vouch for my skills or work habits upon release. I was not allowed to list a single name. Without being able to list a single reference on any job application upon release, I have found it impossible to get work.

The idea that working inmates will take their learned skills and walk into the sunset of contributing to society in a dream job on release is absurd. At the very least, we need some legislation that allows jail and prison supervisors or employers to be references on a released inmate’s job applications.

The ‘privatize-prisons-for-the-free-labor’ people are not interested in an inmate’s success upon release. They could care less. Instead, they are busy designing and cultivating a free workforce that repopulates itself. They are interested in repeat offenders and longer sentences, because repeat offenders with longer sentences, particularly those of the non-violent offender variety, are profitable.

Non-violent offenders are often locked up for longer than violent offenders. Why is that? Why are predators roaming the streets in increasing numbers, while rolling paper people are serving twenty, thirty years in jails and prisons? It is because the profiteers are not at all interested in reducing violent crime. They are interested in increasing their offshore bank accounts. Anecdotally, I am right. Examples I can personally cite include at least two people who killed someone while driving intoxicated, a gun-point bank robber, a knife-point cab driver robber, a married couple that admitted to killing their child, and a woman that participated in a murder, followed by having sex with, cutting the baby out of, and then burning and hiding the corpse, several others who ran over someone drunk and then drove around with blood on their bumper evading police: these people are all free today, while many nonviolent war on drugs inmates, myself included, remain incarcerated or on supervision.

Non-violent inmates make for versatile workers and so, from a profit standpoint, it makes sense to pack the new slave labor force with as many non-violent people as you can for as long as you can. Violent people cannot, for example, fulfill Scott Walker’s dream, which is to displace union workers on the outside, and replace them with non-union inmates that can mow lawns and perform landscaping for free. In Walker’s world, little annoyances like workplace inspections, acceptable conditions, reasonable hours and would be eliminated. And the best part? Inmates can make new jails and prisons for more inmates! No need to bother with unionized trade workers with families to support, right?

Historically, beginning in the Depression, inmate-produced products could not be used for profit. JFK’s rocking chair, for example, was made in Leavenworth during such a time.

All of this is changing.

I think inmate work that is ethically motivated and designed, so that inmates can become self-supporting through their own contributions upon release, is a great idea. Here in Kentucky, for example, inmates translate Braille and train service dogs. Inmates are well suited to train service dogs because such training is round-the-clock work. But when the process is exploitative and the true underlying motives are profit-driven, it is nothing more than a way to replace immigrant labor with a labor force on the inside, making things for the outside, and it has absolutely nothing to do with correction, rehabilitation or reducing crime. It is yet another borderline criminal enterprise cloaked in the guise of greater good. Are we really bringing slavery back? Sneaking in a little slavery that no one notices at first because the slaves are part of a secret society that is out of sight and out of mind?

In case you are interested, here is a partial list of companies that use prison labor.

BOEING, COMPAQ, Texas Instrument, Honeywell, Microsoft, DELL, Starbucks, Motorola, Nintendo, Forever 21, Planet Hollywood, Eddie Bauer, Victoria’s Secret, HP , Toys R Us, Konica, Chevron, IBM, and Trans World Airlines.

References and related articles:

Mike Elk’s excellent interview on Democracy Now!

The Karen Miller article with excellent analysis and history.

The list of companies is in this article


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