From Fires to Phone Lines: People in Prison Deserve Workers' Rights and Much More

The wildfires in California over the past few months have once more highlighted the issue of prison labor, and the injustices faced by people locked up. As the wildfires dominated headlines, mainstream media also covered the role incarcerated people play in fighting fires. The Atlantic published a piece describing the history of people in prison serving as firefighters, and outlets like Newsweek, the Daily Beast, and CNN highlighted the issue as well.

Shortly before this renewed national media attention to prison labor, Louisiana’s Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator sparked the media’s attention to the issue, as well. On October 6, 2017, he spoke at a press conference on the subject of recent changes to the state’s sentencing and parole laws which will begin the process of releasing people from the state’s overcrowded prisons. With candor, he said what a lot of policymakers and corporate interests were probably already thinking: "In addition to the bad ones—in addition to them—they are releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change the oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchen—to do all that where we save money.”

His comments drew fire, bringing our attention to the fact that close to 1 million Americans are working under conditions that amount to slavery.

People in private, state and federal prisons fight wildfires, manufacture products, and even staff call centers. They often work for less than a dollar per hour and face revocation of privileges, or worse if they refuse, and serious crackdown if they strike. Contrary to how this situation might be spun in the media (prison labor projects reduce recidivism, people in prison want to work, etc.), the prison labor industry is driven by the profit motive, plain and simple.

Prison labor is a multi-billion dollar industry. California’s programs expect to generate $232 million this year. Entire factories, such as Anderson Flooring, set up shop inside prison walls. Prison labor is some of the cheapest to be found. The harmless-sounding Unicor, a prison labor program, offers businesses all the benefits of an American workforce without the drawbacks of dealing with unions or labor regulations. “Imagine...” reads its website copy:  “All the benefits of domestic outsourcing at offshore prices. It's the best kept secret in outsourcing!” They even have a term for it: reshoring. Welcome to the new American slave economy, re-branded for the 21st century.

More than a century ago, slavery was an intrinsic part of our nation’s economy. Today, it continues to be guaranteed by the United States Constitution. The 13th Amendment bans slavery and indentured servitude “except as a punishment for a crime.”

As Sheriff Prator’s comments reveal, prison labor has not only created a system of exploitation, it has also created a profit motive for keeping people locked up. In addition to making sure that people in prison have the same workers’ rights as everyone else, more systemic change is needed. We must also consider how to change the criminal justice system in a fundamental way so that we are not disproportionately locking up people of color and low-income people, and then continuing to exploit them once they are behind bars.

On the anniversary of the 1971 Attica strike, September 9, 2016, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) organized a prison strike in which thousands of workers participated in work stoppages, marches and hunger strikes across as many as 29 prisons. Media coverage of the strike was spotty (and hard numbers about participation in the strike were difficult to pin down), in part due to the challenges of reporting on life inside.

Heather Ann Thompson, a professor of Afro-American and African Studies and History at the University of Michigan and the author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy, points out that the strongest weapon is visibility. Which is why, ironically, Sheriff Prator’s remarks may have worked in our favor. Before his remarks, a Google search on “prison labor” yielded articles from a few years ago. Now, more and more reporters are digging into the issues and calling for reform. As Thompson puts it: “The reason why we know what happened in Attica and the reason that it lives on is that people on the outside—the media, allies, activists—just kept at it… The public has a right to know what is going on in these institutions... And the more the media keeps pushing, the more we will know. And lawyers need to be showing up and protecting these guys. We need that same effort today, because without it, prisoners are extraordinarily vulnerable to whatever the state chooses to do with them.”

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Lorraine Lupo is an active member of the Ella Baker Center and guest blog contributor.