Using cheap prison labor to build profits

‘What if every person was a factory and generating money; what�s the incentive to cut people loose, to not criminalize and to rehabilitate behavior?’

LOS ANGELES ( – The Prison Industrial Complex is a growing industry comprised of a number of American corporations which develop household and business products, but human rights groups condemn them for netting profits which roll off the backs of prison inmates they claim are unjustly paid cents on the dollar.

At issue, they charge, is a criminal justice system which herds primarily Black youth into the hands of private prison enterprises to work illegally under a modern-day slave system called “involuntary servitude,” disguised as prison work release programs.


According to a 2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, approximately 8 percent of Black males between 25 and 29 were incarcerated in 2005, compared to 2.2 percent Latinos and 1.1 percent Whites. Black males in general accounted for nearly 550,000 of the 1.4 million federal and state prison inmate population, and Black females almost 30,000.

Overall, the 2005 prison labor pool derived from the more than 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S., which included federal, state and territorial prisons; local jails; immigration, customs enforcement and military facilities; Indian Country jails; and juvenile facilities.

Because of this herding, private companies like Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) (New York Stock Exchange symbol: CXW)–one of the nation’s largest prison builders, owners and operators–reaps major benefits. In 2006, CCA earned $1.3 billion and its 2006 Annual Report indicates these numbers will increase based upon the Pew Charitable Trusts’ “Public Safety, Public Spending–Forecasting America’s Prison Population 2007-2011” report, which anticipates that by 2011, federal and state prison populations will climb by more than 192,000 new inmates.

CCA’s 67 facilities are concentrated throughout Texas, Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Georgia, Washington, D.C., Montana, Mississippi, New Jersey, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and Louisiana.

Other companies which utilize prison labor, according to The Mandala Project’s 2001 web posting, “U.S. Prison Labor at Home and Abroad,” include: MicroJet, Nike, Lockhart Technologies, Inc., TWA, Dell Computers, Microsoft, Eddie Bauer, Planet Hollywood, Wilson Sporting Goods, J.C. Penney, Victoria’s Secret, Best Western Hotels, Honda, K-Mart, Target, McDonald’s, Burger King, “Prison Blues” jeans line, New York, New York Hotel/Casino, Imperial Palace Hotel/Casino, “No Fear” Clothing Line, C.M.T. Blues, Konica, Allstate, Merrill Lynch, Shearson Lehman, Louisiana Pacific, Parke-Davis and Upjohn.

In 1934, Congress established the Federal Prison Industries (FPI), trade named UNICOR, to employ and provide job training to inmates within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, requiring those medically able to work for 12 to 40 cents per hour for institution work assignments, and 23 cents to $1.15 for work in UNICOR factories.

In 2005, it generated $765 million in sales from its 106 factories. And as of last September, its highest net sales in electronics at $233.2 million, derived from 3,348 inmate workers throughout Texas, Connecticut, New Jersey, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Tennessee, New York, Wisconsin, Arizona and Minnesota.

UNICOR’s customers include the Department of Defense, General Services Administration, Federal Bureau of Prisons, Social Security Administration, Department of Justice, United States Postal Service, Department of Transportation, Department of the Treasury, Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Minister Abdullah Muhammad, Nation of Islam National Prison Reform Minister, noted that some companies which use prison labor deny released inmates the very jobs that they hold behind bars due to felony convictions, or stigmas of imprisonment. He said that the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan’s warnings of government conspiracies to herd them there are in the scriptures.

During his Easter Sunday lecture on Apr. 8, entitled “The War of Armageddon: How strong is the Foundation; can we survive?” Min. Farrakhan specifically stated why Blacks must consider separation as the only solution to their problem. “…the Constitution of the United States, the 13th Amendment–it lets us out of chattel slavery, but it says if we are guilty of a criminal offense, we can be put back into involuntary servitude and right now, they are herding our young people into a life of crime,” he stated.

Min. Farrakhan continued that the lack of jobs foster drug selling or other illegal ventures that draw arrests and felony charges, which lead to coerced guilty pleas and felony convictions. “There are 55 jobs that you can’t have with a felony, and the most important thing is you will not be allowed to vote so that your power is diminished and it’s done on purpose,” he said, continuing that separation must be seriously considered. “We must go to the government and say ‘We’ve given you 150 years up from slavery and you have not done right by us. So, in order to preserve or protect a future for us, we have to leave you–but we want a good send off. If we’re united, don’t you think you can’t get what God Himself has already ordered?”

Pratap Chatterjee, Program Director and Managing Editor of CorpWatch, an organization which investigates and exposes corporate violations of human rights, environmental crimes, fraud and corruption around the world, positions that the problem is corporate greed, not prison labor.

“In my opinion, it’s not a bad thing that prisoners get work, whether it’s from government or private corporations; but what is outrageous is that they are paid incredibly poor wages, less than you would in third world countries. These people are doing an honest day’s work and however you may judge them, they should still be paid for their labor’s worth,” he stated.

Mr. Chatterjee said that government permits the menial wages, thereby fostering a negative economic impact to society. “The less jobs there are, the more crime you’re going to have, and the more prisons you’re going to need, but that’s not really solving problems, because prison jobs are pennies on the dollar, which is outrageous; when there are no more jobs in town, one’s only choice is being a prison guard or a prisoner,” he added.

Paul Wright, spokesperson of Prison Legal News, an independent publication which highlights prisoners’ human rights, labeled corporations’ profits from prison workers slavery labor at the hands of a vulnerable population. He insists that a lack of employment, which drives crime, coupled with the formation of private prisons, present a perverse incentive for government to lock people up and would hinder any chance of halting mass imprisonment.

“What if every person was a factory and generating money; what’s the incentive to cut people loose, to not criminalize and to rehabilitate behavior?” he said.

Attorney Elizabeth Alexander, Director of the National Prison Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the corrections system is out of control and its political and economical effects on the country as a whole is tremendous.

“If people in corrections were a city, it would be the fourth largest one in the country,” she said.

This is why the call of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan to establish the Nine Ministries at the 10th Anniversary Commemoration of the Million Man March/Millions More Movement on October 15, 2005 was so timely. He urged the Movement to establish a Ministry of Justice (which includes Prison Reform) to see that the Black, poor and Indigenous communities are not deprived of justice. The Prison Industrial Complex, with its emerging privatized prison business that denies inmates a fair wage and protection of their constitutional rights, must be corrected.

We must get busy.