Prison as a modern form of slavery
AUSTIN, TEXAS – February 8, 2019
There are approximately 2 million inmates in state, federal and private prisons throughout the country – mostly black and Hispanic. The figures show that the United States has locked up more people than any other country: a half million more than China, which has a population five times greater than the U.S.
From less than 300,000 inmates in 1972, the jail population grew to 2 million by the year 2000. In 1990 it was one million.
220,000 people are now in “commercial prisons”. In literature and the press, this phenomenon has been dubbed the “prison slavery”.
What is happening? Why are there so many prisoners?
The explanation is simple. It is profitable from the point of view of business. For the tycoons who have invested in the prison industry, it has been like finding a pot of gold. They don’t have to worry about strikes or paying unemployment insurance, vacations or comp time. All of their workers are full-time, and never arrive late or are absent because of family problems; moreover, if they don’t like the pay of 25 cents an hour and refuse to work, they are locked up in isolation cells.
Just business. It's nothing personal.
Privatization (i.e. appropriation by private capital) of prisoners' labour is carried out in two main forms:
- leasing of prisoners by state prisons as a labor force for rent to private companies;
- privatization of prison institutions; their transformation into private companies of various forms of ownership (including joint-stock).
Prison labor has its roots in slavery. But if the use of slave labor in the US is prohibited by the Constitution, then an exception is made with regard to prisoners. Penal labor in the United States, including a form of slavery or involuntary servitude, is explicitly allowed by the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This form of legal slavery is only allowed when used as punishment for committing a crime. The 13th Amendment states that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." So slavery in US prisons is perfectly legal.
The first of these forms (“hiring out prisoners”) appeared in America in the 19th century after the Civil War to continue the slavery tradition. Freed slaves were charged with not carrying out their sharecropping commitments (cultivating someone else’s land in exchange for part of the harvest) or petty thievery – which was almost never proven – and were then “hired out” for cotton picking, working in mines and building railroads. From 1870 until 1910 in the state of Georgia, 88% of hired-out convicts were black. In Alabama, 93% of “hired-out” miners were black. In Mississippi, a huge prison farm similar to the old slave plantations replaced the system of hiring out convicts. The notorious Parchman plantation existed until 1972. And at the beginning of the 21st century, at least 37 states legalized the use of “leased” prisoners by private companies.
As Vicky Peláez wrote in his article “The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery?”:
At least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations that mount their operations inside state prisons. The list of such companies contains the cream of U.S. corporate society: IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and many more. All of these businesses are excited about the economic boom generation by prison labor. Just between 1980 and 1994, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion.
The benefits of such “collaboration” for private corporations are obvious: Inmates in state penitentiaries generally receive the minimum wage for their work, but not all. For example, in Colorado, they get about $2 per hour, well under the minimum.
Prisoners in some southern states were in an especially difficult situation where they continued to work on the same cotton plantations as before the abolition of slavery in the 19th century. Of particular prominence was the maximum security prison in the state of Louisiana called Angola. Prisoners of this prison were cultivating 18,000 acres of land on which cotton, wheat, soybeans and corn were grown. Prisoners in Angola received only 4 to 20 cents per hour for their work. Not only that: They were left only half of the money earned and the second half was put into the prisoner’s account to pay him at the time of release. However, only 3% of prisoners ever left Angola. On the one hand, most of the prisoners had long sentences; on the other hand, from the merciless exploitation and poor conditions of detention, they died early.
There are other similar farm prisons in Louisiana. Only 16% of prisoners in this state are sentenced to agricultural work. In the neighboring states - Texas and Arkansas - the proportion of such prisoners is 17 and 40%, respectively.
The second form of “prison slavery” - private prisons - appeared in the US in the 1980s under the governments of Ronald Reagan and Bush Sr., but reached its height in the 1990s under Bill Clinton, when Wall Street stocks were selling like hotcakes. Clinton’s program for cutting the federal workforce resulted in the Justice Departments contracting private prison corporations for the incarceration of undocumented workers and high-security inmates.
The first privatization of the state prison in Tennessee took place in February 1983 by the venture capital firm Massey Burch Investment.
According to Vicky Peláez, ten years ago there were only five private prisons in the country, with a population of 2,000 inmates; in 2008 there were 100, with 62,000 inmates. It is expected that by the coming decade, the number will hit 360,000.
About 18 corporations guard 10,000 prisoners in 27 states. The two largest are Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) and Wackenhut (the new name of this company is G4S), which together control 75%. Since 1986, CCA shares have been traded on the New York Stock Exchange. In 2009, its capitalization was estimated at $2.26 billion.
Private prisons are the biggest business in the prison industry. They receive a guaranteed amount of money for each prisoner, independent of what it costs to maintain each one. The wage of the prisoner is determined by the company itself; the rates are much lower than the amounts paid by companies that exploit prisoners on a rental basis (the first form of “prison slavery”). And in privately-run prisons, they receive as little as 17 cents per hour for a maximum of six hours a day, the equivalent of $20 per month. The highest-paying private prison is CCA in Tennessee, where prisoners receive 50 cents per hour for what they call “highly skilled positions.” At those rates, it is no surprise that inmates find the pay in federal prisons to be very generous. There, they can earn $1.25 an hour and work eight hours a day, and sometimes overtime. They can send home $200-$300 per month.
The US prison industry is based both on the direct use of the labor of the prisoners by private capital (its “rent” or direct operation in private prisons) and indirectly. Indirect use means that the organization of the production is carried out by the prison administration, and the products produced by the prisoners on the basis of the contract are delivered to private companies. The price of such products is usually much lower than the market. It is quite difficult to determine the extent of the indirect use of labor by prisoners by private US companies. There may be a large number of abuses on the basis of collusion of the administration of the state prison and a private company. This type of business is usually referred to as “shadow”.
According to the media, a “prison industrial complex” was formed on the basis of private prisons. It began to occupy a prominent place in the production of many types of products in the United States. Today, the US prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, uniforms and belt boots, body armor, ID cards, shirts, trousers, tents, backpacks and flasks for the US army. In addition to military equipment and uniforms, prisons produces 98% of the installation tools market, 46% of bullet-proof vests, 36% of household appliances, 30% of headphones, microphones, megaphones and 21% of office furniture, aviation and medical equipment and much more.
According to Russell Boraas, a private prison administrator in Virginia, “the secret to low operating costs is having a minimal number of guards for the maximum number of prisoners.” The CCA has an ultra-modern prison in Lawrenceville, Virginia, where five guards on dayshift and two at night watch over 750 prisoners. In these prisons, inmates may get their sentences reduced for “good behavior,” but for any infraction, they get 30 days added – which means more profits for CCA. According to a study of New Mexico prisons, it was found that CCA inmates lost “good behavior time” at a rate eight times higher than those in state prisons.
According to reports by human rights organizations, these are the factors that increase the profit potential for those who invest in the prison industry:
- Jailing persons convicted of non-violent crimes, and long prison sentences for possession of microscopic quantities of illegal drugs. Federal law stipulates five years’ imprisonment without possibility of parole for possession of 5 grams of crack or 3.5 ounces of heroin, and 10 years for possession of less than 2 ounces of rock-cocaine or crack. A sentence of 5 years for cocaine powder requires possession of 500 grams – 100 times more than the quantity of rock cocaine for the same sentence. Most of those who use cocaine powder are white, middle-class or rich people, while mostly blacks and Latinos use rock cocaine. In Texas, a person may be sentenced for up to two years’ imprisonment for possessing 4 ounces of marijuana. In New York, the 1973 Nelson Rockefeller anti-drug law provides for a mandatory prison sentence of 15 years to life for possession of 4 ounces of any illegal drug.
- The passage in 13 states of the “three strikes” laws (life in prison after being convicted of three felonies), made it necessary to build 20 new federal prisons. One of the most disturbing cases resulting from this measure was that of a prisoner who received three 25-year sentences for stealing a car and two bicycles.
- Longer sentences.
- The passage of laws that require minimum sentencing, without regard for circumstances.
- A large expansion of work by prisoners creating profits that motivate the incarceration of more people for longer periods of time.
- More punishment of prisoners, so as to lengthen their sentences.
Vicky Peláez wrote: “The prison industry complex is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States and its investors are on Wall Street. “This multimillion-dollar industry has its own trade exhibitions, conventions, websites, and mail-order/Internet catalogs. It also has direct advertising campaigns, architecture companies, construction companies, investment houses on Wall Street, plumbing supply companies, food supply companies, armed security, and padded cells in a large variety of colors.”
It was found that the rate of return in the US prison industry is very high. In this regard, transnational corporations (TNCs) have lost the incentive to transfer their production from the United States to economically backward countries. It is possible that the process can go in the opposite direction.
Thanks to prison labor, the United States is once again an attractive location for investment in work that was designed for Third World labor markets. A company that operated a maquiladora (assembly plant in Mexico near the border) closed down its operations there and relocated to San Quentin State Prison in California. In Texas, a factory fired its 150 workers and contracted the services of prisoner-workers from the private Lockhart Texas prison, where circuit boards are assembled for companies like IBM and Compaq.
[Former] Oregon State Representative Kevin Mannix recently urged Nike to cut its production in Indonesia and bring it to his state, telling the shoe manufacturer that “there won’t be any transportation costs; we’re offering you competitive prison labor (here).
American businesses felt that the use of their own "prison slaves" was a "gold mine." Accordingly, the largest US corporations began to delve into how the continent in American prisons is formed, and to do everything possible to ensure that there were as many of these prisoners as possible. It’s believed that the economic interests of business contributed to the fact that the number of prisoners in the US began to grow rapidly.
The private contracting of prisoners for work fosters incentives to lock people up. Prisons depend on this income. Corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners’ work lobby for longer sentences, in order to expand their workforce. The system feeds itself,” says a study by the Progressive Labor Party, which accuses the prison industry of being “an imitation of Nazi Germany with respect to forced slave labor and concentration camps.
However, even if prisons are state-owned, the use of prison labor is beneficial to the authorities. In state prisons, the rates for prison labor are higher than in private ones. Prisoners receive $2 - 2.50 per hour (not counting overtime pay). However, state prisons are actually “self-sufficient”: Half of the prisoners' earnings are taken from them to pay for the “rent” of the cell and food. Thus, talk about the fact that state prisons “burden” the country's budget is needed to justify their transfer to private hands.
Today, the US, with more than 2.3 million prisoners, tops the list of countries by the number of people in prison. This is a quarter of all serving sentences in the world (with a US share of 5% of the world's population). The figure of 754 prisoners per 100,000 people makes the US a world leader in terms of the ratio of the number of prisoners to the total population. According to California Prison Focus, “no other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens.”
If we add to the number of prisoners Americans who are subject to conditional and parole procedures, it turns out that in fact the penal system covers a total of 7.3 million people, i.e. approximately every fortieth resident of the country (and every twentieth adult resident of the United States).
Corporate lobbyists seek to ensure that any violation of the law is punishable by imprisonment. An analysis of US law shows significant "progress" in the relocation of American citizens from their homes and apartments to prison cells. In particular, they are seeking the abolition of "conditional and parole".
Lobbyists have achieved sentences of imprisonment for nonviolent crimes and long prison terms for possession of microscopic quantities of prohibited substances.
57% of prisoners are for drug use. There was no violence in their crimes, instead they themselves were often victims of violence. In his time, US President Clinton rightly said that those who use drugs should not be punished, but treated. However, these words remained words. The US authorities, along with business, are interested in distributing drugs in the country, as this is a very effective way to increase the number of “prison slaves”.
Lobbyists for corporations have also succeeded in adopting the “three crimes” laws in 13 states, that call for a life sentence for all three crimes (not even related to violence). In the American press there were publications in which it is said that the adoption of only these laws will require the construction of another 20 federal prisons.
Another area of corporate lobbying is the maximum lengthening of prison sentences. For this, various amendments are made to the laws. Including those that allow you to lengthen the time spent in prison for any, even minor misconduct of the prisoner. Private prison companies sometimes impose “fines” in the form of lengthening sentences by themselves. So, in the already mentioned private company SSA, for any violation, 30 days are added. A study in prisons in New Mexico found that federal prisoners receive eight times more early exemptions for "good behavior" than prisoners in SSA.
Corporations seek to increase the resources of an almost free labor force in private prisons by influencing the decisions of the courts. In this connection, mention may be made of the case in Pennsylvania in 2008 where it became known that the two judges for bribes received from the owners of two private prisons for juvenile criminals, sentenced the convicted persons to the most stringent sentences to ensure that the two prisons were filled with free labor. The total amount of bribes was $2.6 million.
Summarizing the processes taking place in the prison sphere, it seems that today the US considers the prison industry as "the potential of a future ideal state", where a society of prisoners for pennies creates benefits for the Powers That Be.
However, so far “the potential of the future ideal state” is far from being used at full capacity. According to the latest data, 220,000 prisoners remain in private commercial prisons. In relation to the total number in American prisons, this is very small--about 10%. In relation to the number of all sentenced to prison--about 3%. Apparently, no fewer prisoners of state prisons are leased to private capital. There is also an indirect use of the labor of prisoners in state prisons, when the latter conclude (behind the scenes) contracts for the manufacture of certain goods with the help of the labor of prisoners. But it's not enough for business anyway.
Therefore, the main effort of private capital is directed not even to increase the number of prisoners, but to ensure that all of them are under the control of “prison” corporations as quickly as possible.