Sunday marked one month since the start of the September 9th national prisoner strike here in the U.S. We thought we’d mark this historical occasion by briefly commenting on just a few aspects of the U.S. prison system.
In the 1970’s and 80’s, while jobs were being outsourced at an unparalleled rate, labor movements broken up, and wages driven down, the political-legal apparatus of the U.S. underwent a period of massive reform. Under the guise of being “tough on crime,” new laws were introduced that increased penalties for non-violent offenses. Enforcement of these laws—primarily in poor communities of color—dispossessed large swaths of the poorest and most disadvantaged groups of people. When these people arrived to prison, they found that they essentially had two choices: sit idly in a cell or work for one of the many corporations who have “leased” their labor. Many states, though, require inmates to work. For most prisoners, there’s not much of a choice, especially for those that can’t afford some of the basic things at the commissary without working: you work or you lose your mind in idleness. The average prisoner earns between $0.12 to $0.40 per hour for their labor (Minimum wage in Haiti in dollars per hour: $0.30). Not to mention, many prisoners are forced to pay for the privilege of being locked in a cage.2
So, in order to pay for the privilege of confinement, prisoners work in a variety of industries. McDonalds, Victoria’s Secret, BP, UNICOR, and AT&T are just few of the major corporations that “lease” the labor of prisoners and pay them pennies per day/hr. Prisoners are also responsible for producing a sizable amount of agricultural goods available to the public. In fact, some prisoners are forced to labor in the same fields as old slave plantations.3 These corporations could (and many still do) outsource their labor to “third-world” countries, but in many cases it’s just cheaper to force prisoners to do it. Oh, and they still get to put “Made in America” on the label. Everyone loves that. While the message of “vote with your dollar” is shoved down our throats, the truth is that there is no “ethical consumption” under the current economic arrangements. Prison labor (and a host of other nasty practices) are embedded in every facet of the economy—even local vendors and businesses are connected. There is quite literally no way to escape the reach of capital but by dismantling the conditions that allow it to continue.
Even in Oregon (where the CLDC is based), prison labor is thriving. While Oregon is often thought of as a kind of leftist free-thinking bastion, voters passed a law in 1994 that required prisoners to work or train at least 40 hours per week and allowed public and private sectors to appropriate the labor of prisoners. The law (actually an amendment to the Oregon Constitution), “Measure 17” was supported by 71% of the electorate. At the same time, Measure 11—an unfortunately familiar law for those working in criminal defense and a favored law for those working for the state—was passed. Measure 11 created mandatory minimum sentences, cut-off many opportunities for parole and probation and, was just one of the many laws passed during the Clinton-era that contributed to an unprecedented rise in prison and jail populations. Also, while it’s never just one individual that makes these sweeping changes, Oregon’s own Kevin Mannix is largely responsible for the creation of Measure 17, Measure 11, and other unsavory pieces of legislation.
Many are familiar with the amount of influence that banks, agricultural corporations, and other industries have on the political system. The influence of the private prison industry is just as powerful. For instance, according to a recent report by Washington Post journalist Michael Cohen,
“[t]he two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States—GEO and Corrections Corporation of America [CCA]—and their associates have funneled more than $10 million to candidates since 1989 and have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts.”4
According to multiple reports cited by Cohen, “private-prison companies have indirectly supported policies that put more Americans and immigrants behind bars—such as California’s three-strikes rule and Arizona’s highly controversial anti-illegal immigration law—by donating to politicians who support them, attending meetings with officials who back them, and lobbying for funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”
Cohen goes on to cite a damning annual report by CCA that warns investors that money could be lost “by relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practice or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.”
Of course, the introduction of private prisons shifts the traditional discourse surrounding penological purpose. Formerly, this discourse revolved around debates between punitive purpose and rehabilitative purpose. Now, the debate for many must include the profitability of the criminalization of certain activity. The mechanical drive to accumulate capital, inherent within the current economic system, means that crime, in large part, is defined and re-defined according to how effective certain crimes will allow the capitalists to accumulate more capital.
There are no boundaries to the rapacious appetite of capitalism. There is nothing sacred for capital save for the mechanical impetus to accumulate (and of course to reproduce conditions favorable to such accumulation). To be clear, there is no “asking nicely” that a corporation stop exploiting prisoners (or other workers, or the environment, or smaller countries, etc.). A corporation—at least in the U.S.—has a number of legal duties. Chief among those duties is a “duty of loyalty.” Who must the corporation be loyal to? Shareholders. This loyalty is measured by the profit the corporation can accumulate for its shareholders. This, again, is a legal duty, meaning that the corporation is required to take action that will generate profit. If it doesn’t, shareholders can, and often do, sue.
There is a reason that organizers of the September 9 workstoppage are also calling for an abolition of this form of modern slavery: there is no option to reform. There is no humane alternative. As Chris Hedges put it, “[a]ll penal reform, from President Truman’s 1947 Committee on Civil Rights report to the Safe Streets Act of 1968 to the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 to contemporary calls for more professionalization, in effect only hand more power and resources to the police. It does nothing to blunt police abuse or reverse mass incarceration.”5 Instead, we have to fight for a fundamental restructuring of society and, in the process, pay careful attention to the notion of crime. If reforms can create more favorable conditions for the abolition of the current system, perhaps those are worth considering.
Please support the actions started on September 9. You can find out more information, including how to support, here:
For more information and citations on forced labor in U.S. prisons, see the Prison Policy Initiative’s informative report here.
The CLDC will be hosting a monthly political prisoner event at our Eugene, Oregon office that will include writing letters to political prisoners and viewing prison-related documentary films. The next event is Thursday, October 13th, where we will be showing the new documentary “13th.” 13th is a 2016 American documentary by director Ava DuVernay. The film is titled after the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which theoretically outlawed slavery
5 Chris Hedges, Corporate Capitalism Is the Foundation of Police Brutality and the Prison State, Truthdig, (2015). http://www.truthdig.com/report/page2/corporate_capitalism_is_the_foundation_of_police_20150705