|December 8, 2005||Posted by Lindy Davies under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
by Lindy Davies
A recent article in The Nation reported that the United States generates five to seven million tons of high-tech waste each year. Although there is a growing electronics-recycling industry here in the US, a large part of the stuff has been sent to less-regulated places like Indonesia or Guatemala. Old circuit boards, cathode-ray tubes and hard drives, harmless while intact, release a deadly stew of heavy metals and other harmful materials when dismantled. Recycling this stuff safely and legally requires significant investment in worker-safety gear and pollution controls.
Unless, of course, it is done by prison labor. The Nation article, by Elizabeth Grossman, details how prisoners are being tasked to do things like smash CRT monitors with sledgehammers. They are issued light dust masks, and gloves if they’re lucky; in most cases they wear the same toxin-encrusted uniforms they wear everywhere else. It is, to make a long story short, a very dangerous environment; a poisonous 21st-century version of the old-time chain gang.
This got me thinking — so I searched the Internet for the current US prison population. It wasn’t so easy to find. I came across many laments from 2000, the year when the number of incarcerees first passed two million — but since then, little has been said. That shouldn’t surprise me, I guess — the news cycle comes and goes. But, of course, the “prison boom” is a sustained phenomenon, whether folks on the outside examine it or not. The current boom is largely the result of draconian anti-drug laws enacted during the Reagan era, particularly the “three strikes & you’re out” statutes that are still on the books in most states. More than half of the 2.2 million people currently in US prisons are there because of drug convictions. Many are repeat offenders serving very long sentences. They’re not going anywhere; their numbers are still increasing faster than the overall US population. (Hence, new prisons are still being built — and remote, depressed towns are still competing to get them, and the secure government jobs they provide.) In the “global race to the bottom”, US prisons are the clear winner: they offer a wage- and regulatory climate that is tough to beat, and they inspire very little bleeding-heart resistance.
Prison labor is not universally popular. It has faced a long history of opposition from labor unions. In the early days of the labor movement, prison labor was repeatedly used to break strikes. After decades of abuses of prison workers resulting in hundreds of deaths in many states, the Federal Government created Federal Prison Industries (FPI) in 1935 as an agency of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. For the first time, minimal safety standards were set for prison labor. But, because of the fear that inmate workers would “steal” scarce private jobs, the law also mandated very stringent requirements (such as outlawing interstate trade in prison-made goods, certifying that no non-inmate workers would be displaced, and that the local prevailing wage and comparable benefits had to be given). Under such terms, virtually no prison labor was profitable. The stereotype of inmates stamping license plates was just about the extent of their contribution to GDP. That was the situation until 1979, when the Justice System Improvement Act eased many of the restrictions, and for the first time allowed prisons to invite private companies into the prisons to employ inmates. But it was not until the boom in prison population in the 1990s that inmate labor began to be considered as a real money-making opportunity.
The gainful utilization of inmates is touted by many as a way to reduce the burden of prisons on the taxpayer. Although labor unions and other interests demand protection — in the form of at-least minimum wage for prison workers — almost no one dares to suggest that inmates should actually get that money. The most popular position is that the profits of inmates’ labor should go toward the cost of keeping them in prison. Most would, however, call that a hard-hearted view of things — and hence they employ softer rhetoric. The use of prison-labor revenue to support inmates’ families and pay restitution to their victims is highly touted as a real human benefit of a win-win proposal. This graphic, for example, is a screen-shot from the website of Federal Prison Industries (which is also known as UNICOR). It looks good, until one realizes that it means that each of the approximately 25,000 Federal prisoners employed under FPI programs contributes $120 annually to these helpful uses, while producing thousands of dollars worth of marketable goods and services.
The notion that prisoners should have to “work off” their debt to society is wrongheaded on many counts. It depends on the comforting fantasy that “they are just bad people, who deserve what they get”. Undoubtedly there ought to be consequences for destructive and violent behavior. But when 57% of the US prison population is in on drug convictions, and one out of every twelve black men is incarcerated, the criminal justice system cannot be called unbiased, nor absolved from its own role in creating the problem.
When the profits of exploited prison labor are used to soften the taxpayer impact of our “prison boom”, the effect is to drive the reality of prison life — the gross, abject, ever-growing failure of our “corrections policy” — even further out of sight. Meanwhile, prisoners have left families behind, who are usually poor. Perhaps inmate workers shouldn’t get more than a bit of pin money, while they are inside. But the rest of their (market-based!) pay ought to go to their families — or, in cases where court-ordered restitution is imposed, to their victims. What’s to be gained from shielding taxpayers from the true cost of prisons? If they saw the true costs, they might be more inclined to think about seeking real solutions for poverty and crime.
The Henry George Institute’s correspondence courses in political economy are extremely popular among inmates. The main course uses George’s Progress and Poverty as its main text. Modern readers struggle with the book’s long sentences and florid Victorian style — yet unschooled inmates regularly work their way through this 600-page tome, and then eagerly sign up for more courses and recommend the book to others! Inmates take our subsequent courses because they’ve become inspired by George’s empowering message of a fundamental remedy for economic problems. But that isn’t why they signed up for the course in the first place. The initial attraction is the price. Unlike many distance-learning opportunities, the HGI’s courses are very reasonable. The basic course costs a mere $30. That represents about a week-and-a-half’s pay at prevailing rates of prison compensation — not counting expenditures for things like soap, deodorant, stamps; some prisons are even charging for salt and pepper.
Advocates of prison-labor programs point to studies showing that the work-skills inculcated while employed “inside” translate to lower recidivism rates. I don’t doubt this is true. Yet I also know that there is a much stronger correlation between educational achievement by inmates and their eventual success on the outside. And yet educational opportunities for inmates are frequently severely limited (often nothing is available except GED programs). Even worse, prison guards, seeing how desperately inmates value their self-education efforts, use them as a behavioral tool: the threat of confiscating one’s course books and lessons is a very strong motivator.
Many advocates for economic justice scream bitterly at the predatory multinational corporations which, fostered by international “free trade” agreements, exploit cheap foreign labor in unsafe conditions. I find it curious that there is nowhere near the hue and cry over the growing trend toward “maquiladora-izing” the labor force in US prisons. We ought to remember the lesson that Henry George taught — and that our inmate students find so meaningful — that the only way to truly improve the lot of working people is to raise the wages of marginal workers — those who have no other choice.
Lindy Davies is the Program Director of the Henry George Institute.
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