The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Can't find a job?
Try prison!

Sep 23, 2002

We hear about low paid labor in countries around the globe – but there's another source of low paid labor – right here in the U.S.A., where nobody crosses any borders. These workers make from 23¢ to $1.15 per hour – a real gift to any boss looking for a profit.

This work force is found in the U.S. prison system – which leases inmates to profit-making companies. Set up under the business name Unicor, the Federal Prison Industries sold 583 million dollars worth of goods and services last year – almost entirely to the federal government, but also by contract to some corporations. Their biggest customer was the Defense Department.

Unicor operates 100 prison factories for the Bureau of Prisons, employing 22, 510 federal prisoners. These prisoners make furniture, work clothes, military uniforms, bedding, electrical equipment and provide some data entry and bulk mailing services. In addition, Unicor has engaged other businesses as sub-contractors who use the prison labor in the Unicor programs and have a guaranteed customer. There's competition between companies today to get one of these contracts. What better than having a very low wage labor work force – which has no rights and can't even quit!

According to the International Association of Machinists, there are another 50,000 prisoners in state facilities producing an additional billion dollars of goods per year at these low wages.

Prison labor is not a recent venture. It has played a part in U.S. history for at least one hundred years.

From about 1890 through 1930, prisons in the South used prisoners for all kinds of labor. They worked on farms, cut lumber, built railroads and dug coal. Any time labor was needed, Southern sheriffs made up charges to arrest poor men – most of them black – putting them out to work for low wages or none, as part of their prison sentence. Slavery was not yet dead – it just existed in this particular form.

The biggest employer of prison labor in Alabama at the beginning of the 1900s was Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad. This company was bought by U.S. Steel in 1907. Working under slave-like conditions – where whippings were common – men died quickly and were buried in unmarked graves near the mine property.

U.S. Steel Chairman Elbert Gary said that he immediately ordered the practice to stop. It was, however, still continuing six years later at U.S. Steel, shown by a 1913 investigation of Alabama prison labor. Alabama officials didn't mind any more than the U.S. Steel bosses did. "Our jails are money making machines," wrote a prison inspector in 1922.

Apparently this profitable business still pleases prison officials , since its use is growing at present. It illustrates the absurdity of capitalism - -which cannot provide enough jobs for the population, so that people end up in prison. But once in prison, the same capitalists are ready to employ them – but at much lower wages.

It is this society that should be condemned, not the thousands of poor people who could be employed at decent wages, but instead are turned into near slaves.