Jun 18, 2012
Inmates at a prison in Natchez, Mississippi run by a private prison operator, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), revolted on May 20. One inmate told a reporter, “They always beat us and hit us. We just pay them back. We’re trying to get better food, medical care, programs, clothes, and we’re trying to get some respect from the officers and lieutenants.”
“CCA has frequently been criticized for housing prisoners in inhuman conditions,” according to a January report by Corazón de Tucson, an organization that supports prisoners’ rights.
CCA is part of the lucrative 70-billion-dollar private prison industry. It is the largest private, for-profit prison corporation in the country.
State politicians around the country are increasingly privatizing their prisons. It’s a good way for them to satisfy their corporate benefactors. The companies managing the prisons contract out cheap prison labor to other industries, reaping big profits while in turn making bigger profits possible for those using the labor.
Corporations currently use prison labor to manufacture things like office furniture, body armor, textiles, shoes and clothing and to provide services like staffing call centers and taking hotel reservations – for wages running from 93 cents to $4.73 a day and under sweatshop conditions. That’s cheaper for the corporations than slave labor, since taxpayers foot the bill for the prisoners’ upkeep.
Under the constant threat of harsh punishment, prisoners are usually, though not always, reluctant to complain about their wages and working conditions.
The huge conglomerates running many private prisons are so confident they can find politicians to be willing partners that they are placing conditions on the states that they maintain a constant supply of prisoners. CCA has offered to run prisons in 48 states under the stipulation that the prisons hold at least one thousand prisoners and that they be at least 90% full for 20 years into the future!
Arrangements like these then put pressure on politicians to support long mandatory prison sentences. It also creates the nightmare scenario of judges being bribed to use their discretionary power to impose long sentences. In Pennsylvania, two judges were found guilty of receiving millions of dollars in kickbacks from the owner of two private prisons in exchange for imposing harsh sentences on thousands of youths.
Private prison companies are only able to make such grotesque demands as a consequence of a society that has nothing better to offer than incarceration to a large fragment of its population. The U.S. had six million people under “correctional supervision” in 2010 and 2.3 million actually in prison. That’s 25% of the prisoners in the entire world.
This is especially true for the black population, which experiences incarceration at a rate seven times that of the white population.
Today’s horrendous exploitation of prison labor harkens back to the practices of the 19th century. But workers’ movements beginning in the 1890s took up the fight against the use of prison labor, and by World War II, private leasing of prison labor had been virtually outlawed. Government use of prison labor continued, however, in forms like the chain-gangs employed in the South.
Since the early 1980s, private exploitation of convict labor has returned in abundance. It is used to drive down wages outside prison walls. It’s in every worker’s interest to oppose its use, as the workers’ movement in this country has in the past.