"Slavery 400 years ago, slavery today. It's the same, but with a new name. They're practicing slavery under color of law." (Ruchell Cinque Magee)
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution retained the right to enslave within the confines of prison. "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Dec. 6, 1865.
Even before the abolition of chattel slavery, America's history of prison labor had already begun in New York's State Prison at Auburn soon after it opened in 1817. Auburn became the first prison that contracted with a private business to operate a factory within its walls. Later, in the post Civil War period, the "contract and lease" system proliferated, allowing private companies to employ prisoners and sell their products for profit.
Today, such prisons are referred to as "Factories with Fences."
The Convict-Lease System
In Southern states, Slave Codes were rewritten as Black Codes, a series of laws criminalizing the law-abiding activities of Black people, such as standing around, "loitering," or walking at night, "breaking curfew." The enforcement of these Codes dramatically increased the number of Blacks in Southern prisons. In 1878, Georgia leased out 1,239 convicts, 1,124 of whom were Black.
The lease system provided slave labor for plantation owners or private industries as well as revenue for the state, since incarcerated workers were entirely in the custody of the contractors who paid a set annual fee to the state (about $25,000). Entire prisons were leased out to private contractors who literally worked hundreds of prisoners to death. Prisons became the new plantations; Angola State Prison in Louisiana was a literal plantation, and still is except the slaves are now called convicts and the prison is known as "The Farm." (A documentary of that title is available on DVD.)
The inherent brutality and cruelty of the lease system and the loss of outside jobs sparked resistance that eventually brought about its demise.
One of the most famous battles was the Coal Creek Rebellion of 1891. When the Tennessee coal, Iron and Railroad locked out their workers and replaced them with convicts, the miners stormed the prison and freed 400 captives; and when the company continued to contract prisoners, the miners burned the prison down. The Tennessee leasing system was disbanded shortly thereafter. But it remained in many states until the rise of resistance in the 1930s.
Strikes by prisoners and union workers together were organized by then radical CIO and other labor unions. They pressured Congress to pass the 1935 Ashurst-Sumners Act making it illegal to transport prison-made goods across state lines. But under President Jimmy Carter, Congress granted exemptions to the Act by passing the Justice System Improvement Act of 1979, which produced the Prison Industries Enhancement program, or PIE, that eventually spread to all 50 states. This lifted the ban on interstate transportation and sale of prison-made products, permitting a for-profit relationship between prisons and the private sector, and prompting a dramatic increase in prison labor which continues to escalate.
As the leasing system phased out, a new, even more brutal exploitation emerged -- the chain gang. An extremely dehumanizing cruelty that chained men, and later women, together in groups of five, it was originated to build extensive roads and highways. The first state to institute chain gangs was Alabama, followed by Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Montana, and Oklahoma.
Arizona's first female chain gang was instituted in 1996. Complete with striped uniforms, the women of a Phoenix jail (to this day) spend four to six hours a day chained together in groups of 30, clearing roadsides of weeds and burying the indigent.
Georgia's chain-gang conditions were particularly brutal. Men were put out to work swinging 12 lb. sledge hammers for 16 hours a day, malnourished and shackled together, unable to move their legs a full stride. Wounds from metal shackles often became infected, leading to illness and death. Prisoners who could not keep up with the grueling pace were whipped or shut in a sweatbox or tied to a hitching post, a stationary metal rail. Chained to the post with hands raised high over his head, the prisoner remained tethered in that position in the Alabama heat for many hours without water or bathroom breaks. (Human Rights Watch World Report 1998).
Thanks to a lawsuit settled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Alabama's Department of Corrections agreed in 1996 to stop chaining prisoners together. A few years later, the Center won a Court ruling that ended use of the hitching post as a violation of the 8th Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment."
In response to the demands of World War II, the number of both free and captive road workers declined significantly. In 1941, there were 1,750 prisoners slaving in 28 active road camps for all types of construction and maintenance. The numbers bottomed out by war's end at 540 captives in 17 camps.
The Proliferation of Prisons, Jails, and Camps
In the 1940s, California Governor Earl Warren conducted secret investigations into the State's only prisons, San Quentin and Folsom. The depravity, squalor, sadism, and torture he found led the governor to initiate the building of Soledad Prison in 1951.
Prisoners were put to work in educational and vocational programs that taught basic courses in English and math, and provided training in trades ranging from gardening to meat cutting. At wages of 7 to 25 cents an hour, California prisoners used their acquired skills to turn out institutional clothing and furniture, license plates and stickers, seed new crops, slaughter pigs, produce and sell dairy products to a nearby mental institution.
Within a decade this "model prison" at Soledad had become another torture chamber of filthy dungeons, literal "holes," virulently racist guards, officially sanctioned brutality, torture, and murder. Though prison jobs were supposed to be voluntary, if prisoners refuse to work they were often given longer sentences, denied privileges, or thrown into solitary confinement. Forced to work long hours under miserable conditions, in the 1960s, "Soledad Brother," George Jackson, organized a work strike that turned into a riot after white strikebreakers tried to lynch one of the Black strikers.
The Black Movement's resistance, led by George Jackson, W. L. Nolen, and Hugo "Yogi" Pinell, eventually brought Congressional oversight and overhaul of California' prison system. (The Melancholy History of Soledad Prison, by Minh S. Yee.).
California's prison system rose exponentially to approximately 174,000 prisoners crammed into 90 penitentiaries, prisons and camps stretched across 900 miles of the fifth-largest economy in the world, as Ruth Gilmore's book, "Golden Gulag" reports. That number can be doubled or tripled by those on other forms of penal control, probation, parole, or house arrest.
Since 1984, the California has erected 43 prisons (and only one university) making it a global leader in prison construction. Most of the new prisons have been built in rural areas far from family and friends, and most captives are Black or Brown men, although the incarceration of women has skyrocketed. Suicide and recidivism rates approach twice the national average, and the State spends more on prisons than on higher education. (The seeming contradiction between the official figure of 33 prisons relates to the additional buildings constructed at a given prison complex, and the various camps and county jails.)
Between 1998 and 2009, the CDCR's budget grew from $3.5 billion to $10.3 billion (the latest figures available). At its peak in August 2007, the department had 72 gyms and 125 dayrooms jammed with 19,618 inmate beds.
"They provided an accurate and extremely graphic example of the crowding and inhumanity that engulfed the entire system," said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office in Berkeley, which sued to force the state to ease crowding as a way to improve the treatment of sick and mentally ill inmates.
The Privatizing of Federal and State Prisons
Under court order to reduce overcrowding, by 2009, the CDCR had transferred 8,000 prisoners to private prisons in four states - Tennessee, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Arizona, among the most virulently racist states in the country. The rest of the prisoners were transferred to county jails. Currently, the inmate population is about 142,000 and must remove another 17,000 prisoners to reach the June 2013 court deadline.
In 1985, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger lauded China's prison labor program: "1,000 inmates in one prison I visited comprised a complete factory unit producing hosiery and what we would call casual or sport shoes... Indeed it had been a factory and was taken over to make a prison." Burger called for the conversion of prisons into factories, the repeal of laws limiting prison industry production and sales, and the active participation of business and organized labor.
Heeding the judge's call, California voters passed Prop 139 in 1990, establishing the Joint Venture Program allowing California businesses to cash in on prison labor. "This is the new jobs program for California, so we can compete on a Third World basis with countries like Bangladesh," observed Richard Holober with the Consumer Federation of California.
Currently, California's Prison Industrial Authority (CALPIA) employs, 7000 captives assigned to 5039 positions in manufacturing, agricultural service enterprises, and selling and administration at 22 prisons throughout the state. It produces goods and services such as office furniture, clothing, food products, shoes, printing services, signs, binders, gloves, license plates, cell equipment, and much more. Wages are $.30 to $.95 per hour before deductions.
For the State's highest wage, $1 hour, prisoners provide the "backbone of the state's wild land fire fighting crews," according to an unpublished CDC report. The State Department of Forestry saves more than $80 million annually using prison labor. California's Department of Forestry has 200 Fire Crews comprised of CDC and CYA (California Youth Authority) minimum-security captives housed in 46 Conservation Camps throughout the state. These prisoners average 10 million work hours per year according to the CDCR.
"Their primary function is to construct fire lines by hand in areas where heavy machinery cannot be used because of steep topography, rocky terrain, or areas that may be considered environmentally sensitive." (I.e., the most dangerous fire lines).
Now at least 37 states have similar programs wherein prisoners manufacture everything from blue jeans to auto parts, electronics and toys. Clothing made in Oregon and California is exported to other countries, competing successfully with apparel made in Asia and Latin America.
One of the newest forms of slave labor is the U.S. Army's "Civilian Inmate Labor Program" to "benefit both the Army and corrections systems" by providing "a convenient source of labor at no direct cost to Army installations," additional space to alleviate prison overcrowding, and cost-effective use of land and facilities otherwise not being utilized.
"With a few exceptions," this program is currently limited to prisoners under the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) that allows the Attorney General to provide the services of federal prisoners to other federal agencies, defining the types of services they can perform. The Program stipulates that the "Army is not interested in, nor can afford, any relationship with a corrections facility if that relationship stipulates payment for civilian inmate labor. Installation civilian inmate labor program operating costs must not exceed the cost avoidance generated from using inmate labor." In other words the prison labor must be free of charge.
The three "exceptions" to exclusive Federal contracting are as follows: (1) "a demonstration project" providing "prerelease employment training to nonviolent offenders in a State correctional facility" [CF]. (2) Army National Guard units "may use inmates from an off-post State and/or local CF." (3) Civil Works projects. Services provided might include constructing or repairing roads, maintaining or reforesting public land; building levees, landscaping, painting, carpentry, trash pickup, etc.
This Civilian Inmate Labor Program document includes in its countless specifications such caveats as "Inmates must not be referred to as employees." A prisoner would not qualify if he/she is a "person in whom there is a significant public interest," who has been a "significant management problem," "a principal organized crime figure," any "inmate convicted of a violent crime," a sex offense, involvement with drugs within the last three years, an escape risk, "a threat to the general public." Makes one wonder why such a prisoner isn't just released or paroled. In fact, the "hiring qualifications" -- makes me suspect the "Civilian Inmate Labor Program" is a backdoor draft, especially in lieu of a military already stretched to its limit.
Note: When I tried to find an updated web page on the Civilian Inmate Labor Program, there was none. The date remains 2005 for its latest report. Could the latest data be classified?
The Federal Prison Industries (FPI), a nonprofit Justice Department subsidiary, that does business as UNICOR, was created in 1935, and began supplying the Pentagon on a broad scale in the 1980s.
The prison privatization boom began in the 1980s, under the governments of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr., but reached its height in 1990 under Bill Clinton when the Wall Street stocks were selling like hotcakes. In fact, President Clinton accomplished a record $10 billion prison building boom in the 1990s.
His program for cutting the federal workforce resulted in the Justice Department's contracting of private prison corporations for the incarceration of undocumented workers and high-security inmates. (Global Research, 2008)
By 2003, there were 100 FPI factories working 20,274 prisoners with sales totaling $666.8 million. And currently FPI employs about 19,000 captives, slightly less than 20 percent of the federal prison population, in 106 prison factories around the country. Profits totaled at least $40 million!
In 2005, FPI sold more than $750,000,000 worth of goods to the federal government. Sales to the Army alone put UNICOR on the Army's list of top 50 suppliers, ahead of well-known corporations like Dell Computer, according to Wayne Woolley, Newhouse News Service.
In 2011, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) released a report that exposes how private prison companies are "working to make money through harsh policies and longer sentences." The report notes that while the total number of prisoners increased less than 16 percent, the number of people held in private federal and state facilities increased by 120 and 33 percent, respectively.
Government spending on so-called corrections rose to $74 billion in 2007. And last year (2011) the two largest private prison companies - Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group - made over $2.9 billion in profits. These corporations use three strategies to influence public policy: lobbying, direct campaign contributions and networking. They succeeded in getting Arizona's harsh new immigration laws passed, and came close to winning the privatization of all of Florida's prisons.