Friday, February 26, 2010

US prison labour -- a return to slavery?

By Ray Jones

THE UNITED States holds 2.3 million people in Federal and local prisons – many of them black or Hispanic. This is half a million more than People’s China even though China’s population is five times the size of that of the United States.
The US holds 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners while only having five per cent of the world’s population. This not due to some terrible crime wave; in fact crime in the US has actually been going down while the number in prison has gone up.
Jail sentences have become longer, especially for possession of small amounts of drugs, and the “three strikes” rule means that for a minor offence – if it’s the third one – you can end up behind bars for life.
The laws themselves can have an anti working class, anti black, bias. For example, Federal law demands five years inside without parole for possession of five grammes of crack cocaine but to get five years for possession of cocaine powder you need to have 500 grammes. Why the difference? Well, crack is more common in black and Hispanic areas while cocaine powder is the preferred drug of the white middle class.
There is evidence to suggest that the drive behind this is economic, tainted with racism.
Prison labour in the US can be said to have its origins in slavery. After the Civil War when slaves were officially freed many were forced to enter the sharecropping system, where they orked somebody else’s land in return for a small share of the crop.
Those who in anyway breached their contracts or were convicted of minor crimes were arrested and then “hired-out” by the authorities to pick cotton, work in mines or build railroads. In the Deep South almost all those “hired-out” were of course black.
In 1885 Texas forced prisoners, mostly black, to haul granite to build the new state capital. The skilled stone cutters’ union protested at the use of prison labour and boycotted the building site and in reply the contractor brought in scab stone cutters all the way from Scotland to break the strike.
In Briceville, Tennessee, in 1891 coal mine owners insisted on banning union membership and miners were locked-out while convicts were brought in to scab. The response of the miners was to attack the stockade where the prisoners were held and set them free. The company then gave in and the miners were rehired and no more prison labour was used.
By the end of the 1900s most states had ended the use of contract prison labour; partly due to the public out cry at the brutality often involved and partly due to corruption, as firms bribed authorities to get the cheapest labour. But the infamous chain gangs of the South continued until the 1950s and were even resurrected in the 1990s in Alabama and Arizona to work on roads.
Federal Prison Industries Inc., trade name UNICOR, is a government-owned corporation that was formed in 1934 on the overt grounds that idleness in prisons was a problem and that prisoners would benefit from learning skills and labour discipline. UNICOR now has a sales total of about $2.4 billion and rising.
The number of private prisons run for profit has increased from five in 1998 to over a hundred today.
According to US law prison industries are restricted in what and when they can sell to the general public and indeed most of UNICOR’s sales go government agencies such as the military. All military helmets, bullet-proof vests – along with more mundane things such as shirts and pants – are made by prison labour and agencies are obliged to give prison manufacture priority.
But the prison industry is allowed to sell to the public under certain conditions – if they pay the “prevailing wage” for the work and if part of that wage goes as restitution to victims of crime.
Also there is a Federal minimum wage that currently stands at $7.25 per hour and most states have their own minimum which is usually a little higher (although in at least one case it is lower!). In those states which don’t set their own minimum, these are largely in the poorer South, the Federal rate is supposed to apply.
Prison work is, according to law, voluntary.
These regulations are designed to protect small and medium businesses and free labour from unfair competition and prisoners from sinking into virtual slavery. But more and more they are being circumvented in the drive for profit. Both unions and some small businesses have been fighting a running battle against the exploitation of prison labour but it is hard going.
One morning, for example, members of the Teamsters union (transport and general workers) turned up outside a notorious low-paying firm to leaflet the early shift in an attempt to organise the company. To their amazement the shift turned up in a prison van!
Providing services is not restricted by law so many call centres are now staffed by prisoners.
When radical lawyer Tony Serra ended up in a Federal prison for non payment of taxes he was put to work in the prison garden for 19 cents-per-hour and noted that other inmates were paid as little as five cents-per-hour for much harder work.
Inmates in Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana have been de-boning chickens for four cents-per-hour for a private company.
Although many prisoners do volunteer to work to escape from mind-crushing boredom and in the hope of a little pocket money, there are often repercussions for those who refuse to. They can end up spending more time behind bars or even in solitary confinement so how far many can be said to freely volunteer is open to serious doubt.
Those who do “volunteer” are often short-changed and end up working for a pittance, especially in private prisons. Deductions from wages for victim compensation, travel, room and board (!) and other fees can reduce the final amount to just a few cents.
Work for prisoners is of course desirable, for their own sakes and for society’s. But it must be humane and done in a way which incorporates them into the organised working class – capitalism obviously is going to have serious problems in organising either of these imperatives.