by Kiilu Nyasha
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.” It was adopted 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 and online.)
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 Co. 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 the 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-pound 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 Southern heat for many hours without water or bathroom breaks.
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 Eighth 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
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; and 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 refused 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 an overhaul of California’s prison system, according to “The Melancholy History of Soledad Prison” by Min S. Yee.
California’s prison population has risen 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, such as probation, parole or house arrest.
Since 1984, 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 43 as the number of new prisons and 33, the total number of prisons in California, is explained by additional buildings constructed at a given prison complex.)
Between 1998 and 2009, the CDCR’s budget grew from $3.5 billion to $10.3 billion (the latest figures available). At the overcrowding 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 California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (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 released from state prison in order to comply with the court ordered reduction were transferred to county jails. Currently, the inmate population is about 142,000, and CDCR must remove another 17,000 prisoners to reach the June 2013 court deadline.
Heeding the judge’s call, California voters passed Proposition 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 California Federation of Labor.
Currently, California’s Prison Industrial Authority (CALPIA) employs 7,000 captives assigned to 5,039 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 cents per hour before deductions.
For the state’s highest wage, $1 per hour, prisoners provide the “backbone of the state’s wildland firefighting crews,” according to an unpublished CDCR report. The California Department of Forestry saves more than $80 million annually using prison labor. California’s Department of Forestry has 200 fire crews comprised of CDCR 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.
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,” according to its official Army website, 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 U.S. 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, which “may use inmates from an off-post State and/or local CF”; 3) civil works projects that require such services as 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” make me suspect the “Civilian Inmate Labor Program” is a backdoor draft, especially considering 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 administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. but reached its height in 1990 under Bill Clinton, when 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, according to 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 in 2011 the two largest private prison companies – Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut) – 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.
A relatively new ordering tool used by BOP (Bureau of Prisons) is GSA Advantage! the federal government’s premier online ordering system that provides 24-hour access to over 17 million products and services, solutions available from over 16,000 GSA Multiple Award Schedules contractors, as well as all products available from GSA Global Supply.
The demand for defense products from FPI became so great that “national exigency” provisions were invoked so the 20 percent limit on goods provided in each category could be exceeded. The rules were waived during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Private manufacturers say they’ve been hurt by such practice, as they are unable to bid on various products.
According to the Left Business Observer, Federal Prison Industries produces 100 percent of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bulletproof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98 percent of the entire market for equipment assembly services, 93 percent of paints and paintbrushes, 92 percent of stove assembly, 46 percent of body armor, 36 percent of home appliances, 30 percent of headphones, microphones and speakers, 21 percent of office furniture, plus airplane parts, medical supplies and much more. Prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for blind people.
By 2007, the overall sales figures and profits for federal and state prison industries had skyrocketed into the billions. Apparently, the military industrial complex (MIC) and the prison industrial complex (PIC) have joined forces.
The PIC is a network of public and private prisons, of military personnel, politicians, business contacts, prison guard unions, contractors, subcontractors and suppliers – all making big profits at the expense of the poor people who comprise the overwhelming majority of captives. The fastest growing industry in the country, it has its own trade exhibitions, conventions, websites and mail-order and Internet catalogs and direct advertising campaigns.
Corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners’ labor lobby for longer sentences in order to expand their workforce.
Replacing the “contract and lease” system of the 19th century, private companies that have contracted prison labor include Microsoft, Boeing, Honeywell, IBM, Revlon, Pierre Cardin, Compaq, Victoria Secret, Macy’s, Target, Nordstrom and countless others.
In 1995, there were only five private prisons in the country, with a population of 2,000 inmates; now, private companies operate 264 correctional facilities housing some 99,000 adult prisoners. The two largest private prison corporations in the U.S., GEO Group and CCA, are transnationals, managing prisons and detention centers in 34 states, Australia, Canada, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
A top performer on the New York Stock Exchange, CCA calls California its “new frontier” and boasts of investors such as Wal-Mart, Exxon, General Motors, Ford, Chevrolet, Texaco, Hewlett-Packard, Verizon and UPS. Currently, CCA has 80,000 beds in 65 facilities, and GEO Group operates 61 facilities with 49,000 beds, according to Wikipedia. [Editor's note: for updated data, check CCA and GEO websites]
Employers (read: slavers) don’t have to pay health or unemployment insurance, vacation time, sick leave or overtime. They can hire, fire or reassign inmates as they so desire, and can pay the workers as little as 21 cents an hour. The inmates cannot respond with a strike, file a grievance, or threaten to leave and get a better job.
On Sept. 19, 2005, UNICOR was commended for its outstanding support of the nation’s military. The deputy commander of the Defense Supply Center Philadelphia (DSCP) presented the Bureau of Prisons director with a “Supporting the Warfighter” award. The award recognized UNICOR for its tremendous support of DSCP’s mission to provide equipment, materials and supplies to each branch of the armed forces. “We at DSCP are very appreciative of UNICOR, especially with our critical need items. With more than $200 million worth of orders during fiscal years 2004 and 2005, UNICOR has not had a single delinquency.”
Mass roundups of immigrants and non-citizens, currently about half of all federal prisoners, and dragnets in low-income ‘hoods have increased the prison population to unprecedented levels. Andrea Hornbein points out in Profit Motive: “The majority of these arrests are for low level offenses or outstanding warrants and impact the taxpayer far more than the offense. For example, a $300 robbery resulting in a five-year sentence, at the Massachusetts average of $43,000 per year, will cost $215,000. That doesn’t even include law enforcement and court costs.”
Nearly 75 percent of all prisoners are drug war captives. A criminal record today practically forces an ex-con into illegal employment since he doesn’t qualify for legitimate jobs or subsidized housing. Minor parole violations, unaffordable bail, parole denials, longer mandatory sentencing and three strikes laws, slashing of welfare rolls, overburdened court systems, shortages of public defenders, massive closings of mental hospitals and high unemployment – about 50 percent for Black men – all contribute to the high rates of incarceration and recidivism. Thus, the slave labor pool continues to expand.
Among the most powerful unions today are the guards’ unions. The California Corrections Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) wields so much political power it practically decides who governs the state. Moreover, its members get the state’s biggest payouts, according to the L.A. Times: “More than 1,600 officers’ earnings exceeded legislators’ 2007 salaries of $113,098.” Base pay for 6,000 guards earning $100,000 or more totaled $453 million, with overtime adding another $220 million to wages. One lieutenant earned $252,570; that’s more than any other state official, including the governor.
California’s per prisoner cost has risen to $49,000, and that figure doubles and triples for elderly and high-security captives. That’s enough money to send a person through Harvard!
The National Correctional Industries Association (NCIA) is an international nonprofit professional association, whose self-declared mission is “to promote excellence and credibility in correctional industries through professional development and innovative business solutions.”
NCIA’s members include all 50 state correctional industry agencies, Federal Prison Industries, foreign correctional industry agencies, city and county jail industry programs, and private sector companies working in partnership with correctional industries.
Chattel slavery was ended following prolonged guerrilla warfare between the slaves and the slave-owners and their political allies. Referred to as the “Underground Railroad,” it was led by the revolutionary General Harriet Tubman with support from her alliances with abolitionists, Black and White. It only makes sense that this new form of slavery must produce prison abolitionists.
As George Jackson noted in a KPFA interview with Karen Wald in the spring of 1971: “I’m saying that it’s impossible, impossible, to concentration-camp resisters. … We have to prove that this thing won’t work here. And the only way to prove it is resistance … and then that resistance has to be supported, of course, from the street. … We can fight, but the results are … not conducive to proving our point … that this thing won’t work on us. From inside, we fight and we die. … (T)he point is – in the new face of war – to fight and win.”
Power to the people.
Kiilu Nyasha, Black Panther veteran, revolutionary journalist and Bay View columnist, blogs at The Official Website of Kiilu Nyasha, where episodes of her TV talk show, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, along with her essays are posted. She can be reached at Kiilu2@sbcglobal.net. This essay, originally written in 2007, was updated in March 2012.