FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The New Business Model

by DAVID MACARAY

There are several ways to look at prison labor.  We can view it the way guards and wardens do, as having a salutary effect on inmates who would otherwise be doing nothing or, worse, getting into mischief; we can view it the way sociologists do, as providing inmates with marketable skills; we can view it the way taxpayers do, as a way for these useless reprobates to earn their keep instead of bleeding us dry; or we can view it the way working people do, as a genuine threat to their jobs.

While there’s an argument for each of those perspectives, one thing is certain: Because the U.S. leads the world in the number of people living behind bars, and because businesses already realize that plentiful, dirt-cheap prison labor could be a panacea, prison labor is not only going to continue, but as more inmates are “harvested,” as more of them are trained in diverse industries, it’s likely to expand exponentially.

The U.S. used to be recognized as the entrepreneurial capital of the world.  Today (thanks largely to our unenlightened drug laws), we’re recognized as the prison capital of the world.  Just as Mr. Chocolate and Mr. Peanut Butter fortuitously met to form Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, the obvious next step was to combine the two.  Prisoners, meet your new employers.

Take the U.S. federal prison system, for example.  The trade name for Federal Prison Industries (FPI) is UNICOR.  As part of FPI’s charter, UNICOR is required by law to be the authorized vendor for many government agencies.  Prison inmates working for UNICOR are responsible for the manufacture of military apparel and metal office equipment (file cabinets, desks).  By law, private companies aren’t allowed to compete (even if they could).

Created by Congress in 1932, UNICOR not only makes the uniforms and caps that our soldiers wear, they do it for about one-tenth the wages that private textile workers would earn.  And because, as we all know, private textile workers ain’t exactly an overpaid profession, that means that there is no way in hell for America’s private sector textile industry to compete for that business.  Ever.

In flush times, this artificially lop-sided arrangement might not have been hugely important, but with the recession still stubbornly hanging on and with unemployment hovering at just under 9-percent, it’s a fairly big deal.  More ominously, UNICOR has not only been handed these federal contracts on a silver platter, they’ve been allowed to expand.

No longer confined to supplying government agencies, UNICOR is now permitted to manufacture certain other products if they can be shown to compete with off-shore manufacturers.  In other words, if UNICOR can make consumer products as cheaply as a company in Singapore can, they will be allowed to compete in the open market.

There are about 218,000 inmates in U.S. federal prisons, and about 13,000 of them work for UNICOR, whose revenue in 2011 was estimated at $900 million.  But this barely scratches the surface.  This only speaks to the federal prison system.

When we consider state and privately run prisons, the figures are astounding.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), there were more than 2,266,000 adults in U.S. federal and state prisons and county jails at the year-end, 2010.  A workforce composed of labor that potentially cheap is simply too rich a resource, too powerful a temptation, to leave untapped.  The demand for prison labor could explode.

The day could come where America’s burgeoning prison population is responsible for a significant amount of the country’s manual labor.  Of course, the irony in that is overwhelming.  The thought that those “call centers” in India were once considered a major threat to our economy seems almost quaint by comparison.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd Edition), was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net.

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

January 16, 2017
Paul Street
How Pure is Your Hate?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
Did the Elites Have Martin Luther King Jr. Killed?
Robert Hunziker
Global Warming Clobbers Ocean Life
Patrick Cockburn
The Terrifying Parallels Between Trump and Erdogan
Kenneth Surin
The Neoliberal Stranglehold on the American Public University
Lawrence Davidson
Is There a Future for the Democratic Party?
Douglas Valentine
Who Killed MLK Jr?
Robert Fisk
The Foreign Correspondent in the Age of Twitter and Trump
Dale Bryan
“Where Do We Go from Here?”
David Swanson
The Deep State Wants to Deep Six Us
Dan Bacher
Obama Administration Orders Speedy Completion of Delta Tunnels Plan
Mark Weisbrot
Obama Should Make Sure that Haitian Victims of UN-Caused Cholera are Compensated
Winslow Myers
The Light of the World
Bruce Mastron
My Latest Reason to Boycott the NFL: Guns
Weekend Edition
January 13, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Gregory Elich
Did the Russians Really Hack the DNC?
Jeffrey St. Clair
The President Who Wasn’t There: Barack Obama’s Legacy of Impotence
Anthony DiMaggio
Ethics Fiasco: Trump, Divestment and the Perversion of Executive Politics
Joshua Frank
Farewell Obummer, Hello Golden Showers
Paul Street
Hit the Road, Barack: Some Farewell Reflections
Vijay Prashad
After Aleppo: the State of Syria
John Wight
Russia Must be Destroyed: John McCain and the Case of the Dodgy Dossier
Rob Urie
Meet the Deplorables
Patrick Cockburn
The Russian Dossier Reminds Me of the Row Over Saddam’s WMDs
Eric Sommer
U.S.-China War: a Danger Hidden from the American People
Andrew Levine
Are Democrats Still the Lesser Evil?
Linda Pentz Gunter
What’s Really Behind the Indian Point Nuclear Deal?
Robert Fantina
Trucks, ‘Terror’ and Israel
Richard Moser
Universal Values are Revolutionary Values
Russell Mokhiber
Build the Bagdikian Wall: “Sponsored News” at the Washington Post
Yoav Litvin
Establishment Narcissism – The Democrats’ Game of Thrones
David Rosen
Return of the Repressed: Trump & the Revival of the Culture Wars
Robert Koehler
War Consciousness and the F-35
Rev. William Alberts
The New Smell of McCarthyism Demands Faith Leaders Speak Truth to Power
John Laforge
Federal Regulator Halts Move to Toughen Radiation Exposure Limits
Norman Pollack
Farewell Address: Nazification of Hope
David Swanson
Imagine the Confirmation Hearing for Secretary of Peace
CJ Hopkins
Why Ridiculous Official Propaganda Still Works
Ron Jacobs
Striking in Reagan Time
Missy Comley Beattie
The Streep
Graham Peebles
Climate Change: The Potential Impacts of Collective Inaction
Uri Avnery
Confessions of a Megalomaniac
Kenneth Worles
Black Without a Home: King’s Dream Still Deferred
Geoff Dutton
The Russian Patsy
Jill Richardson
The Coming War on Regulations
Jeremy Brecher
Resisting the Trump Agenda is Social Self-Defense
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail