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.

Will Falk moved to the West Coast from Milwaukee, WI where he was a public defender.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
July 28, 2015
Mark Schuller
Humanitarian Occupation of Haiti: 100 Years and Counting
Lawrence Ware
Why the “Black Church” Doesn’t Exist–and Never Has
Peter Makhlouf
Israel and Gaza: the BDS Movement One Year After “Protective Edge”
Eric Draitser
China’s NGO Law: Countering Western Soft Power and Subversion
Paul Craig Roberts - Dave Kranzler
Supply and Demand in the Gold and Silver Futures Markets
Carl Finamore
Landlords Behaving Badly: San Francisco Too Valuable for Poor People*
Michael P. Bradley
Educating About Islam: Problems of Selectivity and Imbalance
Binoy Kampmark
Ransacking Malaysia: the Najib Corruption Dossier
Michael Avender - Medea Benjamin
El Salvador’s Draconian Abortion Laws: a Miscarriage of Justice
Jesse Jackson
Sandra Bland’s Only Crime Was Driving While Black
Cesar Chelala
Effect of Greece’s Economic Crisis on Public Health
Mel Gurtov
Netanyahu: An Enemy of Peace
Joseph G. Ramsey
The Limits of Optimism: E.L. Doctorow and the American Left
George Wuerthner
Bark Beetles and Forest Fires: Another Myth Goes Up in Smoke
Harvey Wasserman
Will Ohio Gov. Kasich’s Anti-Green Resume Kill His Presidential Hopes?
Jon Langford
Mekons Tour Diary, Episode 4, a Bowery Ballroom Blitz
July 27, 2015
Susan Babbitt
Thawing Relations: Cuba’s Deeper (More Challenging) Significance
Howard Lisnoff
Bernie Sanders: Savior or Seducer of the Anti-War Left?
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma’s Profiteers: You Want Us to Pay What for These Meds?
John Halle
On Berniebots and Hillary Hacks, Dean Screams, Swiftboating and Smears
Stephen Lendman
Cleveland Police Attack Black Activists
Joshua Sperber
What is a President? The CEO of Capitalism
Patrick Cockburn
Only Iraq’s Clerics Can Defeat ISIS
Ralph Nader
Sending a ‘Citizens Summons’ to Members of Congress
Clancy Sigal
Scratch That Itch: Hillary and The Donald
Colin Todhunter
Working Class War Fodder
Gareth Porter
Obama’s Version of Iran Nuke Deal: a Second False Narrative
Zoe Konstantopoulou
The Politics of Coercion in Greece
Vacy Vlanza
Without BDS, Palestine is Alone
Laura Finley
Adjunct Professors and Worker’s Rights
Jon Langford
Mekons Tour Diary, Episode Three, Where We Thrill Everyone by Playing Like “Utter Bloody Garbage”
Weekend Edition
July 24-26, 2015
Mike Whitney
Picked Out a Coffin Yet? Take Ibuprofen and Die
Henry Giroux
America’s New Brutalism: the Death of Sandra Bland
Rob Urie
Capitalism, Engineered Dependencies and the Eurozone
Michael Lanigan
Lynn’s Story: an Irish Woman in Search of an Abortion
Paul Street
Deleting Crimes at the New York Times: Airbrushing History at the Paper of Record
ISMAEL HOSSEIN-ZADEH
Making Sense of the Iran Nuclear Deal: Geopolitical Implications
Andrew Levine
After the Iran Deal: Israel is Down But Far From Out
Uri Avnery
Sheldon’s Stooges: Netanyahu and the King of Vegas
David Swanson
George Clooney Paid by War Profiteers
ANDRE VLTCHEK
They Say Paraguay is in Africa: Mosaic of Horror
Horace G. Campbell
Obama in Kenya: Will He Cater to the Barons or the People?
Michael Welton
Surviving Together: Canadian Public Tradition Under Threat
Rev. William Alberts
American Imperialism’s Military Chaplains
Yorgos Mitralias
Black Days: August 4th,1914 Germany and July 13th, 2015 Greece