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Life Arts    H2'ed 1/28/13

Urban Times' Mohamed Huque on Prison Labor in America

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My guest today is Mohamed Huque, freelance journalist and editor at Urban Times. Welcome to OpEdNews, Mohamed. You recently wrote an article for Urban Times that has generated a lot of buzz:   Made in Prison: The Rise of America's New Labour Class. What got you interested in this topic?

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For the past number of years, I have been reading a lot about the prison-industrial complex; the intricate web of bureaucracy, politics, and economics that have led to the United States having the largest incarceration rate in the world. An important element of that system is the exploitation of prison labour, but very few are aware of it. Most Americans will never have any interaction with the justice system and have little idea of what goes on behind the high walls and watchtowers. But through the goods and services provided by inmates, they are directly involved in the economy that sustains it. I think that is important knowledge they should have the next time they purchase an item from their grocery aisle or department store.

This issue is also important for me as someone living in Canada. Over the last six years, we have had a right-wing government that has taken steps towards privatizing our prisons, introducing mandatory minimums, and other policies that many have regarded as the "Americanization" of our justice system. Given all that we know about the U.S. model, I am greatly concerned by the direction we have also taken.

Let's start at the beginning, Mohamed. Why is prison labor a bad thing? Shouldn't the prisoners be doing something constructive with their time? What constitutes exploitation and how do we draw the line?

I don't believe prison labour is inherently a bad thing. Those serving time behind bars should be given an opportunity to learn valuable skills, gain work experience, meet financial obligations, and potentially leave prison with a small amount saved to restart their lives. This was the intended purpose behind prison work programs and I can fully support that. However, it becomes problematic when inmates are subjected to abusive and unsafe work conditions, when inmates are hired to replace union and public sector workers, and most importantly when they are not given fair wages equivalent to non-inmates in the same locality. This is when it becomes exploitative.

It is interesting to note that although prison labour is widely used in America, federal law prohibits the importation of products made in a similar way from any other country, notably China. And while the penal systems in the two countries are vastly different, on this particular issue, China's "reform through labour" camps are not so dissimilar to the mandate of UNICOR. Both consider the work to be linked to lower recidivism; in China's case it provides a future deterrent, in America's case it provides future employability. In reality however, both countries benefit from a captive labour force, earning profits not equally shared by its prisoners.

Any discussion around prison labour will inevitably lead to differing notions of justice. For some, a criminal offender has forfeited their right to equal treatment because prison is meant to be punitive. Enduring hard work while receiving sub-standard wages is an accepted condition of life behind bars. I don't believe in this. Prison labour must be treated in similar fashion to labour elsewhere, otherwise it is tantamount to modern day slavery.

Back up a step, Mohamed. First things first. What is UNICOR?

Well, UNICOR is a for-profit corporation owned by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. They are the public face behind prison labour at the federal level, and their website offers everything from office furniture to call centre services. By law, UNICOR can only sell its goods and services to other government agencies, but recently that has even drawn criticism since many private companies seeking government contracts can't compete with a company that pays its employees the minimum 23 cents an hour.

At the state and local levels, the same restrictions don't apply and prison-made goods can be sold on the open market. My particular favorite example of this is the slogan for Prison Blues, a brand of jeans made by inmates at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution: "Made on the Inside to be worn on the Outside."

Catchy! Many of us consider ourselves mindful consumers, thrilled when we find something, anything to buy that's American-made.  But, now we have to beware that "made in America"  is not just another name for local exploitation. How can anyone know what's what? I understand many household names utilize prison labor. What's a consumer to do?

It's a difficult choice because so many companies are involved either directly or indirectly through their suppliers. However, I'm not suggesting products be labelled "Made in Prison' so that consumers will know what to avoid because the issue of course is not prison labour, but rather the abuses of prison labour. If a particular company has been identified as mistreating their inmate workers, then a targeted boycott and awareness campaigns could be effective in changing those conditions. This type of activism is what led to Nike changing their own corporate culture when it came to workers' rights, albeit over a period of two decades.

The real solution will have to be legislative. Companies are only taking advantage of the opportunities available to them. If Congress enacted greater protections for prisoners from wages to working conditions, then maybe these programs would operate as they were initially intended. In that sense, as consumers (and more broadly citizens), there needs to be more pressure placed on elected officials. That all begins with educating the public, and hopefully this is a step towards that.

So, I guess it's premature to start boycotting Victoria's Secret, which is rumored to use prison labor, correct?  

If we were to begin boycotting all the companies that are entangled in the use of prison labour, we'd be sewing our own shirts and milking our own cows. No, boycotting the employer is not the solution, treating the prisoner like all other employees is the solution.

How would we even know if a private company is mistreating its prison labor, Mohamed? It's not exactly a transparent system.  Also, how much does the privatization of our prisons fit into the mix? How do we make sure that longer sentences and a growing prison population aren't at least partially driven by corporations' profit motive? Corporations and government work hand in glove in so many sectors; this could be no different .

In my article, I advocate for a formal complaint system to be instituted in all correctional facilities. At the moment, the U.S. has an ombudsman program in certain state prisons, but not all of them. And at the federal level, the only such program is for prison staff who feel their rights as workers have been violated, but unfortunately this does not extend to inmates.

You're certainly right about the privatization of prisons, this is integral to the broader issue. By focusing on prison labour alone, I don't mean to simplify a large, multifaceted problem. The prison-industrial complex is a massive structure and must be dismantled in parts, from reforming drug laws to addressing the school-to-prison pipeline.

In regards to your question though, I personally believe corporations should not be in the business of housing prisoners, but if they do, the economics will definitely need to change. The current model only incentivizes more prisoners doing more time. Private prisons are paid by the government to keep offenders behind bars, but if prison is intended to be a place of rehabilitation, shouldn't that be factored into the funding? You know, in health care insurance there is a growing movement called pay for performance (P4P), in which providers are rewarded if their patients achieve a certain health outcome. I'd like to see a similar strategy with the prison system. A private prison should be penalized or rewarded on the basis of whether their inmate re-offends after release or successfully integrates back into society. The profit motive of corporations will never change, but in this case it is more than simply their shareholders that benefit.

I can't claim to be an expert in this field. But I have been doing an ongoing series with a woman, Judy White, whose husband has been in federal prison [in several facilities] since 2010. In the more than a dozen installments so far, rehabilitation seems to be far from the minds of any prison officials and random, punitive measures to correct and punish anything perceived as rocking the boat or threatening the status quo are quickly and efficiently executed. So, sadly, no, I can't imagine any eagerness to adopt fixes like the ones you mention.  But I like your suggestions. What haven't we talked about yet?

The last thing I'd like to mention is how closely prison labour is tied to the American economy. We know that manufacturing jobs have been increasingly lost to places like Bangladesh and Thailand, where workers are paid a fraction of what they would earn in the U.S.. The rise of a large prison population, able to work for pennies an hour is seen as an alternative to companies who might otherwise look abroad for cheap labour. This kind of insourcing allows American businesses to maintain a domestic workforce, avoid the aggravation of unions, and turn a healthy profit. So you can see now the great challenge it is to introduce new prisoner rights and fair wages. But it can be done so long as enough people believe this is wrong and not what America stands for. If enough people become aware of the issue and are willing to take action, then hopefully we can begin to see a change.

So, how can people learn more? And what can they do, if they're interested in this topic, Mohamed?

When learning about the issue of prison labour today, it's important to recognize how it became this way. There's a wonderful essay entitled Locking Down an American Workforce tracing the history of its use. This is a great starting point. For those wanting to get a deeper understanding of the prison-industrial complex, I would refer to the works of noted civil rights activist, Angela Davis who has written two books on the subject.

Beyond that, readers can support the work of organizations like Critical Resistance, founded by Angela Davis herself, which seeks to challenge and reform the current prison system.

Thanks so much, Mohamed. It wasn't a fun topic and now we can't say that we didn't know. But I'm still glad we talked. Let's keep in touch.
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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