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US Prison Labor and US Corporations

April 25, 1997

As prison populations explode nationwide, more companies are using prisons for cheap and controlled labor to produce a range of private sector goods, from Microsoft equipment to aircraft components. Paul Wright, prisoner at Washington State Reformatory and editor of Prison Legal News, recently published an article on prison labor in the Covert Action Quarterly, called "Captive Labor: US Business Goes to Jail." More private sector business use prisons for cheap labor and also benefit from state subsidies as a result. Some of the companies that have utilized the Reformatory’s prison labor include Washington Marketing Group (prisoners calling voters to help elect Jack Metcalf on tough on crime platform), Redwood Outdoors (garment sweatshop operation), Elliot Bay (metal fabrication plant), Microjet (aircraft components for Boeing). Prisoners are making minimum wage on paper but are happy to work under these conditions because there is 50% prisoner unemployment rate and the alternative would be jobs that make 38-40 cents an hour (vs. minimum wage). Wright argues that it is ironic that the media has made much of US companies (e.g., Boeing) going to China for cheap labor, with the workers in China being forbidden to unionize and having poor working conditions yet the same conditions apply in State of Washington, but with little media interest. What’s wrong with having prisoners pay through work for their captivity? Wright believes that it is wrong because the taxpayers are paying for the prisoners but the corporations are the ones to benefit from prison labor. Corporations who use prison labor don’t have to: pay overhead even if no production is taking place; pay benefits; pay workman’s compensation for injured workers. Wright also does not believe that the current forms of prison labor provide valuable workforce training for the prisoners as most of the work is manual labor. Wright talked about UNICORP, a government run federal prison industry that, ironically, is making equipment for the military and the police. The Federal government must allow UNICORP first bid on anything government procurement before private companies can bid. Usually, the UNICORP cost is higher and the quality is lower. Wright concludes this segment with his recommendations for reform of the prison labor system.


Paul Wright, prisoner at Washington State Reformatory and editor of Prison Legal New

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