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New Exposé Tracks ALEC-Private Prison Industry Effort to Replace Unionized Workers with Prison Labor

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Many of the toughest sentencing laws responsible for the explosion of the U.S. prison population were drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which helps corporations write model legislation. Now a new exposé reveals ALEC has paved the way for states and corporations to replace unionized workers with prison labor. We speak with Mike Elk, contributing labor reporter at The Nation magazine. He says ALEC and private prison companies “put a mass amount of people in jail, and then they created a situation where they could exploit that.” Elk notes that in 2005 more than 14 million pounds of beef infected with rat feces processed by inmates were not recalled, in order to avoid drawing attention to how many products are made by prison labor. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor” is our next segment. Lisa Graves, of the Center for Media and Democracy, in New Orleans. I wanted to turn now to the article I just referenced, which begins: “The breaded chicken patty your child bites into at school may have been made by a worker earning twenty cents an hour, not in a faraway country, but by a member of an invisible American workforce: prisoners.”

Mike Elk is our next guest. He’s a contributing editor to The Nation magazine and has done this exposé with Bob Sloan in The Nation.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Continue on this story.

MIKE ELK: So, one of the—by far, one of the most perverse effects that ALEC has had on American society is the dramatic increase in the amount of prisoners incarcerated in this country. In 1980, there were only a half a million people incarcerated in this country. Now that number has quadrupled to nearly 2.4 million. One out of every 100 American adults is in prison, the majority of them for nonviolent drug offenses. You know, the United States has four percent of the world’s population, but yet we have 25 percent of the world’s prisoners in this country. And a big part of the reason for that is ALEC. Starting in the 1980s, ALEC, with the sponsorship of, you know, the Corrections Corporation of America—

AMY GOODMAN: And let me just remind people, ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council.

MIKE ELK: Yeah, ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, started passing bills in individual states to privatize prisons. So now, state—there’s prison companies that could make money by keeping people in prisons. So then ALEC—what they did after that was they got states to pass tougher drug laws, tougher laws that would put prisoners away for a long time. In fact, one of the first bills introduced in 1995, by then-Wisconsin State Representative Scott Walker, was an ALEC bill, where he cited ALEC statistics, and he was an ALEC member, where he drew his inspiration. So they put a mass amount of people in jail, and then they created a situation where they could exploit that.

And now what we’re seeing is the incredible rise of prison labor, where you have prisoners making as much as 20 cents an hour, making everything from the electronic components in guided missiles, that are being used in Libya, to breaded chicken patties that your children are eating at school, to, in fact, maybe even these office chairs we’re sitting in now. We have over 100,000 prisoners employed, working for private corporations. And before the 1990s and ALEC, this did not occur in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to another clip of the interview that Terry Gross of NPR did with the ALEC chair, Noble Ellington, for an example of legislation that was introduced and passed recently in state legislatures based on model legislation drafted by ALEC members. Noble Ellington mentioned legislation on prison reform.

REP. NOBLE ELLINGTON: Well, they may start out in cooperation together, the corporations and the ALEC members. They may start out together, but only—only legislative members approve model legislation, not the private sector advisory board. And yes, in—and I’ll give you Louisiana. This year, working with the Pew Foundation, we introduced some legislation working on prison reform, trying to stop recidivism and make the time that the prisoners have to serve, attempt to shorten that.

AMY GOODMAN: Noble Ellington, the chair of ALEC, on Terry Gross’s program on NPR. Mike Elk, your response?

MIKE ELK: Well, the response now is, there are so many states that are looking to get prisoners out of prison, because it’s expensive. So what happened is, ALEC found another sponsor that could make money off of getting prisoners out of prison. So what ALEC wants to do now is reform the parole system in this country, privatize it. So now prisoners have to put up bond, with private bail bond companies that are owned by big Wall Street firms, where they have to pay outrageous fees in order to get out of prison. And this is something that we haven’t seen before.

So, ALEC, no matter the issue, can find a corporate sponsor. Look, for example, at the Arizona immigration law. My colleague at In These Times, Beau Hodai, showed that ALEC arranged meetings between the Corrections Corporation of America and the Arizona state legislators sponsoring the anti-immigration bill, because having more immigrants detained means more prisons. So, on just about any issue, ALEC can find a way that there’s a corporate partner that can profit off of it.

AMY GOODMAN: If you were at the conference in New Orleans right now, what would you be asking?

MIKE ELK: I would be asking, why are so many corporations, you know, turning to prison labor, of all things? You know, it’s become incredible in this country. You know, you see so many corporations now that going to China isn’t cheap enough anymore. You know, it’s expensive to ship stuff across seas. So they’re coming to the only source of labor that isn’t more expensive than China, which is U.S. prison population. Why are they doing that? Why is ALEC keeping so many people in prison that could be doing something more productive? We spend $60 billion a year in this country keeping people in prison. And having a captive labor workforce that corporations can profit from is just going to make it tougher to have prison reform in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the issue of prison labor versus union labor?

MIKE ELK: Well, as we saw already in Wisconsin, you see now prison labor replacing, you know, unionized public workers, where the prison labor, you know, working in road crews in Racine, Wisconsin, is not getting paid anything. So we’re seeing that come in. We’re seeing factories close down in this country that were employing unionized prison labor, and instead we’re now shifting to prison labor. For instance, in the state of Florida, the largest printing company is Prison Industries. So, now there’s not even a market anymore. So we’re seeing increasingly American workers having to not compete just against Chinese labor that’s forced and exploited, but forced and exploited labor in this own country.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, we have to break, and then we’re going to go back to another story in New Orleans, but we’ve just been talking about the processing of meat. Talk about the story from 2005 around prisoners and meat.

MIKE ELK: My co-author, Bob Sloan, who’s an ex-offender, who actually worked in Prison Industries and has dedicated his life to unveiling, you know, the tragedy of Prison Industries, showed how ATL Industries, back in 2005, had 14 million pounds of beef that they knew was infected with rat feces. Now, many people raised the alarms, and they were even trying to pressure ATL Industries to recall the beef. However, the USDA wouldn’t let them recall the beef, even through a voluntary recall, because they didn’t want to draw attention to how much meat and how many other products in this country are being made by prison labor. So, we have an industry, prison labor, for example, in '95, the U.S. government passed a law, the federal government, that now the regulating body for Prison Industries is not the Department Justice, but the National Correctional Industries Association. This is sort of like turning over bank regulation to the American Bankers Association. So we're seeing an industry that’s basically completely unregulated and poses a great threat, not just to American workers, but to the mouths and health of, you know, American children and adults.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Elk, I want to thank you very much for being with us, contributing editor at The Nation magazine, exposé in The Nation called “The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor.” We’ll link to it at

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