The July 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee

 
 

National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website

 

 

In this issue:

Corruption at Oakland Housing Authority

Shot Through the Heart in S.F.

Legal Challenge to Cruel Attacks on SF Homeless

GRIP's Shelter in Richmond

HUD Plans to Demolish Public Housing in New Orleans

Fresno Homeless Attacked

Stonewalling by Bush's ICH on Homeless Issues

Are We Not Our Brother's Keeper

Congress Refuses to Raise the Minimum Wage

Beyond Prisons: Challenge to the Prison System

Penal Servitude

The U.S. Racial Wealth Gap

Poor Working Conditions for Immigrants

AFSC Sues Defense Dept. for Surveillance

Surveillance and Orwell's 1984

Enron's Good Fight

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Self-Realization

July Poetry of the Streets

Child Slavery on African Cocoa Farms

The Worth of Education in the Phillipines


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Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

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The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Penal Servitude

Forced Prison Labor Is a Form of Slavery

An excerpt from Beyond Prisons by Laura Magnani and Harmon Wray

"Art From Jail" Artwork by Jos Sances Serigraph, Edition 120, 8 color, 22" x 30"

"If we look at the chain gangs, jails, and other penal institutions in the country and the state, we arrive at one of two conclusions. Either education and wealth are two of the strongest fortifications against the commission of crime, or there is a different measure of justice for the rich and the poor, white and black, the educated and the unlettered."
-- Raleigh (North Carolina) News and Observer, December 27, 1930

Prisons have always reflected the relationship between wealth and power in a country. In the United States today, prisons still clearly reflect the racism and greed that have shaped the national identity.

The use of prisoner labor for corporate or public-sector profit results in prison labor conditions similar to those reported to exist in China. The United States government has regularly and properly condemned the Chinese government's practices. Prison labor programs, and the privatization of prison systems and programs, encourage prison authorities and the state to maximize the number of people in prison rather than focus on public safety. They further shift prison policies away from constructive programs that actually prepare a prisoner psychologically and practically for his or her return to the community.

The forced labor of prisoners has been a crucial factor in the development of prison policy and in the stabilization of the American economy from the very beginning of the U.S. prison system. From the start of the penitentiary movement, the idea that decreasing idleness through productive labor and quiet reflection upon one's crime in the privacy of one's cell was the best way to reform the prisoner, and the practice of leasing prison laborers to private bidders, became the legal and cultural platform upon which the U.S. prison industry was built.

The United States has frequently relied upon a secondary labor force that is in bondage. Forced labor has always existed alongside of, and been recruited from the ranks of, free labor. In times of economic crisis (most notably the Reconstruction period after the Civil War; the period directly following the collapse of the stock market in 1929; and the current period, as we see great underemployment of minimum-wage and low-skilled workers), the prison population has swelled and prisoners have been put to work. These upsurges in the prison population historically have not been followed by a proportional abatement in the number of those imprisoned when the economic crisis has subsided.

Before the abolition of slavery, there were few prisons and penitentiaries in the United States. All large penitentiaries were in northern states. Southern states had smaller prisons, populated almost entirely by white people, since slave owners conducted their own punishment of their slaves. The rapid expansion of state prison systems in the late 19th century had the effect of maintaining the power, racial, and economic relationships that existed under slavery.

When slavery was abolished, the Slave Codes, which had regulated the behavior of slaves and all those of African descent, were rewritten as the Black Codes. The Black Codes had been used in northern states as early as 1790 to criminalize previously legal activities for African Americans and to regulate the activities of free people of African descent. Black men were arrested for "vagrancy" or "breaking curfew." In the South, after the Civil War, former slaves were sentenced to prison and then leased out by the prison to work for local plantation owners.

In the southern states, with the protection of the Thirteenth Amendment, the convict lease system expanded beyond the old slave plantations to include coal mining, railroad building, and other businesses rising in the "New South." In the 1880s, a fledgling labor movement took on the former slave states' exploitation of black and poor white prisoner labor and its effects of disemploying free labor and driving free-world wages down. After decades of political, sometimes violent, struggle, the convict lease system died out in most of the South by the early 20th century.

Just as sharecropping and tenant farming replaced slave labor, the convict lease system was replaced by a combination of chain gangs of prisoners (often under county jurisdictions), working on roads and other public works, and state prison industries run by the governments. Since organized labor had successfully pushed through laws prohibiting states from marketing prison-made merchandise on the open market, many prisoners were put to work manufacturing products to be used only in and by state government -- for example, office furniture, license plates, road signs, and work clothes and uniforms for prisoners and state workers. Others were employed in various farming, maintenance, food service, and laundry service work for the prisons themselves.

In 1979, the U.S. government repealed the interstate transport law that had forbidden interstate transport of prisoner-made goods. The Department of Justice implemented a national work program throughout the federal prison system. There, prisoners theoretically work for minimum wage, of which 80 percent is withheld for room, board, survivor compensation, medical fees, and educational costs.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the economy saw increased mobility of U.S. corporations and the growth of transnational corporations. Seeking greater profit, manufacturers continued their century-long pattern of first going to the southern states, where labor was unorganized. Later, many plants and jobs were moved to poorer nations, as companies continued to seek to maximize profits at the expense of labor.

The flight of factories from manufacturing centers has left entire cities economically unstable. The ensuing poverty and economic vulnerability has resulted in dramatic increases in criminal activity, usually drug crimes and crimes against property, in urban communities. Some jobs are now returning to the United States -- but to the prisons, which contract with private industry, instead of to the urban centers. Industrial programs in prisons subsidize private industry by providing free factory space, subsidies for the tooling of the factory, security, electricity, and guaranteed cheap labor.

Thirty states now allow some type of legalized contracting of prison labor to private firms. Thus, prison labor has become an alternative to moving offshore for many corporations. Workers unemployed because of job flight -- and their children -- are now working these jobs in prison. Upon release, they will go home to the same poor and jobless communities, and they will be as vulnerable to crime as they were before they went to prison.

Involuntary penal servitude

"What we have is a billion-dollar manufacturing industry that legally utilizes slave labor, has little overhead, is unregulated by state and federal workplace safety or labor laws, provides no health insurance or benefits and no sick pay for its employees, includes hazardous materials in the construction of its products, forces customers to buy its products under penalty of law, and prohibits its workers from organizing."
-- Karyl Kicenski, "The Corporate Prison: The Production of Crime and the Sale of Discipline," 2002

Today, all forms of convict labor have returned in one form or another. Minimum-wage laws usually do not cover prisoners. They do not receive workers' compensation if they are injured while working. Prison laborers are not protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act, nor the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Prison laborers are not permitted to meet among themselves to try to improve their working conditions. Average minimum wages for state prison labor in this country are $0.93 a day for nonindustry work; average maximum wages are $4.73 a day. The wages are much lower than public- or private-sector minimum wages because the vast majority of prisoners work in institutional prison jobs, not in jobs with private industry.

Private-industry state prison jobs pay anywhere from $0.23 to $7.00 an hour, but the "take-home" portion of prison pay is only about 20 percent of that amount. This is equivalent to the cost of maquiladora labor in the factories across the border in Mexico, which pay extremely low wages and have notoriously poor working conditions. Due to severe restrictions on the rights of prison labor, it is not surprising that some industries are turning to the use of prison labor as an alternative to moving offshore.

Politicians and policymakers like to promote prison labor programs as job training, but products fabricated by prisoners are products not being produced by free workers. Thus, labor skills mastered in prison do not necessarily translate into jobs upon release. Private industries, for their part, use prison laborers to drive wages and benefits down and to wield power over their external work force.

While prison officials use prison labor as a management tool, prisoners use it as their only legal way to earn any revenue. Statistics on the hiring of former prisoners do not exist, but very few former prisoners report being hired as a result of their prison work experience. In principle, a fair and voluntary work program, paying meaningful wages for meaningful work, with reasonable opportunities to unionize, gain promotions and raises, and learn job skills marketable on the outside upon release, would serve both prisoners and society.

But under the present penal regime, prison-industry programs are about exploiting vulnerable people's labor for wealthy executives' and shareholders' profit, not about job training.

Slavery and the 13th Amendment

The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

We oppose slavery of all kinds - including the use of prisoner labor for profit -- while supporting the creation of substantial job-training programs. The AFSC National Board calls for revision of this amendment so this exception clause is deleted and the Thirteenth Amendment prohibits all slavery and involuntary servitude within the United States.

Work may be seen by some as a legitimate sanction -- a way for people to "give back" if they have caused harm. However, permitting slavery as an exception to the Thirteenth Amendment makes the prison system the direct heir to the chattel system. The fact that the United States incarcerates people of color at an alarmingly higher rate than whites makes this heritage all too clear.

Beyond Prisons
A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System

by Laura Magnani & Harmon Wray

Published 2006 by Fortress Press
208 pages
Price $13.00
Phone: 1-800-328-4648
www.fortresspress.org


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