Contributing Writer for Wake Up World
Chances are high that if a product you’re holding says it is “American Made”, it was made in an American prison. ~ U.S. Uncut
For decades now, there has been a push in the United States to support the economy by purchasing items produced in America. On the surface, it seems straightforward, logical and downright patriotic not to outsource work to countries like China or India. But if you dig a bit deeper, you’ll discover a dark secret behind many American manufacturing industries.
When slavery was officially abolished in 1865, the 13th amendment allowed for a loophole which has kept the practice alive and well in the “Land of the Free.” While general slavery was banned under the amendment, it can still be used as a punishment for crime. For over a century, the titans of industry have been taking full advantage of this opportunity — and current day corporations are no exception.
Slave Labor, Profiteering and Other Corporate Maneuvering
Proponents of prison labor believe the experience and skills inmates glean from work helps to prepare them for a brighter future once released back into the world. And, to a certain extent, this is true — except for the fact that, on average, inmates work 8 hours a day and make between $0.23-$1.15 per hour — the top rate a mere sixth of the federal minimum wage. Some would argue the low earnings in and of themselves wouldn’t be enough to condemn the practice, since prison isn’t the appropriate place to earn a fortune.
The ethical dilemma lies with the corporations who are profiting from cheap prison labor. It’s not just that these companies are paying pennies on the dollar for production costs, they also receive enormous tax breaks to the tune of millions a year.
“The point is corporations are profiting off of other peoples’ miseries. In order to impact the prison system, we have to try to take out if we can the profit-money motive,” said Michael Allen, a prison reform advocate. “I’ve gotten a lot of flak that this is rehabilitation, but it’s not real rehabilitation. It smells like someone is exploiting these prisoners and tax law for their own corporate profit.” [Source]
Unfortunately, you would be hard-pressed to find a major company in the U.S. who didn’t use some form of prison labor.
Here’s a sampling of a few big name corporations that participate in the prison labor program:
Whole Foods Market
Purchases goat cheese and tilapia from private companies who use inmates to prepare the products. Prisoners who raise tilapia are paid $0.74 per day. The fish is then sold at Whole Foods Market for $11.99 a pound. Due to protests in Houston, Texas, the company has announced it will stop sourcing foods prepared using prison labor as of April 2016.
Even though Walmart has a clear policy against directly using prison labor, a majority of their third-party suppliers still use inmates for production. The corporation also purchases its produce from Martori Farms, which contracts with The Arizona Department of Corrections for inmate laborers — who are paid $2.00/hour. The conditions are grueling as the workers are exposed to the elements for 8 hours a day and many times run out of drinking water. The inmates are also forced to work even if they have an established medical condition that makes physical labor difficult.
The fast-food chain purchases a spectrum of goods produced in prisons — such as containers, plastic cutlery and uniforms.
The high-end lingerie company employs female inmates to sew undergarments and casual-wear for its stores. The company certainly hasn’t demonstrated that it’s above the lure of corruption. A case in point is when two prisoners were disciplined for telling journalists they replaced “Made in Honduras” labels with “Made in the U.S.A” garment tags for the company.
British Petroleum (BP)
Community members were outraged when the oil corporation chose to hire cheap labor through the prison system — rather than local, out-of-work fisherman — to clean up the toxic Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
After laying off thousands of union telephone operators in 1993, the mammoth phone company switched to inmate labor for their call centers. The workers are paid a mere $2.00 a day.
Industrial agriculture has also turned to cheap prison labor since it’s increasingly difficult to hire migrant workers:
“To meet the needs of the capitalist farmers, the state legislature has partnered with the Colorado Department of Corrections to launch a pilot program this month that will contract with more than a dozen large farms to provide prisoners who will work in the fields. More than 100 prisoners will go to farms near Pueblo, Colorado, to start the program in the coming weeks.
Prisoners will earn a miserable 60 cents a day. The prisoners will be watched by prison guards, who will be paid handsomely by the farmers. The practice is a modern form of slavery.
The corporate farm owners and capitalist politicians are defending the program. They claim that business needs to be “protected” for the sake of capitalist production in the agricultural sector.” [Source]
The Prison-Industrial Complex
Of course, none of this would be possible if it weren’t for the massive Prison-Industrial Complex in America. The crime rate has actually fallen by 20 percent in the U.S. since 1991, but the number of people incarcerated has risen by 50 percent.
“The United States now imprisons more people than any other country in the world—perhaps half a million more than Communist China. The American inmate population has grown so large that it is difficult to comprehend: imagine the combined populations of Atlanta, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Des Moines, and Miami behind bars.” [Source]
This is worrisome for correctional officers who recognize the risks of prison overcrowding. And yet others see an opportunity. Observes Eric Schlosser of The Atlantic: “[t]he nearly two million Americans behind bars—the majority of them nonviolent offenders—mean jobs for depressed regions and windfalls for profiteers.”
Some would say it’s not by coincidence that the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world, which just happens to support a massive for-profit private prison industry and also supplies a cheap source of labor for money-hungry corporations. See: The War On Drugs: How the “Land of the Free” Became the “Home of the Slaves” for 2.3 Million Americans.
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