Slavery in U.S. Prison System

The Justice Department reported in August that there are nearly 1.6 million men and women incarcerated in the United States — currently the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. This startling figure tops off a decade of rapid expansion of America’s prison population, fueled by a “war on drugs” that is steadily undermining the rights so succinctly expressed in the Bill of Rights more than 200 years ago.

Angola Prison: Louisiana

Angola Prison: Louisiana

As 1995 drew to a close, one out of every 167 Americans was in prison or jail, compared to one out of 320 in 1985, when the crack cocaine trade began to proliferate. The total number of inmates has more than doubled in the past decade, and we just can’t seem to build enough prisons to keep them all in.

Add the trend towards private prison facility management and corporate use of prison labor, and you have an extremely unsettling social situation. Are we witnessing the creation of a slave labor force for the corporate New World Order?

Quite possibly, if the Oakhill Correctional Institute in Dane County, Wisconsin serves as a model. Seventeen inmates crowded in a makeshift basement factory in that facility crank out over a million dollars’ worth of office chairs per year, in exchange for wages ranging from twenty cents to $1.50 per hour.

The operation is run by Badger State Industries, the Wisconsin prison industries program, which employs 600 inmates and which raked in a $1.2 million profit in 1995. In the past, to protect manufacturers from unfair competition, Wisconsin allowed sale of prison-made goods only to state and local government agencies. But Governor Tommy Thompson’s new state budget allows commercial entities to use prison facilities and labor for manufacturing purposes. The money will be used to pay for the costs of incarcerating the prisoners — including the ones who work in the factories.

Wisconsin is following the lead of other states, such as California, Tennessee, Kansas, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Nevada and Iowa, which have incorporated prisoners into the labor force, placing artificial downward pressure on wages. Thousands of state and federal prisoners are currently generating more than $1 billion per year in sales for private businesses, often competing directly with the private sector labor force. The Correctional Industries Association predicts that by the year 2000, 30 percent of America’s inmate population will labor to create nearly $9 billion in sales for private business interests.

Oregon has even started advertising its prison labor force and factories, claiming that businesses who utilize incarcerated workers would otherwise go overseas for cheap labor (thanks, GATT and NAFTA!). In 1995, an overwhelming majority of Oregon voters passed a constitutional amendment that will put 100 percent of its state inmates to work.

And they’ll be making a lot more than license plates and road signs. One product of Oregon’s inmate factories are uniforms for McDonald’s. Tennessee inmates stitch together jeans for Kmart and JC Penney, as well as $80 wooden rocking ponies for Eddie Bauer. Mattresses and furniture are perennial favorites in prison factories, and Ohio inmates even produced car parts for Honda, until the United Auto Workers intervened. Prisoners have been employed doing data entry, assembling computer circuit boards and even taking credit card ticket orders for TWA.

But private industry isn’t the only sector eager to exploit cheap prison labor. On June 14, 1995, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly rejected an amendment to the 1996 Defense Authorization bill which would have permitted the Defense Department to use nonviolent offender inmates provided by state or local corrections facilities to do construction and maintenance services at military installations.

Although prison manufacturing facilities do offer short-term benefits at a time when budgets are strained to the breaking point, the system is ripe for exploitation and abuse by government and corporate entities seeking to cut financial corners. Proponents of prison labor say it is “good” for inmates, providing income and on-the-job training they would have never received otherwise.

But due to a lack of restrictions to prevent abuse of the prison labor force, many inmates view the situation very differently. At Soledad near Monterey, California, prisoners earn 45 cents per hour making blue work shirts, which, once deductions are taken out, adds up to $60 for a month of 40-hour work weeks. “They put you on a machine and expect you to put out for them,” Soledad inmate Dino Navarrete told Arm the Spirit. “Nobody wants to do that. These jobs are jokes to most inmates here.”

So why do they do it? In California, prisoners who refuse to work are moved to discliplinary housing and lose canteen priveleges, as well as “good time” credit that slices hard time off their sentences. Corporatization of prison labor abuses inmates, exploits their labor and inevitably reduces the value of the private sector work force. What is a troubling trend today may become a social and economic disaster in the future. ParaScope will be keeping a close eye on the trend towards prison labor; stay tuned for future updates on the situation.

For more information, see the sources below, or consult the Prison Activist Resource Center.


Sniffen, Michael J., “One out of 167 Americans Incarcerated,” Associated Press, 18 August 1996.

Elbow, Steven, “Doing Time, 9 to 5,” Isthmus, 1995.

Prison Labor, Prison Blues,” AFL-CIO Labor Letter.

Erlich, Reese, “Prison Labor: Workin’ For The Man,” Arm the Spirit, 30 November 1995.

16 comments to Slavery in U.S. Prison System

  • bgstrong

    The disgracefully high American prison population is a direct result of the American War on Drugs which is a Govt. Employment Program.

  • Dinah Bordum

    Look at California's prison crisis….I think a reasonable correlation is the power of the employee unions such as CCPOA and the political influence of corporate prison interests both of which are totally committed to making sure that the prison system grows. The prisons are supposed to be run by the State but everyone knows it's the Correctional Officers Union that call the shots. Collecting almost 2 million bucks a month from its members makes it a powerful entity and a major donor to candidates who do their bidding, keeping prisons full and profitable.

    They do this by supporting legislators who they can count on to criminalize more and more behavior and increase the existing sentences for laws already on the books and by direct donations to every group that wants to throw another 'law and order' initiative on a public that obviously does not read before they vote. Their mission: Keep as many as they can cram in locked up for as long as possible so inept prison employees keep making $150,000 a year to babysit pot smokers.

    It is not only the CCPOA that want the jails full, it's the companies contracting slave labor from them. All these uber-conservatives crying about illegal immigrants taking their jobs because they’re willing to do it for less money. They’re not willing to do it for a dollar a day! That’s what inmates get when they’re forced to work manufacturing everything from clothing to computers. Jobs that used to be filled by us. The sad part is California voters never bother to question anything and buy into the propaganda of whoever talks the loudest.

    There are currently many laws that call for mandatory first offense prison sentences. Offenders are "always" (with the exception of capital cases) offered a plea agreement (the courts could never handle it if all defendants elected to go to trial) and their choice is take the plea agreement or take it to trial, but, if they elect trial and found guilty the will receive the highest sentence possible. Most defendants (guilty or not) go for the plea agreement. Judges no longer have any discretion in sentencing … so it's the D.A.'s call and a notch in there conviction scorecard.

    Once the convicted defendant reaches prison he or she faces a hostile environment that is so perverse in nature that even the convicted persons family suffers it's wrath, gray gloom that can crush the hardest of souls

    California now has the biggest prison system in the world, a system 40 percent bigger than the Federal Bureau of prisons. The state holds more inmates in its jails and prisons than do France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and the Netherlands combined.

    At the current rate of expansion, assuming they again ignore a court order that forces release of prisoners, it will run out of room in a very short time. To remain at double capacity the state will need to open at least one new prison a year, every year. This would just maintain the current standards, not improve them. It doesn’t take a genius to see the problem here, but then again California isn’t real big on education.

  • MG

    Wow, nice heartfelt comment, some of those statistics are an outrage, such as:

    California now has the biggest prison system in the world, a system 40 percent bigger than the Federal Bureau of prisons. The state holds more inmates in its jails and prisons than do France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and the Netherlands combined.

    Do you happen to have any sources for that stat?, completely shocking and unacceptable if true!

    And I have to agree with bgstrong, a large chunk of the prison population is due to the overzealous drug laws in the U.S., drug laws and their result cause much more misery than they solve.

  • MJM

    Really? Wow…are you that much of a 'bleeding heart liberal' person that you must push this dribble?

    Simple language…the fact that they get paid 'something' is a positive. Otherwise…WE…PAY FOR THEM!!! Use your head people!!!

    WE PAY (the non-criminals)…pay for the prisons to be build, the people to run them, the people to keep them in, the people who are there to keep them from killing each other, we provide healthcare, education opportunities, physical fitness/exercise time, feed them, clothe them, CABLE television…in color, doing their laundry and in MOST cases…WE pay for their 'court appointed' attorney's legal fees!

    THEY PAY…for…nothing!!!

    So, unless they provide SOME kind of 'help' that only helps 'reduce no eliminate' the cost of keeping them around….then we'd have no choice but to raise taxes on everyone else that is not a criminal!!!

    I am sure that the money raised by them doing 'some kind of work' falls VERY SHORT of covering the cost of keeping them warm and healthy…so paying them ANY wage is amazing…and only serves to help reduce the ability to call it slave labor!

    The alternative…lets let them move into YOUR neighborhood, live next to your mom, sister, family, kids, etc…and pay them a 'real wage' instead. Then we'll see if paying them a 'token wage' but using the rest of the funds earned to keep them OUT of society and away from our mothers, wives, children…and ourselves…is worth the cost!

    IT IS EXPENSIVE to keep the WORST and most EVIL people in society ALIVE and HEALTHY but safely away from the rest of us. But, what's the alternative…death penalties? A bullet, a rope, chemical poisons, etc are relatively cheap, ask Saddam Hussein and the many other mass murderers throughout history. We, as a society, have chosen to take the higher moral road and 'house' these people in safe, secure and relatively comfortable environments…even working to keep them safe from each other…unlike nearly every other prison system in the world.

    So, no…you won't hear any 'sympathy' from me or anyone else who thinks this through. Any work they do is the equivalent of your kids helping to clean the dishes, mow the yard, or make their own beds…we provide the housing and the care that keeps you alive, clothed and healthy…the LEAST you can do is to help-out around the place!

    • Who’s spouting liberal drivel? Isn’t this exactly what China does? That’s the conventional wisdom isn’t it, but it’s only half baked. The proof is in the pudding, it simply doesn’t work and costs too much money. If a bureaucracy continues to do something that is a proven failure, then the only logic you can make is that there’s corruption involved. Chain gangs are historically a corrupt practice. A true conservative would say, ‘Yes, let them move next door and when they break into granma’s house in the middle of the night…well I know granny has a 12 gauge parked next to her bed.’ That’s cheaper and more sensible than giving them a criminal education, full room and board; then releasing them back into society.

  • Terry Wagar

    My wife Joan Wagar and her lover Eric Carlson organized a very large murder conspiracy at East Port Walmart and also at Clackamas Walmart!
    My wife started poisoning me after she started their affair and they recruited employees to help them hide their affair from me and from Eric Carlson’s wife.
    I discovered their nick names walmart employees gave them before I discovered their affair, they were nick named Doubleclick and Mrs Dash, my wife admitted to those nick name4s to my daughters and I overheard the conversation.
    I did not know what they stood for but I was ill at the time so I suspected an affair and also the possibility I was being poisoned.
    I found out about a month later what Eric Carlson’s nick name stood for, I saw him at East Port Walmart, he is almost a twin to me, and no one wanted me to KNOW IT!
    Not long after this I found evidence of my wife emailing Doubleclick and their admitting to their affair, their also admitting to having it out for Eric Carlson’s wife!
    I tried to warn Eric Carlson’s wife over the phone, I asked if we could meet in person because I wanted her to see the resemblance because I didn’t think she would believe me over the phone, I wanted her to read their email and wanted her to see my appearance, but she never showed up!
    The next day my wife poisoned the hell out of me and a relative of Eric Carlson’s covered it up at the hospital, he is in law enforcement and he kept labeling me as a bad guy to my doctor until the doctor got the hint to shut up about me being poisoned, I overheard the conversation out in the hallway!
    Ever since I have been kept isolated by my family from others and they pretended nothing’s wrong the entire time trying to cover it up!
    I was a plasma donor when they were poisoning me, and Eric Carlson’s relatives in law enforcement arranged so that I cannot get help at a hospital!
    Both Eric Carlson and Joan Wagar transferred to Clackamas Walmart and they recruited employees there to press false charges against me for what Eric Carlson does, while they hide Eric Carlson’s employment by calling him by alias’s!
    Clackamas Walmart employees take photos of Eric Carlson following children around in the store while dressed as me and they were printing out flier’s with my picture on it.
    The whole time I’m stuck at home, crippled from being poisoned, my wife pretending to love me, and she is one of the employees that printed out the flier’s!
    They gave me a reputation all over Portland Oregon this way, while hiding a body doubles employment!
    Doubleclick and Mrs Dash had it all planned out, with help from their Bro’s in law enforcement!

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