Nothing to Lose But Their Chains

By Stefanie Kelly Sep 10, 1998

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States . . .”

U.S. Constitution, Article XIII, Section 1

In Louisiana, some inmates at the predominantly black Angola State Penitentiary labor all day for four cents an hour in former plantation fields. Nationwide, more than 90,000 convicts now work in a variety of public and private enterprises, generating sales of nearly $1 billion. Once seen as merely a punitive measure, today’s penal labor is central to an ever-expanding “punishment industry” that is becoming a massive purveyor of ultra-cheap, captive labor to large corporations and government entities.

Challenge to Labor
Inmate workers subject to forced labor as a result of that crucial exception in the Thirteenth Amendment are used as pawns by employers seeking to raise profit margins and undermine unionization efforts. Yet the labor movement has lent no support to sporadic attempts on the part of prisoners to organize around labor issues, even as it actively organizes prison guards.

Organized labor has tended toward a rather one-dimensional perception of inmate laborers as competition, in much the same way it perceived black workers from the South when they migrated North in search of employment in the early 20th century. In the 1990s, scapegoating of immigrant labor echoes the earlier treatment of migrant black workers and parallels that of inmate laborers.

Ultimately, much of the labor movement came to recognize that organizing black labor was crucial to its own survival. Today, the labor movement must make this connection to inmate workers. With inmate labor and prisons becoming an increasingly important component in the U.S. economy, it is imperative that organized labor affirm the right of prisoners to resist labor exploitation through organization.

The Road Back to Slavery
In the late 19th century, the use of leased convict labor to block unionization of “free” workers led to a series of state laws prohibiting the use of prison labor by private businesses. Most importantly, in 1935 the Ashurst-Sumners Act made it a federal offense to transport prison-made goods between states, regardless of state laws.

However, as part of the 1979 Justice System Improvement Act, Congress passed an amendment establishing the first Prison Industry Enhancement (PIE) projects, exempting participating businesses from the Ashurst-Sumners Act. In 1990, Congress passed a final amendment allowing for up to 50 PIE projects, thereby completely nullifying Ashurst-Sumners and paving the way for exploitation of prison labor in every U.S. state. Notably, the Federal Prison Industries, Inc. (or UNICOR) engages inmate labor in the production of military materials, including a variety of missile and bomb parts for weapons that ultimately may be shipped overseas.

Work that Doesn’t Pay
Prison labor is not protected by federal safety and health standards, nor is it covered by National Labor Relations Board policies. Most prison laborers receive the minimum wage, but figures like 47 cents per hour are not uncommon. Some women inmates in California report intense competition over computer-related jobs that pay 44 cents per hour. At the high end, large companies that contract for inmate labor, particularly within various computer industries, may pay inmate workers up to $8.00 per hour.

However, before inmates receive any monetary compensation for their labor from big corporations like Nordstroms, Chevron, and TWA, up to 90 percent of their “pay” is deducted for taxes, victim compensation, incarceration costs, legal obligations (such as child support), mandatory non-interest-bearing savings, etc. Inmate Paul Wright, co-editor of Prison Legal News, reports that “After Albert Delp works 40 hours a week for Omega Pacific at $6 an hour, his weekly pay is $240.” After deductions, though, “he takes $60 ‘home’ to his cell.”

Corporations such as MicroJet not only pay $7 an hour to convict machinists instead of $30 an hour to union machinists on the outside, they also receive a 56,000 square foot industrial building rent free and maintained by Washington state. In addition, MicroJet is spared the expenses of health, unemployment, and workers’ compensation benefits.

While it has failed to support prisoners’ right to unionize, the labor movement has brought prison guards and other corrections workers into its fold. While inmates receive a pittance for their work, unionized prisons guards make entry-level salaries of $35,000 per year or more. This paradox poses a complicated challenge to progressive unions like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The exploitative conditions and practices concerning prison labor militate profoundly against all the labor movement has represented historically. As Charlene Mitchell of SEIU put it, “Labor is labor.”

Wage Slavery
Prison labor in the U.S. is only nominally voluntary. Inmates who decline to “volunteer” thereby suffer the loss of various privileges. They are confined to their cells, and/or subjected to administrative segregation (i.e., lockdown in solitary confinement cells). Not surprisingly, most inmates “choose” to work.

In California, parole violators are now required to perform “demanding manual labor” using only hand tools. Among the range of tasks they perform are cleaning up obsolete sewer sites, dust control, and rock removal. In U.S. prisons, “wage slavery” takes on a literal meaning. By contrast, prison labor in Cuba is regulated by the same agency that regulates employment outside, and inmates receive wages equal to the prevailing standards in the larger society.

Organization of prison labor and its support by the “free” world labor movement are urgently needed to begin dismantling the prison industrial complex. In a resolution passed at its 1997 national convention, the Coalition of Black Trade Unions (CBTU) went on record in support of rehabilitative programs within the criminal justice system and against the placement of private and public sector jobs in U.S. prisons. It is time for the CBTU and other progressive labor organizations to go beyond this stance by supporting organized prison labor movements within both state and federal prisons across the country. 

Stefanie Kelly is a sometime journalist and aspiring novelist and a member of the Critical Resistance organizing committee.