Who's Booking Your Flight?: Slave labor and the Prison-Industrial Complex By Michael Schwartz

It seemed like a normal factory closing. U.S. Technologies sold its electronics plant in Austin, Texas, leaving its 150 workers unemployed. Everyone figured they were moving the plant to Mexico, where they would employ workers at half the cost. But six weeks later, the electronics plant reopened in Austin in a nearby prison.

At the same time, the United States blasts China for the use of prison slave labor, engaging in the same practice itself. Prison labor is a pot of gold. No strikes, union organizing, health benefits, unemployment insurance or workers' compensation to pay. As if exploiting the labor of prison inmates was not bad enough, it is legal in the United States to use slave labor. The 13th Amendment of the Constitution states that "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."

There are approximately 2 million people behind bars in the United States - more than three times the number of prisoners in 1980. The United States now imprisons more people than any other country in the world. In fact, in the last 20 years California has constructed 21 new prisons while in the same amount of time, it has built only one new university. That statistic is even more astounding when we think about the fact that it took California almost 150 years to build its first 12 prisons. Another five new prisons are under construction and plans are in the works to build another 10.

The question that needs to be answered is: Why? Why are prisons such a booming business? The answer lies in the prison industrial complex. At the same time that prisons clear the streets of those you feel are a "threat" to society, prisons also offer jobs in construction, guarding, administration, health, education and food service.

Prisons in impoverished areas often end up with inmates from the local area who had previously worked in the community. Often they were laid off from a factory job that moved overseas and they turned to alcohol or drugs, which ultimately landed them in prison. Others are luckier and get a job in the prison. One of the fastest-growing sectors of the prison industrial complex is private corrections companies. Private prisons also have an incentive to gain as many prisoners as possible and to keep them there as long as possible.

Many corporations, whose products we consume on a daily basis, have learned that prison labor can be as profitable as using sweatshop labor in developing nations. You might have had a first-hand experience with a prison laborer if you have ever booked a flight on Trans World Airlines since many of the workers making the phone reservations are prisoners. Other companies that use prison labor are Chevron, IBM, Motorola, Compaq, Texas Instruments, Honeywell, Microsoft, Victoria's Secret and Boeing. Federal prisons operate under the trade name Unicor and use their prisoners to make everything from lawn furniture to congressional desks. Their Web site proudly displays "where the government shops first."

Federal safety and health standards do not protect prison labor, nor do the National Labor Relations Board policies. The corporations do not even have to pay minimum wage. In California, inmates who work for the Prison Industrial Authority earn wages between 30 and 95 cents per hour before required deductions for restitutions and fines.

State Corrections agencies are even advertising their prisoners to corporations by asking these questions: "Are you experiencing high employee turnover? Worried about the cost of employee benefits? Getting hit by overseas competition? Having trouble motivating your work force? Thinking about expansion space? Then the Washington State Department of Corrections Private Sector Partnerships is for you."

Prisons are being filled largely with the poor, the mentally ill, people of color, drug addicts and many combinations of these characteristics. They are not reserved for violent people who are extremely dangerous to society.

In fact, of the nearly 2 million prisoners, about 150,000 are armed robbers, 125,000 are murderers and 100,000 are sex offenders. Prisons are certainly not filled with corporate criminals who make up only one percent of our nation's prisons.

In California, then-Gov. Pete Wilson signed the "three strikes and you're out" law in 1994. The law states that if an offender has two or more previous serious or violent felony convictions, the mandatory sentence for any new felony conviction is 25 years to life. Though people thought the three-strikes law was intended to protect society from dangerous career criminals, the actual enactment of the law has been dramatically different.

Kendall Cooke was convicted under the three-strikes law for stealing one can of beer with two previous convictions of theft. Clarence Malbrough was sentenced to 25 years to life for stealing batteries, a crime that would usually send someone to jail for about 30 days. Eddie Jordan stole a shirt from a JC Penney store, Juan Murro attempted to steal wooden pallets from a parking lot and Michael Garcia stole a package of steaks from a grocery store. All of these people are facing life in prison for petty theft. They are fueling the prison industry. They are not the exception, either.

Eighty-five percent of those sentenced under the law in California faced prison for a nonviolent offense. Two years after the law went into effect, there were twice as many people imprisoned under the three-strikes law for possession of marijuana as for murder, rape and kidnapping combined. Over 80 percent of those sentenced under the three-strikes law are African American and Latino.

In the 1980s, Congress established several different mandatory minimum sentences. These laws require offenders of certain crimes to receive fixed sentences without parole. Mandatory sentences, especially for drugs, are largely responsible for the ever-increasing number of people behind bars in the United States. In May of 1998, drug defendants made up 60 percent of the federal prison population, up from 25 percent in 1980. The disproportionate number of African Americans being sent to prison for drug use, however, is largely due to racism in the actual mandatory minimum laws themselves.

Though crack and powdered cocaine are virtually the same drug (crack is powder cocaine mixed with baking soda) possession of five grams of crack gets you a mandatory five years in jail, while it takes 500 grams of powdered cocaine to get this same sentence. The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported that in 1995, whites accounted for 52 percent of all crack users and African Americans, 38 percent. But just 4.1 percent of those sentenced for crack offenses are white, while 88 percent are African American. Seventy percent of our nation's prisons are made up of African Americans. You now know that they are there through a variety of unjust racist laws.

Corporations are happily using these people for slave labor, which is perfectly legal under the constitution. Almost 2 million human beings are now locked up in our nation's prisons. The vast majority is not there because they are murderers, rapists or other violent people. They are there because prisons are a business in this country, whether we're talking about private prisons or private companies using prison labor. The next time you think of prison slave labor you don't have to think of China, think of the United States. And go take a look at the 13th Amendment.

Mike Schwartz, 24, is an activist and a substitute teacher in Los Angeles who is a regular contributor to Left Hook. He is a member of the Los Angeles Strikers Solidarity Organization. He is waiting for your feedback at Mikey2_2003@yahoo.com

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