Originally published in The Nation on August 1, 2011.
The breaded chicken patty your child bites into at school may have been made by a worker earning twenty cents an hour, not in a faraway country, but by a member of an invisible American workforce: prisoners. At the Union Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Florida, inmates from a nearby lower-security prison manufacture tons of processed beef, chicken and pork for Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises (PRIDE), a privately held non-profit corporation that operates the state’s forty-one work programs. In addition to processed food, PRIDE’s website reveals an array of products for sale through contracts with private companies, from eyeglasses to office furniture, to be shipped from a distribution center in Florida to businesses across the US. PRIDE boasts that its work programs are “designed to provide vocational training, to improve prison security, to reduce the cost of state government, and to promote the rehabilitation of the state inmates.”
Although a wide variety of goods have long been produced by state and federal prisoners for the US government—license plates are the classic example, with more recent contracts including everything from guided missile parts to the solar panels powering government buildings—prison labor for the private sector was legally barred for years, to avoid unfair competition with private companies. But this has changed thanks to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), its Prison Industries Act, and a little-known federal program known as PIE (the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program). While much has been written about prison labor in the past several years, these forces, which have driven its expansion, remain largely unknown.
Somewhat more familiar is ALEC’s instrumental role in the explosion of the US prison population in the past few decades. ALEC helped pioneer some of the toughest sentencing laws on the books today, like mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders, “three strikes” laws, and “truth in sentencing” laws. In 1995 alone, ALEC’s Truth in Sentencing Act was signed into law in twenty-five states. (Then State Rep. Scott Walker was an ALEC member when he sponsored Wisconsin’s truth-in-sentencing laws and, according to PR Watch, used its statistics to make the case for the law.) More recently, ALEC has proposed innovative “solutions” to the overcrowding it helped create, such as privatizing the parole process through “the proven success of the private bail bond industry,” as it recommended in 2007. (The American Bail Coalition is an executive member of ALEC’s Public Safety and Elections Task Force.) ALEC has also worked to pass state laws to create private for-profit prisons, a boon to two of its major corporate sponsors: Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections), the largest private prison firms in the country. An In These Times investigation last summer revealed that ALEC arranged secret meetings between Arizona’s state legislators and CCA to draft what became SB 1070, Arizona’s notorious immigration law, to keep CCA prisons flush with immigrant detainees. ALEC has proven expertly capable of devising endless ways to help private corporations benefit from the country’s massive prison population.
That mass incarceration would create a huge captive workforce was anticipated long before the US prison population reached its peak—and at a time when the concept of “rehabilitation” was still considered part of the mission of prisons. First created by Congress in 1979, the PIE program was designed “to encourage states and units of local government to establish employment opportunities for prisoners that approximate private sector work opportunities,” according to PRIDE’s website. The benefits to big corporations were clear—a “readily available workforce” for the private sector and “a cost-effective way to occupy a portion of the ever-growing offender/inmate population” for prison officials—yet from its founding until the mid-1990s, few states participated in the program.
This started to change in 1993, when Texas State Representative and ALEC member Ray Allen crafted the Texas Prison Industries Act, which aimed to expand the PIE program. After it passed in Texas, Allen advocated that it be duplicated across the country. In 1995, ALEC’s Prison Industries Act was born.
This Prison Industries Act as printed in ALEC’s 1995 state legislation sourcebook, “provides for the employment of inmate labor in state correctional institutions and in the private manufacturing of certain products under specific conditions.” These conditions, defined by the PIE program, are supposed to include requirements that “inmates must be paid at the prevailing wage rate” and that the “any room and board deductions…are reasonable and are used to defray the costs of inmate incarceration.” (Some states charge prisoners for room and board, ostensibly to offset the cost of prisons for taxpayers. In Florida, for example, prisoners are paid minimum wage for PIE-certified labor, but 40 percent is taken out of their accounts for this purpose.)
The Prison Industries Act sought to change this, inventing the “private sector prison industry expansion account,” to absorb such deductions, and stipulating that the money should be used to, among other things: “construct work facilities, recruit corporations to participate as private sector industries programs, and pay costs of the authority and department in implementing [these programs].” Thus, money that was taken from inmate wages to offset the costs of incarceration would increasingly go to expanding prison industries. In 2000, Florida passed a law that mirrored the Prison Industries Act and created the Prison Industries Trust Fund, its own version of the private sector prison industry expansion account, deliberately designed to help expand prison labor for private industries.
The Prison Industries Act was also written to exploit a critical PIE loophole that seemed to suggest that its rules did not apply to prisoner-made goods that were not shipped across state lines. It allowed a third-party company to set up a local address in a state that makes prison goods, buy goods from a prison factory, sell those products locally or surreptitiously ship them across state borders. It helped that by 1995 oversight of the PIE program had been effectively squashed, transferred from the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance to the National Correctional Industries Association (NCIA), a private trade organization that happened to be represented by Allen’s lobbying firm, Service House, Inc. In 2003, Allen became the Texas House Chairman of the Corrections Committee and began peddling the Prison Industries Act and other legislation beneficial to CCA and Geo Group, like the Private Correctional Facilities Act. Soon thereafter he became Chairman of ALEC’s Criminal Justice (now Public Safety and Elections) Task Force. He resigned from the state legislature in 2006 while under investigation for his unethical lobbying practices. He was hired soon after as a lobbyist for Geo Group.
Today’s chair of ALEC’s Public Safety and Elections Task force is state Representative Jerry Madden of Texas, where the Prison Industries Act originated eighteen years ago. According to a 2010 report from NCIA, as of last summer there were “thirty jurisdictions with active [PIE] operations.” These included such states as Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and twelve more. Four more states are now looking to get involved as well; Kentucky, Michigan and Pennsylvania have introduced legislation and New Hampshire is in the process of applying for PIE certification. Today these state’s legislation are based upon an updated version of the Prison Industries Act, which ALEC amended in 2004.
Prison labor has already started to undercut the business of corporations that don’t use it. In Florida, PRIDE has become one of the largest printing corporations in the state, its cheap labor having a significant impact upon smaller local printers. This scenario is playing out in states across the country. In addition to Florida’s forty-one prison industries, California alone has sixty. Another 100 or so are scattered throughout other states. What’s more, several states are looking to replace public sector workers with prison labor. In Wisconsin Governor Walker’s recent assault on collective bargaining opened the door to the use of prisoners in public sector jobs in Racine, where inmates are now doing landscaping, painting, and other maintenance work. According to the Capitol Times, “inmates are not paid for their work, but receive time off their sentences.” The same is occurring in Virginia, Ohio, New Jersey, Florida and Georgia, all states with GOP Assembly majorities and Republican governors. Much of ALEC’s proposed labor legislation, implemented state by state is allowing replacement of public workers with prisoners.
“It’s bad enough that our companies have to compete with exploited and forced labor in China,” says Scott Paul Executive Director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a coalition of business and unions. “They shouldn’t have to compete against prison labor here at home. The goal should be for other nations to aspire to the quality of life that Americans enjoy, not to discard our efforts through a downward competitive spiral.”
Alex Friedmann, associate editor of Prison Legal News, says prison labor is part of a “confluence of similar interests” among politicians and corporations, long referred to as the “prison industrial complex.” As decades of model legislation reveals, ALEC has been at the center of this confluence. “This has been ongoing for decades, with prison privatization contributing to the escalation of incarceration rates in the US,” Friedmann says. Just as mass incarceration has burdened American taxpayers in major prison states, so is the use of inmate labor contributing to lost jobs, unemployment and decreased wages among workers—while corporate profits soar.