It Should Go Without Saying

May 27, 2015

It looks as though the Russians are finding a way to drive down the costs of hosting the 2018 World Cup: the use of prison labor. [1] The concept is “to allow prisoners to be taken from their camps to work at factories, with a focus on driving down the costs of building materials for World Cup projects.” According to Alexander Khinshtein, a lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party, the use of prison labor will provide “‘the opportunity to acquire building materials for a lower price,’” and will also “‘get prisoners into work,’” something that he sees as “‘very positive.’”  

No one can doubt that slave labor is cheaper than the ordinary kind, but whether it provides an overall benefit to society as a whole is highly questionable. When working people have to compete against slave prison labor, the downward pressure on wages is obvious, and the use of prison labor is thus singularly unhelpful in the cause of wages that families can live on.

But in the United States we have no cause to be observing the log in the Russian eye while ignoring a similar log in our own. The truth is, prison labor is widely used in the United States to reduce costs. As professors Steve Fraser and Joshua B. Freeman put it in a 2012 article: 

“Prisoners, whose ranks increasingly consist of those for whom the legitimate economy has found no use, now make up a virtual brigade within the reserve army of the unemployed whose ranks have ballooned along with the U.S. incarceration rate. The Corrections Corporation of America and GEO, two prison privatizers, along with a third smaller operator, G4S (formerly Wackenhut), sell inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM.

“These companies can, in most states, lease factories in prisons or prisoners to work on the outside.  All told, nearly a million prisoners are now making office furniture, working in call centers, fabricating body armor, taking hotel reservations, working in slaughterhouses, or manufacturing textiles, shoes, and clothing, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day.” [2]  

While there is a benefit to having prisoners learning job skills during their incarceration, there is no reason to assume that providing cheap labor for private companies is necessary to achieve that end. The harm to American workers, who must compete against this highly inexpensive prison labor, is clear.

But it is not only private companies who benefit from cheap prison labor. As the Congressional Research Service put in in a 2007 report,     

“UNICOR, the trade name for Federal Prison Industries, Inc. (FPI), is a government-owned corporation that employs offenders incarcerated in correctional facilities under the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). UNICOR manufactures products and provides services that are sold to executive agencies in the federal government. FPI was created to serve as a means for managing, training, and rehabilitating inmates in the federal prison system through employment in one of its industries. The question of whether UNICOR is unfairly competing with private businesses, particularly small businesses, in the federal market has been and continues to be an issue of debate. The debate has been affected by tensions between competing interests that represent two social goods — the employment and rehabilitation of offenders and the need to protect jobs of law abiding citizens. At the core of the debate is UNICOR’s preferential treatment over the private sector. UNICOR’s enabling legislation and the Federal Acquisition Regulation require federal agencies, with the exception of the Department of Defense (DOD), to procure products offered by UNICOR, unless authorized by UNICOR to solicit bids from the private sector. While federal agencies are not required to procure services provided by UNICOR they are encouraged to do so. It is this ‘mandatory source clause’ that has drawn controversy over the years and is the subject of current legislation.” [3]   

Job training for prisoners can be properly characterized as essential to the mission of rehabilitation. But this can be accomplished in an educational setting without taking jobs away from citizens who have been law-abiding. What’s more, it is easy to see how the use of prison labor by both government and private companies can contribute to the stagnancy of American wages. Finally, it should go without saying that the American penal system should not be a source of profiteering from the use of cheap labor.   

Unfortunately, it does not appear to go without saying.  

Jack Quirk