But they also know that no prison can function without the forced labor of many among America’s 2.3 million prisoners. Prisoners do nearly all the jobs in the prisons, including laundry, maintenance, cleaning and food preparation. Some prisoners earn as little as a dollar for a full day of work; in states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas, the figure drops to zero.
Corporations, at the same time, exploit a million prisoners who work in prison sweatshops where they staff call centers or make office furniture, shoes or clothing or who run slaughterhouses or fish farms.
If prisoners earned the minimum wage set by federal, state or local laws, the costs of the world’s largest prison system would be unsustainable. The prison population would have to be dramatically reduced. Work stoppages are the only prison reform method that has any chance of success. Demonstrations of public support, especially near prisons where strikes are underway, along with supporting the prisoners who have formed Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, which began the nationwide protest, are vital. Prison authorities seek to mute the voices of these incarcerated protesters. They seek to hide the horrific conditions inside prisons from public view. We must amplify these voices and build a popular movement to end mass incarceration.
The strike began Aug. 21, the 47th anniversary of the 1971 killing of the Black Panther prison writer and organizer George Jackson in California’s San Quentin. It will end Sept. 9, the 47th anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. It is an immensely courageous act of civil disobedience. Prison authorities have innumerable ways to exact retribution, including placing strikers in solitary confinement and severing communication with the outside world. They can take away the few privileges and freedoms, including the limited freedom of movement, yard time, phone privileges and educational programs, that prisoners have. This makes the defiance all the more heroic. These men and women cannot go elsewhere. They cannot remain anonymous. Retribution is certain. Yet they have risen up anyway.
In addition to making demands about wages, the prisoners are calling for an end to the endemic violence that plagues many prisons. During a riot in April at Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in South Carolina, seven prisoners were killed and 17 were injured as prison guards waited four hours to intervene.
Prisons in America are a huge and lucrative business. The private prison contractors Corrections Corporation of America and The GEO Group have annual revenues of $1.6 billion and more than $2 billion, respectively. They spent a combined $8.7 million on lobbying from 2010 through 2015, according to OpenSecrets.org. Global Tel Link, which runs the privatized phone services in many prisons, is valued at $1.2 billion. The food service corporation Aramark, a $8.65 billion company, has contracts in 500 prisons across the country although it has been accused of serving contaminated and spoiled food that has led to food poisoning. The money transfer corporation JPay Inc. is a subsidiary of the telecommunications firm Securus Technologies, which is owned by the private equity firm Abry Partners. JPay made $53 million in 2014 on transfers of $525 million, through an average charge of 10 percent to those sending money to prisoners. Corizon Health has a contract to provide health care to more than 300,000 prisoners nationwide. It earns about $1.4 billion a year. And there are many other corporations with equally large revenues and profit margins within the prisons.
Private corporations exploit prison labor in at least 40 states. In some cases these workers are paid next to nothing. They have no benefits, including Social Security participation, and cannot form unions or organize. They are not paid for sick days. And if they complain or are seen as troublesome they are placed in solitary confinement, often for months.
Some of the country’s biggest corporations have moved into prisons to take advantage of this bonded labor force. They include Abbott Laboratories, AT&T, AutoZone, Bank of America, Bayer, Berkshire Hathaway, Cargill, Caterpillar, Chevron, the former Chrysler Group, Costco Wholesale, John Deere, Eddie Bauer, Eli Lilly, ExxonMobil, Fruit of the Loom, GEICO, GlaxoSmithKline, Glaxo Wellcome, Hoffmann-La Roche, International Paper, JanSport, Johnson & Johnson, Kmart, Koch Industries, Mary Kay, McDonald’s, Merck, Microsoft, Motorola, Nintendo, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, Quaker Oats, Sarah Lee, Sears, Shell, Sprint, Starbucks, State Farm Insurance, United Airlines, UPS, Verizon, Victoria’s Secret, Walmart and Wendy’s.
Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Prisons expose how far a state will go to exploit and abuse its most vulnerable. Life in the American prison system is a window into the corporate tyranny that will be inflicted on all of us once we are stripped of the power to resist. The poorest families in the country are forced to pay an array of predatory fees to sustain incarcerated relatives. This is especially cruel to those children whose only contact with an incarcerated parent is through phone service that costs four or five times what it does on the outside. Prison life is one of daily humiliation and abuse. It entails beatings, torture, rape—especially for female prisoners who are preyed upon by prison staff—prolonged isolation, rancid food, inadequate heating and ventilation, substandard or nonexistent health care and being locked in a cage for days at a time, especially in supermax prisons.
Slavery within the prison system is permitted by the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1865 at the end of the Civil War