There are several ways to look at prison labor. We can view it the way guards and wardens do, as having a salutary effect on inmates who would otherwise be doing nothing or, worse, getting into mischief; we can view it the way sociologists do, as providing inmates with marketable skills; we can view it the way taxpayers do, as a way for these useless reprobates to earn their keep instead of bleeding us dry; or we can view it the way working people do, as a genuine threat to their jobs.
While there's an argument for each of those perspectives, one thing is certain: Because the U.S. leads the world in the number of people living behind bars, and because businesses already realize that plentiful, dirt-cheap prison labor could be a panacea, prison labor is not only going to continue, but as more inmates are "harvested," as more of them are trained in diverse industries, it's likely to expand exponentially.
The U.S. used to be recognized as the entrepreneurial capital of the world. Today (thanks largely to our unenlightened drug laws), we're recognized as the prison capital of the world. Just as Mr. Chocolate and Mr. Peanut Butter fortuitously met to form Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, the obvious next step was to combine the two. Prisoners, meet your new employers.
Take the U.S. federal prison system, for example. The trade name for Federal Prison Industries (FPI) is UNICOR. As part of FPI's charter, UNICOR is required by law to be the authorized vendor for many government agencies. Prison inmates working for UNICOR are responsible for the manufacture of military apparel and metal office equipment (file cabinets, desks). By law, private companies aren't allowed to compete (even if they could).
Created by Congress in 1932, UNICOR not only makes the uniforms and caps that our soldiers wear, they do it for about one-tenth the wages that private textile workers would earn. And because, as we all know, private textile workers ain't exactly an overpaid profession, that means that there is no way in hell for America's private sector textile industry to compete for that business. Ever.
In flush times, this artificially lop-sided arrangement might not have been hugely important, but with the recession still stubbornly hanging on and with unemployment hovering at just under nine percent, it's a fairly big deal. More ominously, UNICOR has not only been handed these federal contracts on a silver platter, they've been allowed to expand.
No longer confined to supplying government agencies, UNICOR is now permitted to manufacture certain other products if they can be shown to compete with off-shore manufacturers. In other words, if UNICOR can make consumer products as cheaply as a company in Singapore can, they will be allowed to compete in the open market.
There are about 218,000 inmates in U.S. federal prisons, and about 13,000 of them work for UNICOR, whose revenue in 2011 was estimated at $900 million. But this barely scratches the surface. This only speaks to the federal prison system.
When we consider state and privately run prisons, the figures are astounding. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), there were more than 2,266,000 adults in U.S. federal and state prisons and county jails at the year-end, 2010. A workforce composed of labor that potentially cheap is simply too rich a resource, too powerful a temptation, to leave untapped. The demand for prison labor could explode.
The day could come where America's burgeoning prison population is responsible for a significant amount of the country's manual labor. Of course, the irony in that is overwhelming. The thought that those "call centers" in India were once considered a major threat to our economy seems almost quaint by comparison.
David Macaray, an LA playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," 2nd edition), was a former labor union representative. He can be reached at email@example.com