Slavery is being practiced by the system under
color of law – Slavery 400 years ago, slavery today; it's
the same thing, but with a new name. They're making millions
and millions of dollars enslaving Blacks, poor whites, and others
- people who don't even know they're being railroaded. -- Ruchell
Cinque Magee (from radio interview with Kiilu Nyasha, "Freedom
is a Constant Struggle", KPFA-FM, August 12, 1995)
One of the newest forms of slave labor is the U.S.
Army’s “Civilian Inmate Labor Program” to “benefit
both the Army and corrections systems” by providing “a
convenient source of labor at no direct cost to Army installations,”
additional space to alleviate prison overcrowding, and cost-effective
use of land and facilities otherwise not being utilized.
“With a few exceptions,” this program
is currently limited to prisoners under the Federal Bureau of
Prisons (FBOP) which allows the Attorney General to provide the
services of federal prisoners to other federal agencies, defining
the types of services they can perform. The Program stipulates
that the “Army is not interested in, nor can afford, any
relationship with a corrections facility if that relationship
stipulates payment for civilian inmate labor. Installation civilian
inmate labor program operating costs must not exceed the cost
avoidance generated from using inmate labor.” In other words
the prison labor must be free
The three “exceptions” to exclusive
Federal contracting are as follows:
(1) “a demonstration project” providing
“pre-release employment training to nonviolent offenders
in a State correctional facility” [CF].
(2) Army National Guard units “may use
inmates from an off-post State and/or local CF.”
(3) Civil Works projects. Services provided might
include constructing or repairing roads, maintaining or reforesting
public land; building levees, landscaping, painting, carpentry,
trash pickup, etc.
This Civilian Inmate Labor Program document includes
in its countless specifications such caveats as “Inmates
must not be referred to as employees.” A prisoner would
not qualify if he/she is a “person in whom there is a significant
public interest,” who has been a “significant management
problem,” “a principal organized crime figure,”
any “inmate convicted of a violent crime,” a sex offense,
involvement with drugs within the last three years, an escape
risk, “a threat to the general public.” Makes one
wonder why such a prisoner isn’t just released or paroled.
In fact, the “hiring qualifications” make me suspect
the “Civilian Inmate Labor Program” is a backdoor
draft, especially in lieu of the Bush Administration’s plan
to increase troop levels in Iraq with a military already stretched
to its limit.
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (it
needed a lot of amending) retained the right to enslave within
the confines of prison. Nearly 400 years of chattel slavery was
secured and perpetuated by Amendment XIII. Section 1: 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 or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
-Dec. 6, 1865
Even before the so-called abolition of slavery,
America’s history of prisoner labor had already begun in
New York’s State Prison at Auburn soon after it opened in
1817. Auburn became the first prison that contracted with a private
business to operate a factory within its walls. Later, in the
post Civil War period, the “contract and lease” system
proliferated, allowing private companies to employ prisoners and
sell their products for profit.
In Southern states, Slave Codes were rewritten
as Black Codes, a series of laws criminalizing the law-abiding
activities of Black people, such as standing around, “loitering,”
or walking at night, “breaking curfew.” The enforcement
of these Codes dramatically increased the number of Blacks in
Southern prisons, e.g., in 1878, Georgia leased out 1,239 convicts,
1,124 of whom were Black.
The lease system provided slave labor for plantation
owners or private industries as well as revenue for the state,
since incarcerated workers were entirely in the custody of the
contractors who paid a set annual fee to the state (about $25,000).
Entire prisons were leased out to private contractors who literally
worked hundreds of prisoners to death. Prisons became the new
plantations; Angola State Prison in Louisiana actually was a plantation.
It still is except the slaves are now called convicts and the
prison is known as “The Farm.” (A documentary of that
title is available on DVD.) The loss of outside jobs and the inherent
brutality and cruelty of the lease system sparked resistance which
eventually brought about its demise. One of the most famous battles
was the Coal Creek Rebellion of 1891. When the Tennessee coal,
Iron and Railroad locked out their workers and replaced them with
convicts, the miners stormed the prison and freed 400 captives;
and when the company continued to contract prisoners, the miners
burned the prison down. The Tennessee leasing system was disbanded
shortly thereafter. But it remained in many states until the rise
of resistance in the 1930s.
Strikes by prisoners and union workers together
were organized by the then radical CIO and other labor unions.
They pressured Congress to pass the 1935 Ashurst-Sumners Act making
it illegal to transport prison-made goods across state lines.
But under President Jimmy Carter, Congress granted exemptions
to the Act by passing the Justice System Improvement Act of 1979,
which produced the Prison Industries Enhancement program, or PIE,
that eventually spread to all 50 states. This lifted the ban on
interstate transportation and sale of prison-made products, permitting
a for-profit relationship between prisons and the private sector,
and prompting a dramatic increase in prison labor, which continues
As the leasing system phased out, a new, even more
brutal exploitation emerged: the chain gang. An extremely dehumanizing
cruelty that chained men, and later women, together in groups
of five, it was originated to build extensive roads and highways.
The first state to institute chain gangs was Alabama, followed
by Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Montana,
Georgia’s chain-gang conditions were particularly
brutal. Men were put out to work swinging 12 lb. sledge hammers
for 16 hours a day, malnourished and shackled together, unable
to move their legs a full stride. Wounds from metal shackles often
became infected, leading to illness and death. Prisoners who could
not keep up with the grueling pace were whipped or shut in a sweat
box or tied to a hitching post, a stationary metal rail. Chained
to the post with hands raised high over his head, the prisoner
remained tethered in that position in the Alabama heat for many
hours without water or bathroom breaks. (Human Rights Watch World
Thanks to a lawsuit settled by the Southern Poverty
Law Center, Alabama’s Department of Corrections agreed,
in 1996, to stop chaining prisoners together. A few years later,
the Center won a Court ruling that ended use of the hitching post
as a violation of the 8thAmendment’s ban on “cruel
and unusual punishment".
A report by Timothy Dodge in “Alabama Review”
noted, When the convict-lease system was abolished in 1928, most
of the white convicts, who had been leased to coal mines and lumber
camps, were sent to the cotton mills and metal workshops at Kilby
and Speigner prisons, whereas most of the black convicts ended
up in chain gangs. In effect, the black chain gang was a continuation
of racist slave labor.
In response to the demands of World War II, the
number of both free and captive road workers declined significantly.
In 1941, there were 1,750 prisoners slaving in 28 active road
camps for all types of construction and maintenance. The numbers
bottomed out by war's end at 540 captives in seventeen camps.
Although chain gangs were phased out in 1955, Alabama
reinstituted chain gangs in 1995 followed by Arizona, Florida,
Iowa, and Maine. Arizona’s first female chain gang was instituted
in 1996. Complete with striped uniforms, the women of a Phoenix
jail (to this day) spend four to six hours a day chained together
in groups of 30, clearing roadsides of weeds.
In the 1940s, California Governor Earl Warren conducted
secret investigations into the State’s only prisons, San
Quentin and Folsom. The depravity, squalor, sadism, and torture
he found led the governor to initiate the building of Soledad
Prison in 1951. Prisoners were put to work in educational and
vocational programs that taught basic courses in English and math,
and provided training in trades ranging from gardening to meat
cutting. At wages of 7 to 25 cents an hour, California prisoners
used their acquired skills to turn out institutional clothing
and furniture, license plates and stickers, seed new crops, slaughter
pigs, produce and sell dairy products to a nearby mental institution.
Within a decade this “model prison”
at Soledad had become another torture chamber of filthy dungeons,
literal “holes,” virulently racist guards, officially
sanctioned brutality, torture, and murder. Though prison jobs
are supposed to be voluntary, if prisoners refuse to work they’re
often given longer sentences, denied privileges, or thrown into
solitary confinement. Prisoners were brutalized and forced to
work long hours under miserable conditions. In the 1960s, “Soledad
Brother,” George Jackson, organized a work strike that turned
into a riot after white strikebreakers tried to lynch one of the
Black strikers. The Black Movement’s resistance, led by
Jackson, W. L. Nolen, and Hugo “Yogi” Pinell, eventually
brought Congressional oversight and overhaul of California’s
prison system. (The Melancholy History of Soledad Prison, by Min
Yet, little has changed except for an incredible
expansion that now has the state system bursting at the seams
with 174,000 prisoners (The L.A. Times reported 12/23/06 a 1,000
prisoner increase in a matter of weeks!) crammed into 90 penitentiaries,
small prisons and camps stretched across 900 miles of the fifth-largest
economy in the world, as Ruth Gilmore’s new book, “Golden
Gulag” reports. Since 1984, the state has erected 43 penal
institutions, making it a global leader in prison construction.
Most of the new prisons have been built in rural areas far from
family and friends, and most captives are Black or Brown men,
unemployed or working poor. Suicide and recidivism rates approach
twice the national average, and the State spends as much or more
on prisons as on higher education.
In fact, Governor Schwarzenazi ‘s [sic] solution
to prison overcrowding is to send prisoners out of state, and
add 78,000 more beds, spending $11 billion more of your taxes
on a failed prison system. For Fiscal Year 2005-2006, the California
Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) was allocated
a total of $7,398,743,000. (and "Rehabilitation” was
added to the CDC by the new Governor, sans rehab.)
In 1985, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger
lauded China’s prison labor program: “1,000 inmates
in one prison I visited comprised a complete factory unit producing
hosiery and what we would call casual or sport shoes... Indeed
it had been a factory and was taken over to make a prison.”
Burger called for the conversion of prisons into factories, the
repeal of laws limiting prison industry production and sales,
and the active participation of business and organized labor.
Heeding the judge’s call, California voters
passed Prop 139 in 1990, establishing the Joint Venture Program
allowing California businesses to cash in on prison labor. “
This is the new jobs program for California, so we can compete
on a Third World basis with countries like Bangladesh,”
observed Richard Holober with the California Federation of Labor.
Businesses in Joint Venture must pay at least minimum
wage (although the State takes back 80 percent of prisoners’
pay checks) and promise they’re not taking jobs away from
people on the outside. But in reality. they have. For example,
Lockhard Technologies, Inc. closed its plant in Austin, Texas,
laying off 150 employees, and reopened its shop in a State Prison.
(“Prison Labor on the Rise in US,” Whyte & Baker,
In 1994, Oregon voters passed a constitutional
amendment establishing a mandatory 40-hour work week for the State’s
prisoners, resulting in the loss of thousands of civil service
and private sector jobs. Outside construction workers lost jobs
when prisoners were assigned to build more units, literally building
their own cages.
Currently, California’s Prison Industrial
Authority (PIA) employs 5,900 captives and operates over 60 service,
manufacturing, and agricultural industries at 22 prisons throughout
the state. It produces over 1,400 goods and services including
office furniture, clothing, food products, shoes, printing services,
signs, binders, eye wear, gloves, license plates, cell equipment,
and much more. Wages are $.30 to $.95 per hour before deductions,
according to the PIA’s latest figures on its website. When
I need new glasses, they have to be sent to Donovan State Prison,
San Diego, where prisoners fill prescriptions for Medi-Cal patients.
For the State’s highest wage, $1 hour, prisoners
provide the “backbone of the state’s wild land fire
fighting crews,” according to an unpublished CDC report.
The State Department of Forestry saves more than $70 million annually
using prison labor. California’s Department of Forestry
has 198 Fire Crews comprised of CDC and CYA (California Youth
Authority) minimum-security captives housed in 41 Conservation
Camps throughout the state.
“Their primary function is to construct fire
lines by hand in areas where heavy machinery cannot be used because
of steep topography, rocky terrain, or areas that may be considered
environmentally sensitive.” (i.e., the most dangerous fire
CYA juveniles are also working for TWA as ticket
agents, assembling computer circuit boards, doing sheet metal
work, photo copying, and packaging plastic eating utensils for
Now at least 37 states have similar programs wherein
prisoners manufacture everything from blue jeans to auto parts,
electronics and toys. Clothing made in Oregon and California is
exported to other countries, competing successfully with apparel
made in Asia and Latin America.
The Federal Prison Industries (FPI), a nonprofit
Justice Department subsidiary that does business as UNICOR, was
created in 1935. and began supplying the Pentagon on a broad scale
in the 1980s.
In 1985, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons,
FPI had 71 factories enslaving 9,995 captives generating sales
of $239.9 million. By 2003, there were 100 FPI factories working
20,274 slaves with sales totaling $666.8 million. Currently, FPI
employs about 19,000 captives, slightly less than 20 percent of
the federal prison population, in 106 prison factories around
the country. Profits totaled nearly $40 million!
In 2005, FPI sold more than $750,000,000 worth
of goods to the federal government. Sales to the Army alone put
UNICOR on the Army’s list of top 50 suppliers, ahead of
well-known corporations like Dell Computer, according to Wayne
Woolley, Newhouse News Service. Over the past three years, thousands
of federal prisoners have been working overtime, filling Pentagon
contracts for everything from radio components to body armor.
Since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in
2001, the Army's Communication and Electronics Command at Fort
Monmouth, N.J., has shipped more than 200,000 radios to combat
zones, most with at least some components manufactured by federal
inmates working in 11 prison electronics factories around the
country. Under current law, UNICOR enjoys a contracting preference
known as "mandatory source," which obligates government
agencies to try to buy certain goods from the prisons before allowing
private companies to bid on the work. This same contracting restriction
applies to state agencies.
The demand for defense products from FPI became
so great that “national exigency” provisions were
invoked so the 20 percent limit on goods provided in each category
could be exceeded. The rules were waived during the 1991 Persian
Gulf War. Private manufacturers say they’ve been hurt by
such practice, as they are unable to bid on various products.
According to the Left Business Observer, the federal
prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition
belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags,
and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98%
of the entire market for equipment assembly services, 93% of paints
and paintbrushes, 92% of stove assembly, 46% of body armor, 36%
of home appliances, 30% of headphones/microphones/speakers, and
21% of office furniture, airplane parts, medical supplies, and
much more. Prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for blind
people. By 2007, the overall sales figures and profits for federal
and state prison industries had skyrocketed into the billions.
Apparently, the military industrial complex and
the prison industrial complex (PIC) have joined forces.
This PIC is a network of public and private prisons,
of military personnel, politicians, business contacts, prison
guard unions, contractors, subcontractors and suppliers, all making
big profits at the expense of poor people who comprise the overwhelming
majority of captives. The fastest growing industry in the country,
it has its own trade exhibitions, conventions, websites, and mail-order/Internet
catalogs and direct advertising campaigns. Corporate stockholders
who make money off prisoners’ labor, lobby for longer sentences
in order to expand their workforce.
Replacing the “contract and lease”
system of the 19th Century, private companies that have contracted
prison labor include Microsoft, Boeing, Honeywell, IBM, Revlon,
Pierre Cardin, Compaq, Victoria Secret, and Nordstrom.
In 1995, there were only five private prisons in
the country, with a population of 2,000 inmates; now, there are
at least 100, with some 62,000 inmates. That number is expected
to hit 360,000 within a decade.
The two largest private prison corporations in
the US, Wackenhut and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA),
are transnationals, managing prisons and detention centers in
at least 13 states, Australia, Canada, South Africa, and the United
Kingdom. A top performer on the New York Stock Exchange, CCA called
California its “new frontier,” and boasts of investors
such as Wal-Mart, Exxon, General Motors, Ford, Chevrolet,Texaco,
Hewlett-Packard, Verizon, and UPS.
Employers (Read: slave masters) don’t have
to pay health or unemployment insurance, vacation time, sick leave
or overtime. They can hire, fire or reassign inmates as they so
desire, and can pay the workers as little as 21 cents an hour.
The inmates cannot respond with a strike, file a grievance, or
threaten to leave and get a better job.
Mass roundups of immigrants and non-citizens, currently
about half of all federal prisoners, and dragnets in low-income
‘hoods have increased the prison population to unprecedented
levels. Andrea Hornbein points out in Profit Motive, “The
majority of these arrests are for low level offenses or outstanding
warrants, and impact the taxpayer far more than the offense. For
example, a $300 robbery resulting in a 5 year sentence, at the
Massachusetts average of $43,000 per year, will cost $215,000.
That doesn’t even include law enforcement and court costs.”
Nearly 75% of all prisoners are drug war captives.
A criminal record today practically forces an ex-con into illegal
employment since they don’t qualify for legitimate jobs
or subsidized housing. Minor parole violations, unaffordable bail,
parole denials, longer mandatory sentencing and three strikes
laws, slashing of welfare rolls, overburdened court systems, shortage
of public defenders, massive closings of mental hospitals, and
high unemployment (about 50% for Black men) all contribute to
the high rates of incarceration and recidivism. Thus, the slave
labor pool continues to expand.
“In order to please shareholders, corporations
must achieve growth. Empty cells do not generate profits.”
Unions have been virtually silent about the huge
growth of prison labor in the U.S., reports Alan Whyte and Jamie
Baker (“Prison Labor on the Rise in U.S., 2000). The Tennessee
AFL-CIO supported privatization of the state’s prison system
and struck a deal with CCA in 1997. For the most part, unions
have bought into the prison system’s propaganda, blaming
prisoners for job losses and pitting them against organized labor.
In fact, two Republicans have competing bills in Congress: one
would expand the PIC and give prisoners a raise from 21 cents
to $1.15 an hour, the other would compel prison industry to compete
with private enterprise, with support from the AFL-CIO.
Honda paid inmates $2 an hour; for the same work,
an auto worker would get paid $20 to $30 an hour. But in this
instance, the United Auto Workers raised hell, pressuring Honda
to cancel its prison labor contract.
Among the most powerful unions today are the guards’
unions. The California Corrections Peace Officers Association
(CCPOA) wields so much political power it practically decides
who governs the state. Moreover, its members get the State’s
biggest payouts, according to the L.A. Times. “More than
1600 officers’ earnings exceeded legislators’ 2007
salaries of $113,098.” Base pay for 6,000 guards earning
$100,000 or more totaled $453 million, with overtime adding another
$220 million to wages. One lieutenant guard earned more than any
other state official, including the Governor, or $252,570.
The Progressive Labor Party accuses the prison
industry of being "an imitation of Nazi Germany with respect
to forced slave labor and concentration camps."
The National Correctional Industries Association
(NCIA) is an international nonprofit professional association,
whose mission is to promote excellence and credibility in correctional
industries through professional development and innovative business
solutions. NCIA's members include all 50 state correctional industry
agencies, Federal Prison Industries, foreign correctional industry
agencies, city and county jail industry programs, and private
sector companies working in partnership with correctional industries.
In summary, we must remember that the emancipation
of Black people from chattel slavery resulted from prolonged guerrilla
warfare between the slaves and the slave owners, led by the revolutionary
General Harriet Tubman. More than 50,000 slaves fled from the
South to the North and Canada, 50,000 acts of rebellion.
As George Jackson noted in a KPFA interview with
Karen Wald (Spring 1971), “I’m saying that it’s
impossible, impossible, to concentration-camp resisters....We
have to prove that this thing won’t work here. And the only
way to prove it is resistance...and then that resistance has to
be supported, of course, from the street....We can fight, but
the results are...not conducive to proving our point...that this
thing won’t work on us. From inside, we fight and we die....the
point is -- in the new face of war -- to fight and win.”
Click here to read Part
This article originally appeared in the San
Francisco Bay View. To reach the Bay View, email [email protected].
Email Kiilu Nyasha, Black Panther veteran and
revolutionary journalist, at [email protected].