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Est. April 5, 2002
May 31, 2018 - Issue 744

When  You're a Wage Slave in Prison,
Where Do You Go If You
Cross The Bosses' Line?


"There have been charges of 'wage slavery' for many years,
but the demands of private prison corporations that
imprisoned immigrants work for pennies is the most glaring
example of wage slavery, bordering on outright slavery"

There is not much discussion of wage slavery in the mainstream media or in the halls of academia, although it should be taught and learned from middle schools to the universities, because wage slavery is alive and destructive in the prisons of America, as it is in various other places.

Private prison corporations are used largely for populations that the government and politicians do not want to be concerned with, especially if the inmates come from ethnic groups that are under attack by governmental officials at the highest levels of government. That's the principle reason that undocumented immigrants who are held in “detention” are doing time in private prisons, the owners of which tend to try to keep them there, because that's where their bread and butter are.

As a general rule, it may be said that thrre are few human rights in a U.S. prison, because arbitrary rules are written, presumably to protect both inmates and jailers, and those rules must be followed without fail and any infraction subjects the rule-breaker to punishment, often severe. It's one thing to make a rule and enforce it without regard to circumstances and without recourse to a sense of justice, but most rules in prison are enforced by guards and prison superintendents and other managers, and they can be very arbitrary. In many cases an inmate will never know if he has violated a rule and, if he is deemed to have broken a rule, how the infraction will be treated by the keepers.

Imagine how much worse conditions can be when the authorities in a private for-profit prison run the place with an eye not on rehabilitation or justice (even less than public prisons), but on the bottom line. It's profits they are after and corners are cut to maximize profits. There are complaints about the quality and quantity of the food, about time out of the cells and time in the outdoor recreation areas, among many other legitimate complaints. Inmates who seek education are often thwarted by prison administrators who are sensitive to a sizable portion of the public who view educational programs as privileges that don't sit well with them as the proper punishment inmates deserve.

Palming off immigrants who are swept up in the anti-immigrant frenzy created by Donald Trump to private prisons is one way the authorities are, in effect, washing their hands of the problem of what to do with immigrants, legal or otherwise (Not unlike the crime of Guantanamo: Put them where nobody can see what we're doing to them.). Trump has painted immigrants, especially those from Mexico and other countries in this hemisphere, as rapists and criminals. It's not enough for him to say, “I'm sure there are good people among them.” That he has said words to that effect does not cover that he has put the accusation out there for public consumption and the public has indeed consumed it. Immigrants are not granted the rights of others on American soil. The president has seen to that, and he is relentless in pursuing his string of lies and indecencies about “the other.”

There have been charges of “wage slavery” for many years, but the demands of private prison corporations that imprisoned immigrants work for pennies is the most glaring example of wage slavery, bordering on outright slavery. The Guardian newspaper, earlier this month, described the case of Shoaib Ahmed, a 24-year-old immigrant from Bangladesh. Because he encouraged fellow inmates to stop working for their 50 cents an hour, he was placed in solitary confinement at Stewart prison in Georgia. Historically, that has been a way for workers to protest injustices, union organized or not. But there is no union in prisons, public or private, and Ahmed's actions landed him in “the hole,” or solitary, or administrative segregation (adseg), which is widely considered psychological torture.

For some keepers, however, 50 cents an hour is not enough punishment. The working inmates are not sure that they will get their paychecks in a timely way. They depend on the pittance for (overpriced) food from the commissary, on phone calls to family at outrageous per-minute prices, on toiletries, and many other items that are not provided by the keepers. Ahmed's attempt to organize his fellow workers told The Guardian, “I think the segregation will kill me.”

In the magazine Psychology Today last January, Gali Katznelson and J. Wesley Boyd wrote, “..Solitary confinement is so egregious a punishment that in 2011, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment condemned its use, except in exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible, and banned the practice completely for people with mental illnesses and for juveniles. And, the American Civil Liberties Union says on it website: “There is general consensus among researchers that solitary confinement is psychologically harmful; indeed, research demonstrates that the clinical impacts of isolation can actually be similar to that of physical torture. In addition to increased psychiatric symptoms generally, suicide rates and incidents of self-harm are much higher for prisoners in solitary confinement.”

Yet, prisons, public and private, continue to use isolation and in the case of Ahmed, who essentially was doing what a good union organizer would do to combat abuse on the job, the keepers subjected him to solitary confinement and all of the ills, physical and mental, that go with such treatment. The use of solitary confinement has increased in recent decades, including the construction of prisons in which most of the inmates are held in such conditions. These are the “supermax” prisons.

Debate about requiring inmates to work has been going on for some time, although there is a difference between working for the physical plant of the prison or the old stereotype of making license plates for the state or federal government, in today's economy, inmates are being farmed out for work for private companies and for Corporate America. The philosophical quandary is whether those inmates who are so farmed out should be paid at least the minimum wage. In the case of Ahmed, his and his co-workers' 50 cents an hour is a far cry from the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour (itself an embarrassment among developed nations). Do they not have the right to complain and demand wages that other workers receive? Their punishment is the loss of their freedom. Wage slavery should not be part of that punishment.

This condition will not change in the current atmosphere, despite the best efforts of prison reform advocates and justice advocates, especially since the leader of the nation famously said wages in the U.S. are too high. Yes, Donald Trump said that as a candidate for the presidency, proving that he knows little about the real economy for a majority of Americans. Anyone who could think that working for $10 an hour or less is totally ignorant of the lives of wage-working Americans. Yet, these are the people who he promised to raise up, if he were elected president. In that, he has failed.

And, for those in prison and especially for those who are imprisoned for immigration violations, he is doubly ignorant. No one in such circumstances should look to him for leadership in moving toward justice, for he believes that lower wages would be the path to a better economy. For Trump, perhaps the 50-cent-an-hour wage is the ideal for everybody. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.




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Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
Managing Editor:
Nancy Littlefield, MBA
Peter Gamble

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