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What Companies Use Prison Labor? An In-Depth Look

The use of prison labor by private companies has become a controversial topic in recent years. Supporters argue it provides job skills and purpose for inmates, while critics claim it exploits vulnerable populations for profit. This article will dive into the major corporations benefiting from prison labor today, the types of work inmates are doing, and the ethical considerations around this practice.

Brief History of Prison Labor in the US

Prison labor has existed in America since the late 1700s, with the earliest prisons operating on a model of inmate labor and self-sufficiency. After the Civil War, the convict leasing system allowed private companies to contract prisoner labor from the state. This resulted in notoriously inhumane working conditions that were eventually banned.

However, private sector prison labor made a comeback in 1979 as part of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) Prison Industries Act, allowing third-party companies to contract inmate labor once again. Today, prison labor generates over $2 billion in revenue nationwide across diverse industries.

Major Corporations Using Prison Labor

Many recognizable brands and companies currently use prison labor in some capacity, either directly or through subcontractors and suppliers. Here are some of the biggest:

Walmart

The world’s largest retailer has sold prisoner-made products from suppliers like Martori Farms, a food vendor that employs women inmates in Arizona. They have also purchased from the Southeastern Correctional Industries in Texas, an inmate program manufacturing soaps and detergents.

AT&T

The telecom giant uses prison labor via third-party vendors to provide communications equipment and customer service. Inmates in Oklahoma prisons were subcontracted for DirectTV call centers while others refurbished AT&T network equipment.

McDonald’s

Some McDonald’s uniforms were made using inmate labor in Oregon as part of a convict rehabilitation program. McDonald’s has also bought inmate-processed beef from slaughterhouses supplying burgers nationwide.

Victoria’s Secret

For a time, Victoria’s Secret purchased clothing accessories and lingerie from a now-closed company called Third Generation. Third Generation operated sewing shops inside San Quentin State Prison in California.

BP (British Petroleum)

BP used Louisiana prison labor to package plastic cups, bowls, and cutlery for food services at convenience stores nationwide. These items were manufactured at Plastics Plant-Inside a medium-security men’s prison in Louisiana.

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Bank of America

In the past, Bank of America contracted telemarketing services through the Washington Marketing Group that relied on prison labor. Inmates made calls to generate sales leads or collect unpaid debts.

Starbucks

The coffee company does not directly use prison labor but has purchased manufacturing equipment serviced by prisons. For example, they bought quite a few barista drink machines from UNICOR, the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ prison labor program.

Microsoft

One of Microsoft’s contracted customer support vendors, Exmark, employs prison laborers at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington state. Inmates there field tech support calls and emails for Microsoft products.

Whole Foods

Whole Foods sells fish and cheese processed by inmate labor through its supply chains. Its supplier, Colorado Correctional Industries, offers products packaged by the state’s prisoners.

American Airlines

For a period American Airlines contracted inmate labor to make airline reservation calls. These calls originated from prisons in New Mexico, Kansas, and Oklahoma. American Airlines stated the programs lowered costs.

Nordstrom

Nordstrom department stores previously used marketing and business consulting services from NORCOR. This Multnomah County jail program employed pretrial detainees and inmates in Oregon.

Aramark

The food service and uniform company Aramark hires prisoners for tasks like doing laundry, preparing food, and making uniforms. They have contracted inmate labor from prisons in states like Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky.

Fruit of the Loom

Undergarment company Fruit of the Loom was associated with the unprecedented expansion of Kentucky’s inmate labor. Prisons there manufactured discount clothing sold by the company.

Verizon

Like other telecoms, Verizon used prison labor for customer service calls. Verizon representatives stated that their vendor, MCI Communications Services, hired prisons to expand labor pools.

Types of Work Done by Prisoners

Inmates are contracted to perform a diverse array of work – from manufacturing to customer service to administrative work. Here are some of the most common:

  • Manufacturing: This constitutes about 50% of all prison labor. Inmates produce items like clothing, furniture, electronics, plastics, bedding, soap, construction materials and much more. Some even work in meat processing plants, farms and dairies.
  • Services: Call centers are a big one – inmates make telemarketing calls and provide customer service for major corporations. They also offer business services like data entry, digitization of records, consulting and more.
  • Packaging and handling: Prisons contract packaging and distribution work from companies needing these labor-intensive services. Inmates may pack medical supplies, promotional items, or food for convenience stores.
  • Recycling: Electronics and computer recycling has grown, often using prison labor to dismantle products and recycle usable materials. Inmates also recycle trash and waste at some prisons.
  • Government work: Over 10,000 inmates work in license plate manufacturing or highway cleanup crews. They also maintain public parks and grounds in some states.

Prison labor provides skills in diverse trades – from woodworking and metal fabrication to agriculture, aquaculture, and more. However, most prisoner jobs mimic real-world minimum wage work behind bars.

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Prison Labor by the Numbers

To understand the scope of prison labor, here are some key statistics:

  • There are 1.9 million people incarcerated in the U.S. presently.
  • Combined, inmates produce $11 billion worth of goods and services annually.
  • Roughly 700,000 prisoners have daily jobs, constituting a captive workforce larger than Delaware’s population.
  • Inmates typically earn between $0.23 and $1.15 per hour, though wages can range up to $5 hourly in rare cases.
  • UNICOR, the federal prison labor program, recorded $453 million in sales across 50 factories and over 175,000 inmates in 2020.
  • State prison industries generated over $2 billion in sales in 2017 based on some 60,000 participating inmates.
  • Per a 2021 ACLU report, states like Texas, Arkansas, and Georgia do not pay inmates at all for certain work.
  • Factories inside prisons now account for up to 10% of all manufacturing in the United States.

The following table summarizes prison labor stats by U.S. state as of 2022:

State# of Incarcerated WorkersAvg. Hourly WagesTotal Annual Revenue
Alabama2,050$0.25 to $0.75$30 million
Alaska700$0.30 to $0.90$10 million
Arizona4,380$0.15 to $0.40$45 million
Arkansas5,000No pay (for certain work)$22 million
California8,200$0.08 to $0.95$232 million
Colorado1,500$0.60 to $2.00$27 million
Connecticut3,100$0.75 to $1.75$15 million
Delaware1,000$0.16 to $1.80$10 million
Florida4,000$0.20 to $0.55$37 million
GeorgiaNo dataNo pay (for certain work)$21 million
Hawaii1,150$1.00 to $2.25$10 million
Idaho3,860$0.09 to $0.90$10 million
Illinois1,850$0.09 to $1.35$12 million
Indiana6,600$0.21 to $0.69$50 million
Iowa2,330$0.14 to $0.26$21 million
Kansas8,000No pay (for certain work)$9 million
Kentucky1,500$0.63 to $1.43$17 million
Louisiana5,400$0.04 to $0.20$8 million
Maine325$1.10 to $3.00$1 million
Maryland2,100$0.17 to $1.03$4 million
Massachusetts750$1.00 to $3.00$2 million
Michigan7,000$0.74 to $1.33$36 million
Minnesota1,850$0.25 to $1.41$1.3 million
Mississippi1,350No pay to $0.25$2.5 million
Missouri5,000$0.05 to $0.80$9 million
Montana720$0.35 to $0.80$700,000
Nebraska475$0.25 to $0.80$2 million
Nevada1,100$0.10 to $0.50$6 million
New Hampshire500$1.00 to $2.00$650,000
New Jersey1,700$0.53 to $1.40$10 million
New Mexico900No pay (for certain work)$3 million
New York5,100$0.10 to $1.14$35 million
North Carolina1,500$0.00 to $0.50$16 million
North Dakota800$0.25 to $0.80$3 million
Ohio9,000$0.18 to $1.52$28 million
Oklahoma7,000No pay (for certain work)$13 million
Oregon3,700$0.05 to $1.25$9 million
Pennsylvania5,900$0.19 to $0.76$45 million
Rhode Island350$1.00 to $3.00$600,000
South Carolina1,860$0.00 to $0.80$6 million
South Dakota800$0.25 to $0.80$1.4 million
Tennessee3,200$0.00 to $0.50$1.5 million
Texas12,250No pay (for certain work)$88 million
Utah2,000$0.40 to $1.50$7 million
Vermont200$6.00 to $10.00$750,000
Virginia1,150$0.40 to $0.95$9 million
Washington1,700$0.00 to $2.70$10 million
West Virginia1,040$0.07 to $0.25$10 million
Wisconsin1,000$0.12 to $1.41$8 million
Wyoming400$0.30 to $0.60$1.5 million

Ethical Concerns Around Prison Labor

The practice of private companies benefiting from cheap prison labor raises many ethical questions:

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Unfair Wage Practices

Inmate workers typically earn well below minimum wage, with some states like Texas and Arkansas paying nothing at all. While supporters argue this is fair given room and board provisions, critics state it exploits inmates’ limited rights and protections.

Lack of Oversight

Unlike free labor, prison work sites and conditions undergo little oversight. Inmates have restricted ability to protest unfair or abusive practices. Some critics argue prison labor is not truly voluntary.

Impact on Free Labor Market

The availability of ultra-cheap prison labor may drive down wages or eliminate jobs that would go to non-incarcerated populations. This takes opportunities away from law-abiding citizens.

Reinforces Socioeconomic Disparities

Because incarcerated populations disproportionately come from impoverished backgrounds and communities of color, prison labor can reinforce existing inequities and power imbalances in society.

Limited Job Skills Training

While supporters contend prison labor teaches viable skills, most inmates are not truly being trained for careers after release. This calls into question claims of rehabilitation through workforce participation.

Health and Safety Standards

Lax oversight means the health and safety protections for prison workers are substandard compared to regulations for free labor. Activists contend prisoners face greater risks of workplace injuries, disease, and other hazards.

Exploiting a Captive Workforce

Companies can easily take advantage of a literally captive labor pool with no leverage to demand fair wages or humane conditions. This amounts to exploiting incarcerated people’s lack of rights and freedoms.

Overall, private sector prison labor remains controversial due to its potential for exploitation as well as its social and economic consequences. However, practical solutions to expand rehabilitation opportunities while preventing unethical practices remain elusive.

Looking Ahead: The Future of Prison Labor

Prison labor is deeply embedded in America’s criminal justice system, with entrenched private and governmental interests at play. However, growing public scrutiny may drive some changes going forward. Here are some possibilities on the horizon:

  • More selectivity and transparency: Companies may voluntarily restrict or end their use of prison labor, or become more selective about optics and practices. Facing pressure, they may also demand transparency from contractors and suppliers. This can improve oversight.
  • Increased wages and standards: To ease criticism while still benefiting from prison labor pools, private sector employers may increase inmate pay rates and ensure their work complies with occupational safety guidelines. More humane practices could follow.
  • Focus on rehabilitation: Prison work programs could move away from replacing free labor to more actively training inmates for successful re-entry into society. Skills-based apprenticeships tailored to post-release job prospects may play a larger role.
  • Worker protections: Opponents are lobbying for prisoner workers to gain some of the same collective bargaining rights and protections as free laborers. This could establish more accountability for employers and recourse for inmates.
  • Scaling back: If public opinion sours considerably, large corporations dependent on customer goodwill could cut back or phase out their use of prison labor. However, economic incentives weigh heavily, making this change unlikely without outside pressure.

Meaningful reform of prison labor practices may call for legislative action. With over 2 million incarcerated individuals nationwide generating billions in revenue, the stakes are high on both sides. Balancing financial motivations with ethical obligations will continue sparking debate.

Conclusion: A Complex Issue with No Simple Answers

The exploitation of prison labor for profit presents complex pros, cons and ethical quandaries. On one hand, inmates gain skills, offset incarceration costs, and keep occupied – arguably rehabilitating them in the process. But cheap prison labor also undercuts wages outside, exploits vulnerable populations, and has limited oversight.

Private companies clearly benefit from a captive workforce unable to protest poor conditions. Still, boycotting prison labor could deprive inmates of income and purpose. The issues have no simple right or wrong answers.

At minimum, current prison labor practices require more transparency and perhaps mitigation. Offering skills relevant to post-release work, making some pay mandatory, enforcing safety codes, allowing collective bargaining, and training truly useful trades – all can help balance social responsibility with financial motivations.

But simply banning private sector involvement could eliminate rehabilitation opportunities while cutting funding to cash-strapped prisons. As with most social issues, nuance and compromise may offer the best path forward. Ongoing debate and innovation will shape the future of this controversial but deeply ingrained institution.

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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