The cry for help, a neatly folded letter stuffed inside a package of Halloween decorations sold at Kmart, traveled 5,000 miles from China into the hands of a mother of two in Oregon. Scrawling in wobbly English on a sheet of onionskin paper, the writer said he was imprisoned at a labor camp in this northeastern Chinese town, where he said inmates toiled seven days a week, their 15-hour days haunted by sadistic guards.
[Prison officials] buy small-time offenders from other cities on a sliding scale that begins at 800 renminbi, or about $130, for six months of labor.
Do the math. The Chinese prison buys their labor for $5 a week. And those inmates are working 105 hours a week.
How on earth can US workers compete with that?
The really bad news is: prison labor isn’t just a problem in China. It’s a problem here in the US, too. Read “The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor” in The Nationhere.
Just one example: Arizona inmates working for private agricultural companies are paid a “whopping fee” of “more than 50 cents an hour.” Read “How US prison labour pads corporate profits at taxpayers’ expense” in The Guardianhere.
“I asked an NCIA spokesperson how private companies can get away with what could reasonably be described as forced labor. He explained that the PIE program classifies certain work functions as a ‘service’ rather than an actual ‘job’, and therefore is not subject to [restrictions in a 1979 federal law]. Conveniently, then, the backbreaking work of picking crops in the blistering sun counts as a ‘service’, so prisoners can be paid even less than the immigrants who have traditionally performed this work.”
(Yes, of course there’s a Wal-Mart connection. Read about it in the British newspaper The Guardian, here.)
Here’s how the prison labor system works in Arizona:
“Arizona statute requires that all inmates that are making $2 per hour will have deductions of 30% to offset the cost of their incarceration. In addition, thirty percent of the prisoner’s wages will be deducted for court ordered restitution.” (Are you doing the math here? Sounds like the inmates actually receive 80 cents an hour for their work.)
Nevermind the recession, the prison labor business is growing. The number of inmate hours worked during FY12 was up 8.5% over FY11. Room and board “contributions” were up by 9.8%. Sales were up. Profits were up. Arizona Correctional Industries added new products and new customers, and “are currently working on finalizing contracts that will help grow our telemarketing and service business.” (ACI helpfully explains “How we do it: We provide a positive learning experience for all of our workers. We balance our home and business life. We continually strive to improve our quality focusing on Lean Continuous improvement. We are passionately involved in making the customer happy.”)
Arizona is now leading the nation in efforts to crack down on those same immigrants who used to pick crops. Read National Public Radio’s “Prison Economics Help Drive Arizona Immigration Law” here.
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