Prison Labor Is Unseen and “Utterly Exploitative”

Source: Mother Jones

The author of a new history of the Attica uprising talks about prison strikes and work behind bars.

The nationwide prison strike that began September 9 has largely wound down. Inmates have returned to work, though some smaller hunger strikes are still taking place. It’sunclear what long-term changes the strike may bring. Yet the protest, timed to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, has made waves: An estimated 24,000 inmates missed work and as many as 29 prisons were affected, according to activists.

It’s also brought renewed attention to our prison labor system. About 700,000 of America’s 1.5 million prison inmates have jobs, and they work for as little as 12 to 40 cents an hour with few workplace protections. “It’s utterly exploitative,” says Heather Ann Thompson, a professor of Afroamerican and African studies and history at the University of Michigan and the author of the new book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. “Some farms in Nevada are paying 8 cents a day. Some jail workers are paid nothing.” Thompson, who has extensively studied prison labor, says prisoners are expected to work more than they have at any timesince the Civil War, when prisons leased out convicts to private companies.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, prison labor was largely regulated or prohibited, due in part to efforts by labor unions to prevent competition with low-paid inmates. But beginning in the 1970s, as the prison population began to rise, businesses lobbied to gut these regulations, says Thompson. In 1979, Congress created a program that gives incentives to private companies to use prison labor. Currently, the federal prison industries program produces items ranging from mattresses to prescription eyewear. Some inmates are employed as call center operators (“It’s the best kept secret in outsourcing!” says the program’s website.) Last year, federal inmates helped bring in nearly $472 million in net sales—but only 5 percent of that revenue went to pay inmates.

“Historically, prison labor has been the one thing that tends to really bring prisoners together,” Thompson says. Inmates have protested over their work conditions before. Starting in the late 1940s, hundreds of prisoners across the country organized work stoppages to demand better conditions, including higher wages. Better wages were part of the demands issued during the 1971 Attica prison uprising: Inmates earned between 6 and 29 cents a day and struggled to cover the costs of toilet paper.

I spoke with Thompson about the history of prison labor, Attica, and the recent prison strike.

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