Profiting from prison labor

There was a time when the US condemned China’s use of prison labor because it undercut the labor market and gave them an unfair advantage since the wages of prisoners were so low as to effectively constitute free labor. I was under the impression that in the US it was illegal to use prison labor for that same reason.

So I was surprised to read this story about the state of California resisting efforts to expand its early parole program because they would lose a valuable source of cheap labor.

When I looked into it further, I found that the use of prison labor has expanded greatly in recent times.

Human rights organizations, as well as political and social ones, are condemning what they are calling a new form of inhumane exploitation in the United States, where they say a prison population of up to 2 million – mostly Black and Hispanic – are working for various industries for a pittance. For the tycoons who have invested in the prison industry, it has been like finding a pot of gold. They don’t have to worry about strikes or paying unemployment insurance, vacations or comp time. All of their workers are full-time, and never arrive late or are absent because of family problems; moreover, if they don’t like the pay of 25 cents an hour and refuse to work, they are locked up in isolation cells.

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.

That’s a lot of stuff. I wonder why the private sector that also makes these items is not protesting at the unfair advantage that cheap prison labor provides.


  1. says

    If he is guilty, his victims will have their day in our court system, which is the best possible court system in the best of all possible worlds.

    Just a reminder of something that was said in an earlier comments section.

  2. smrnda says

    ” I wonder why the private sector that also makes these items is not protesting at the unfair advantage that cheap prison labor provides.”

    The people who have voices in the private sector (shareholders and owners, not workers) have probably been quite happy with the transition to (effectively) free coerced labor.

  3. ianeymeaney says

    This is one reason that China’s economy has been growing faster than ours. We need to all obey our corporate overlords and submit to their wills. Trickle-down economics will ensure that the wealth increase is felt by all of us.

  4. maddog1129 says

    Something in the comments formatting is borked. It says there are 63 comments on 2 different threads, but in fact there are only a few, and they are all numbered “1”.

  5. says

    How is the current situation in the US any different than 150 years ago? Considering that a disproportionate number of those imprisoned in the US are black, and that prisoner in the US are being used as slave labour for little or no pay, I’m surprised there’s no attempt to link those facts.

    Anyone who believes US prisons are any better than China’s are fooling themselves. Prisoners who refuse to work are punished (solitary confinement, extended sentences, denied food, abuse, etc.). The only thing you won’t find in US prisons are toxic environments where those doing forced labour handle cancerous and poisonous materials. Then again, they probably are and they just don’t know it yet.

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