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Prison Labor Marketed as ‘Best-Kept Secret’ by The Feds

The Feds are on a mission to market the ‘best kept secret’ it’s ever had when it comes to prison labor. What’s the big secret?

A major strike by prisoners in 17 states has been going one for over a week now, with no plans to end until September 9. Many inmates in the US are turning down food and refusing to go to work all to protest of what they call modern-day slavery in America’s correctional facilities.

Eliminating Modern-Day Slavery in American Prisons

Prisoners want to earn more than a few dimes for each hour of worked, amidst other demands. Seeing that all the inmates work brings in billions of dollars in income to state and federal prison facilities.

Across the county many inmates do skilled and unskilled labor usually for less than a dollar per hour. It goes entirely unpaid in some states.

Protests Across the US Fighting Against Modern Day Slavery in Prisons

What type of work do prisoners do in American prisons?

Inmates work for cheap labor. Oftentimes, prisoners aren’t paid at all for their hard work. These are just some of the jobs performed by America’s inmates:

  • Building office furniture
  • Answering customer service calls
  • Video production
  • Farm Work (Sometimes in unsafe working conditions)
  • Fighting wildfires (For $1 per hour)

Prisoners as well as human rights activists feel this influential is an arrangement exploitation and excessively abuses people of color. They are more likely to be incarcerated in to begin with.

Yet prison facilities argue that prison laborers learn real-life job skills while counterbalancing some of the costs associated with running a prison.

Last Mile Computer Coding Program for Female Inmates at CIW Provides Paid Jobs

The Pros & Cons of Prison Labor in the US

Both sides of the arguments have a bit of truth to it. Although the most ambiguous aspects of prison labor are the crooked market enticements they create.

Federal and state governments can sell prison-made services and goods to private companies at super cheap prices creating a labor-market incentive for considerable portions of incarceration. All since prison labor is so cheap.

One can see how the federal government promotes their prisoner crews to the private sector. The Department of Justice in marketing materials boost its cost-effective labor pool and trained workers on Spanish and Native English language skills.

Read more and learn about the cost-effective labor pool here: The UNICOR Services Business Group The Onshore Advantage

According to the latest annual report, around 17,000 inmates at federal prisons work at more than 50 government farms, factories, private farms and call centers across the nation.

Unicor, also known as the DOJ program Federal Prison Industries. published a report saying prisoners make:

  • Air filters
  • Clothes
  • Lamps
  • Office supplies

The wages range from 23 cents an hour to $1.15 and hour.

Other federal agencies make up Unicor’s customers. Yet the program also sells millions of dollars’ worth of services and goods to private companies. These companies can’t seem to find workers or plan to outsource jobs overseas.

For the first half 2018’s fiscal year, Unicor recorded about $300 million in total government and private-sector sales, this is according to the program’s midyear sales report.

There are plans for Unicor to expand prison labor to the private sector, as mentioned in their annual report. Federal customers’ sales are expected to shrink along with cuts to the federal budget.

Disturbing Ways The Feds Promote Prison Labor to Companies in the United States

American-Made Manufacturing Opportunities

President Donald Trump’s America First platform has a curve to it. The plan is supposed to be to keep factory jobs in the United States.

It is being promoted by federal government to prison labor as an attractive alternative for US manufacturers that may be thinking about closing factories and moving jobs abroad, all to save on labor costs, or to bring jobs back to America.

The promotional brochure says:

We can enhance your success … and your bottom line.

The highlights by Unicor are that the experience federal prisoners have producing goods made from:

  • Metal
  • Plastic
  • Wood
  • Textiles

What’s the key selling point for prison labor?

There can be a reduction in manufacturing costs for businesses while also advertising and displaying a Made in America label. According to a Unicor publication:

There’s no need to deal with the hassles and logistical nightmares often associated with outsourcing in a foreign country! We perform many of the labor-intensive services that are moving offshore. And we continually investigate new opportunities to provide skilled labor to commercial firms looking for a stable, productive workforce.

A group of prisoners being sent away in a truck to fight fires.
These life-saving inmates may have experience working the same jobs as those paid higher wages than them, but when released, they’d still require certification and training before being considered employee material. Image Source: The San Diego Union Tribune

Prison Labor: Warehousing & Distribution Services

Prisoners are available to package, sort and ship products from the from government warehouses and distribution centers, according to Unicor.

For decades the prisoners have been doing this work for federal customers. Now they are offering this service to private companies too. The brochure further states:

UNICOR has over 100 potential sites located throughout the country that can warehouse your products and provide order fulfillment services customized to your needs, whether your project is a one-time mailing or an ongoing commitment.

Marketing campaigns making it this rather clear: Paying less that minimum to people good for a company’s bottom line. This kind of corrupt relationship is what prisoners across the nation country are protesting.

It’s possible to pay inmates better wages without bankrupting prisons.

Prisoners in the US Replace Offshore Customer Service Call Centers

The federal government boost to businesses that its call centers, staffed by prisoners, are one of the best-kept secrets out there. Federal Prison Industries have published a marketing brochure showing smiling inmates wearing headsets as they handle calls from customers.

The brochure gives a great selling point for this: Companies can avoid outsourcing their customer service departments to an international company.

This is all to save money, since it’s just as cost-effective to hire American prisoners to take the calls.

According to a customer testimonial in the marketing brochure, that’s how one unnamed CEO described the benefit of working with Unicor.

There are seven of these call centers being operated by the Department of Justice and staffed by “1,700 experienced inmate agents and support staff.” There are plans in the making to open more.

These call centers and other commercial market services generated revenue that brought in $7.5 million to Unicor. This is according to the fiscal year in 2017.

Federal Prison Industries for Cheap & Free Labor

In 1934, Federal Prison Industries were created as a government corporation.  Inmates at first in the program mostly held factory jobs, and FPI could only sell goods to federal agencies.

Later on the FPI went through a corporate restoration (for that reason the new name, Unicor was created) and began creating jobs for inmates to:

  • Answer customer service calls
  • Ship goods
  • Print manuals
  • Refurbish vehicles

Congress in 2011 granted that Unicor can start selling products and services in the private sector, however, within certain limits.

What was the logic? It was that it would better prepare inmates to work in a business environment upon their release from prison, and just perhaps this effort would keep some US companies from outsourcing jobs overseas.

This is horribly wrong. Private companies should not be allowed to profit from prison labor. Having prisoners perform services for the state is one thing.

Granting a profit motive in prisons is one of the most perverse, and corrupt policies we have allowed in America.

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Merri Wong
Merri Wong has had an interest in law and social studies since her early days in life. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Paralegal Studies, and currently works as a freelance writer. Her writing portfolio includes numerous topics from reviews to relationships, from mental health to marriage. Merri currently helps report the news for Prison Rideshare Network.