On January 25, 2017, only several days into his presidency, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that not only contained a directive to build his much ballyhooed border wall, but also directed the federal government to commence building detention centers along the border.
Specifically, Section 5 of the executive order directs Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to “take all appropriate action and allocate all legally available resources to immediately construct, operate, control, or establish contracts to construct, operate, or control facilities to detain aliens at or near the land border with Mexico.” [bolded for emphasis]
This “or establish contracts” stipulation is key, as it specifically allows for private operators of detention facilities to sell their services to the federal government.
President Barack Obama had issued an order to his Justice Department last August to phase out the federal government’s use of private prisons, which had substantially increased as exploding prison populationsstrained the capacity of state and federal facilities in the 1980s. A report by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General had determined that private contract prisons had more lockdown incidents, discipline, contraband (with inmates at contract prisons being 8 times more likely to be found with contraband cellphones), assaults against staff and prisoners, and grievances per capita than facilities run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In a memo sent by Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates to the Acting Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Yates wrote:
“Private prisons served an important role during a difficult period, but time has shown that they compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities. They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and… they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.”
Consequently, the DOJ announced that it was unlikely to renew contracts with the few remaining private prison operators, with expectation of cutting the number of inmates at these facilities in half, down to around 14,000, by May 2017. At their peak, private for-profit prisons housed as many as 30,000 federal inmates, accounting for around 15 percent of the total federal prison population, costing taxpayers approximately $639 million.
This directive was unceremoniously scrapped by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on February 24, 2017. “The memorandum changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired the Bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system,” Sessions wrote. “Therefore, I direct the Bureau to return to its previous approach.” The Trump administration had just a few days earlier — on Feb. 21 — issued guidelines strengthening enforcement against illegal immigration but insisted that it isn’t seeking “mass deportations.”
Few immediately profited from Donald Trump’s election more than the private-prison industry. On Nov. 9, the day after President Trump’s electoral college win, the Corrections Corporation of America (now CoreCivic), the nation’s largest operator of private prisons, saw its stock price spike by 43 percent; its leading competitor, the GEO Group, rose by 21 percent. Stocks in those companies have seen their prices continue to rise since Election Day by more than 100 percent (see figures left—CoreCivic, and right—Geo Group).
The day after the DOJ report was released, the GEO Group made a $100,000 donation to Rebuilding America Now, a super-PAC supporting Trump’s candidacy. This was followed by a $125,000 donation on Nov. 1, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Both CoreCivic and GEO Group contributed a total of $500,000 to Trump’s inauguration.
Throughout Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, he constantly fear-mongered with nightmarish scenarios of exploding crime rates and uncontrollable violence, despite the fact that both the federal murder rate and federal crime rate have been on a steady decline since 1991, with violent crime having fallen by 51 percent. He also frequently criticized the nation’s prison system, calling it “a disaster”, saying:
“I do think we can do a lot of privatizations and private prisons. It seems to work a lot better.”
The industry promptly responded in kind by donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to his presidential campaign.
Though slavery was technically abolished by the United States in 1865, a loophole in the 13th Amendment has allowed it to continue “as a punishment for crimes” well into the 21st century. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, prison labor was significantly regulated or prohibited, mostly due to the efforts of labor unions in preventing competition with low-paid inmates. However, as the prison population began to grow in the 70’s, businesses lobbied to gut these regulations.
In 1979, Congress created the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP), a program that encourages state and local governments to establish joint ventures with private companies to produce goods using inmate labor, and gives incentives to private industry to use prison labor. In 1934, a prison labor program for inmates was established by executive order as a wholly owned United States government corporation within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and a component of the Department of Justice, called Federal Prison Industries (also known as UNICOR and FPI). In 2015, federal inmates helped to generate $472 million in net sales for UNICOR—but only 5 percent of that revenue went to pay inmates.
Unsurprisingly, greedy corporations have been eager to take advantage of the benefits of having an extremely low-paid workforce that cannot organize, strike, or complain, lobbying the government to broaden their definition of “crime” throughout the last 150 years. Rather than outsourcing jobs to sweatshops in Bangladesh, corporations are “insourcing” jobs to a domestic workforce of prisoners at the same meager wages. Consequently, there are more (mostly dark-skinned) prisoners performing mandatory and virtually unpaid (making between around 12 cents to a dollar a day) hard labor in America today than there were in 1830.
The vast majority – 86 percent – of prisoners have been locked up for non-violent, victimless crimes, many of them drug-related.
About 700,000 of America’s 1.5 million prison inmates have jobs. While not all prisoners are “forced” to work, most take the jobs to make the days more bearable, and to save up their miserly pittance to purchase overpriced commissary items and pay off legal fines and other penalties. Often they come out more indebted than when they went in.
In Texas, however, prison labor is mandatory and unpaid – literally, slave labor.
According the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, “Offenders are not paid for their work, but they can earn privileges as a result of good work habits.” Prisoners who refuse to work (without pay) are placed in solitary confinement.
Prisoners’ days start with a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call, followed shortly by breakfast at 4:30 a.m. All able bodied inmates are required to report to their work assignments by 6 a.m.
Most prisoners work in prison support jobs, such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, and maintenance, but about 2,500 of them work in the Texas prison system’s own “agribusiness department,” where they factory-farm 10,000 beef cattle, 20,000 pigs and a quarter million egg-laying hens. The prisoners also produce 74 million pounds of livestock feed per year, 300,000 cases of canned vegetables, and enough cotton to use for their own uniforms (and presumably other clothing). They also work at meat packaging plants, where they process 14 million pounds of beef and 10 million pounds of pork per year.
While one of the department’s stated goals is to reduce operational costs by having prisoners produce their own food, the prison system admittedly earns revenue from “sales of surplus agricultural production.”
There are similar “prison farms” in other states, including Arizona, Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Ohio, where inmates are forced to work in agriculture, logging, quarrying and mining. While the agricultural goods produced on prison farms primarily feed prisoners and other wards of the state (orphanages and asylums), they are also sold for a profit to private corporations such as Wal-Mart and Whole Foods.
In addition to being forced into compulsory, unpaid labor directly for the profit of the government, inmates may be “farmed out” to private enterprises, through the practice of convict leasing, to work on private agricultural lands or related industries (fishing, lumbering, etc.). Private parties purchase this labor from the government at a deeply discounted price, naturally.
Though the “War on Drugs” has turned out to be an ultimate dismal failure, these private corporations and the for-profit prison industry have managed to win immensely from that policy. Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems to completely disregard the reality of this failed drug policy, promulgating his intention to increase enforcement of federal laws against recreational marijuana use. Now, with Trump’s plan to expand the use of private federal prisons — ordering the construction of more prisons along the southern border — and his executive order to increase the number of immigration officers and escalate deportation enforcement raids nationwide, those private prisons are guaranteed a constant, plentiful supply of ICE detainees to occupy their cells — and even more so, to profit immensely from their barely paid, compulsory labor. Trump’s proposed crackdown is estimated to cost the federal government from $400 billion to $600 billion—a chunk of which would end up in the coffers of private prison contractors.
Here are some notable giant corporations that have profited tremendously from the prison industrial complex:
Wal-Mart – “hires” inmates to clean products of UPC bar codes in order to be resold. Also purchases its produce from prison farms, where workers are subjected to long hours in the blazing heat without adequate food, water, or breaks.
Victoria’s Secret – Female inmates at a South Carolina facility were used to sew products. In the late 1990’s, 2 prisoners were placed in solitary confinement for divulging to journalists that they were hired to replace “Made in Honduras” garment tags with “Made in USA” tags.
Starbucks – uses subcontractor Signature Packaging Solutions to hire Washington state prisoners to package holiday coffees.
Whole Foods – sells food products that were grown and cultivated on prison farms using inmate labor. Also purchases food from Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy and Quixotic Farming, two private vendors that uses cheap prison labor to raise fish and milk and herd goats.
McDonald’s – purchases a variety of inmate-manufactured goods, such as plastic cutlery, containers, and uniforms (sewn by inmates whose hourly wage is even less than the workers who wear them).
AT&T – laid off thousands of telephone operators—all union members—in order to increase profits back in 1993, and have consistently used inmates to work in their call centers since then, barely paying them $2 a day.
Sprint – uses inmates in call centers.
Verizon – inmates provide telecommunications services.
British Petroleum (BP) – chose to send a workforce of almost exclusively African-American inmates to clean up the toxic 4.2 million barrels of oil they recklessly spilled into the Gulf coast, rather than hiring jobless, struggling Gulf community members, many of whom were fisherman rendered out of work from the spill.
K-Mart and J.C. Penney – sell jeans made by Tennessee inmates.
Fidelity Investments – 401(K) or other investments are held by them, and, in some cases, some of your money invested by them is used for prison labor or in other operations related to the prison industrial complex. The investment firm is a major funder of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has authored numerous laws that expanded and authorized the use of prisoners for manufacturing.
American Airlines and Avis – use inmates to take reservations.
Bank of America
Eli Lilly and Company
Johnson and Johnson
Procter & Gamble
Click here for the complete list of companies that use prison labor.