The Weight of Thought

From Starbucks to Microsoft: a sampling of what US inmates make, and for whom

prison labor

Tens of thousands of US inmates are paid from pennies to minimum wage—minus fines and victim compensation—for everything from grunt work to firefighting to specialized labor.

The breaded chicken patty your child bites into at school may have been made by a worker earning twenty cents an hour, not in a faraway country, but by a member of an invisible American workforce: prisoners. At the UnionCorrectional Facility, a maximum security prison in Florida, inmates from a nearby lower-security prison manufacture tons of processed beef, chicken and pork for Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises (PRIDE), a privately held non-profit corporation that operates the state’s forty-one work programs. In addition to processed food, PRIDE’s website reveals an array of products for sale through contracts with private companies, from eyeglasses to office furniture, to be shipped from a distribution center in Florida to businesses across the US. PRIDE boasts that its work programs are “designed to provide vocational training, to improve prison security, to reduce the cost of state government, and to promote the rehabilitation of the state inmates.”

And Each month, California inmates process more than 680,000 pounds of beef, 400,000 pounds of chicken products, 450,000 gallons of milk, 280,000 loaves of bread, and 2.9 million eggs (from 160,000 inmate-raised hens).Starbucks subcontractor Signature Packaging Solutions has hired Washington prisoners to package holiday coffees (as well as Nintendo Game Boys). Confronted by a reporter in 2001, a Starbucks rep called the setup “entirely consistent with our mission statement.”

Texas inmates produce brooms and brushes, bedding and mattresses, toilets, sinks, showers, and bullwhips.

In Texas, prisoners make officers’ duty belts, handcuff cases, and prison-cell accessories. California convicts make gun containers, creepers (to peek under vehicles), and human-silhouette targets.

A stitch in time: California inmates sew their own garb. In the 1990s, subcontractor Third Generation hired 35 female South Carolina inmates to sew lingerie and leisure wear for Victoria’s Secret and JCPenney. In 1997, a California prison put two men in solitary for telling journalists they were ordered to replace “Made in Honduras” labels on garments with “Made in the usa.”

Open wide: At California’s prison dental laboratory, inmates produce a complete prosthesis selection, including custom trays, try-ins, bite blocks, and dentures.

Constructive criticism: Prisoners in for burglary, battery, drug and gun charges, and escape helped build a Wal-Mart distribution center in Wisconsin in 2005, until community uproar halted the program. (Company policy says, “Forced or prison labor will not be tolerated by Wal-Mart.”)

On call: Its inmate call centers are the “best kept secret in outsourcing,” Unicor boasts. In 1994, a contractor for gop congressional hopeful Jack Metcalf hired Washington state prisoners to call and remind voters he was pro-death penalty. Metcalf, who prevailed, said he never knew.

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