[Pnews] Some Reflections on Prison Labor

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jun 6 10:33:55 EDT 2019


  Some Reflections on Prison Labor

by Ruth Wilson Gilmore and James Kilgore - June, 2019

*Ruth Wilson Gilmore*: A popular notion in some progressive circles 
holds that US prisons are a chain of sweatshops and plantations where 
hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people labor under excruciating 
conditions to generate profits for transnational companies. Can you shed 
light on this view?

*James Kilgore*: We need to re-think this notion. While such images 
contain kernels of truth, overall prison labor holds more complexity 
than a simple stereotype of super-exploitation does justice to. Based on 
my own experience of six and a half years in federal and state prisons, 
plus considerable research into this topic, I would like to offer a few 
observations about the nature of labor inside prisons. Let’s begin with 
a profile of the incarcerated workforce, then we can take a close look 
at some big-picture analysis of how these workers fit into the current 
capitalist economy.

*Gilmore*: Great! Can you start with breaking down the myth of private 
companies and prison labor?

*Kilgore*: Sure. While some companies do make profits by 
super-exploiting incarcerated workers, such employers are few and far 
between. The Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) 
is a federal agency with which all companies wanting to hire imprisoned 
workers must register. In 2018, the PIECP reported just over 5,000 men 
and women in prisons under contract with private companies in 2018. This 
is less than 3% of the nation’s incarcerated population.

*Gilmore*: Then what’s actually happening inside?

*Kilgore*: For one thing, far more individuals work in producing goods 
and services for government departments and institutions. Here we find 
some of the nation’s most oppressive working conditions. Prisons such as 
Angola in Louisiana and Parchman Farm in Mississippi cruelly imitate the 
conditions of slavery, replete with a majority Black agricultural 
workforce being supervised by armed White men on horseback. They 
generally grow crops for consumption by government entities, including 

*Gilmore*: So if the farms were intended for profit instead of cruel and 
murderous humiliation, they’d probably do as other cotton producers do 
and use efficient machines. What else have you learned?

*Kilgore*: A somewhat different ethos prevails in the federal prison 
system, which currently holds about 180,000 people. Roughly 17,000 men 
and women work in UNICOR, a company owned and operated by the Federal 
Bureau of Prisons. They produce a variety of goods from clothes to 
mattresses to telecommunications equipment. UNICOR sells virtually all 
their production to federal government bodies. Similar dynamics operate 
in some states. In Florida, for instance, some 500 local government 
units contract with the Department of Corrections for labor to do road 
maintenance, though some counties have pulled out due to concerns about 
exploitation of prison labor.

*Gilmore*:**If I’m following you, even these stark images don’t apply to 
most people who work inside. What do most people who work inside do?

*Kilgore*:**In nearly every prison most of the people who work perform 
basic operational and maintenance work inside their 
institutions—cooking, cleaning, grass cutting, as well as highly skilled 
trades like plumbing and office administration. In other words, they do 
the labor that reproduces the prison itself.

*Gilmore*:**And what about wages? What are people who work inside paid?

*Kilgore*: According to a 2017 study by the Prison Policy Initiative, 
wages for prison production work vary from no pay at all for 
agricultural labor in Oklahoma prisons to $6,000 a year for some jobs 
under the Maine Department of Corrections. UNICOR workers make between 
23 cents and a $1.15 an hour.

States like Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana don’t pay anything at all 
to those who do cooking, cleaning, and other such labor. Most of my work 
in prison was in the education department, where I earned anywhere from 
eight to fifty cents an hour for teaching GED classes. I also worked 
breakfast shift in a kitchen, for which my only compensation was extra 
pieces of French toast and cartons of milk.

*Gilmore*:**So far we’ve talked about formal jobs, and whether or not 
people get paid. What about the informal sector? What kinds of goods and 
services do incarcerated people trade among themselves?

*Kilgore*:**Prisons also house an enormous informal or underground 
economy sector. At the pinnacle rests an illicit drug trade, generally 
tightly controlled by leaders among the prison population who run their 
operations much like on the streets.

*Gilmore*:**Although the movement of illicit substances across prison 
walls has been said to involve paid staff, including guards.

*Kilgore*:**The other major money-makers in a prison yard are “legal 
beagles” who specialize in writing writs for people trying to appeal 
their cases. A well-worded document for the courts may bring in several 
hundred dollars, usually paid into a relative’s account on the street.

But the informal sector extends much farther. Kitchen workers smuggle 
food into the cell blocks and sell it to their neighbors. Industrious 
service workers do tattoos, wash clothes, cut and style hair, do makeup. 
Plus, nearly every prison building or wing has a “convenience store,” a 
locker in someone’s cell filled with candy bars, jars of coffee, Top 
Ramen, and other products stockpiled from the commissary.

Just like its counterpart in the community, the prison informal sector 
is a way to survive in a brutal economic, social, and health 
environment. Since they are against the rules, these economic activities 
are also a form of informal resistance to an oppressive system—way for 
people to assert their humanity and claim their right to improve living 
conditions inside an institution that aims to grind them into the dust.

*Gilmore*:**So what is the nature of the unfree workers you’ve detailed 
for us?

*Kilgore*:**As you’ve written, people in prison are members of the 
marginalized sector of the working class, not some exotic criminal 
subculture. The restructuring of industrial production as well the 
reconfiguring of urban and rural landscapes, especially Black and Brown 
communities, often forces people into the underground economy or 
part-time survival jobs in the formal sector. The resultant poverty then 
leaves them vulnerable to the carceral state and subject to the racist 
and classist policing of homelessness, substance abuse, mental illness, 
and community instability.

*Gilmore*:**You describe vividly what I call “organized abandonment.” 
What kinds of organizations can fix this problem? Are unions the answer?

*Kilgore*:**Unionization is one frequently proposed solution to the 
plight of incarcerated workers. In considering unions, the question 
becomes: do we put resources into improving prison working conditions or 
do we fight to get people out of prison? Suddenly raising people’s pay 
rate from ten cents an hour to a living wage would require massive 
increases in corrections budgets or, in the absence of large-scale 
decarceration, a huge reduction in employment inside prisons. Moreover, 
since many non-prisoners are also part of the marginalized sector of the 
working class who don’t earn a living wage or belong to unions, 
unionizing prison workers could essentially be creating a situation 
where prison offered economic advantages over the labor market on the 

Ultimately, we need to view work and worker activity inside prisons 
through a broader lens. It is not about wages. Since 2010 we have 
witnessed “strike” actions inside prisons, from hunger strikes in 
Pelican Bay in 2011–13 to the refusals to go to work at the center of 
the national prison labor strikes called by the Free Alabama Movement in 
2016 and the Jailhouse Lawyers Speak last year, to a number of work 
stoppages in immigration prisons. These are not actions over bread and 
butter issues. They are about the dehumanizing environment of 
contemporary prisons, the warehousing of Black, Brown, and poor human 
beings, the squelching of their soul and spirit. Strikers and prison 
workers in general want higher wages but more importantly, they want a 
future. They are striking to rekindle some collective sense of hope in 
their lives. They need far more than higher wages or a union card. They 
need freedom.

*Gilmore*:**A broader lens might also help us urgently consider the 
relationship between workers inside and outside the walls. At least 
70,000,000 people in the US have some kind of arrest or conviction 
record that makes it difficult for them to get or keep jobs in the “free 
world.” In other words, /half/ of the US labor force is documented not 
to work. Half! Add to that individuals’ communities and households. It 
seems to me that every kind of organization trying to make life better 
for vulnerable people should have the fundamental problem of unfreedom 
on their agenda. Unions. Faith groups. Community development. Youth. 
Elders. Advocates for public education. Everybody. The problem, in other 
words, is prison—and therefore the entire society.

You underline the fact that people inside need freedom. And it needs to 
be real. Real freedom means abolition of the conditions that have made 
it necessary for us to have this conversation in the first place.


Ruth Wilson Gilmore

is Professor of Geography at the CUNY Graduate Center. A co-founder of 
many social justice organizations, her research and writing link 
political, economic, and environmental struggles in the growing local, 
regional, and international movement for abolition.

James Kilgore

is a Media Justice Fellow at the Center for Media Justice. He has 
written widely on issues of mass incarceration, labor, and electronic 
monitoring, as well as authoring /Understanding Mass Incarceration: A 
People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time/ (The New 
Press, 2015).

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863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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