We’re not just giving the production of goods and services to low-paying, safety-ignoring mills in foreign countries; now we’re pumping up low-paying, safety-ignoring worker cultures here.
“Although a wide variety of goods have long been produced by state and federal prisoners for the US government—license plates are the classic example, with more recent contracts including everything from guided missile parts to the solar panels powering government buildings—prison labor for the private sector was legally barred for years, to avoid unfair competition with private companies. But this has changed thanks to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), its Prison Industries Act, and a little-known federal program known as PIE (the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program). While much has been written about prison labor in the past several years, these forces, which have driven its expansion, remain largely unknown.
“Somewhat more familiar is ALEC’s instrumental role in the explosion of the US prison population in the past few decades. ALEC helped pioneer some of the toughest sentencing laws on the books today, like mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders, “three strikes” laws, and “truth in sentencing” laws. In 1995 alone, ALEC’s Truth in Sentencing Act was signed into law in twenty-five states. (Then State Rep. Scott Walker was an ALEC member when he sponsored Wisconsin’s truth-in-sentencing laws and, according to PR Watch, used its statistics to make the case for the law.) More recently, ALEC has proposed innovative “solutions” to the overcrowding it helped create, such as privatizing the parole process through “the proven success of the private bail bond industry,” as it recommended in 2007. (The American Bail Coalition is an executive member of ALEC’s Public Safety and Elections Task Force.) ALEC has also worked to pass state laws to create private for-profit prisons, a boon to two of its major corporate sponsors: Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections), the largest private prison firms in the country.
“That mass incarceration would create a huge captive workforce was anticipated long before the US prison population reached its peak—and at a time when the concept of “rehabilitation” was still considered part of the mission of prisons. First created by Congress in 1979, the PIE program was designed “to encourage states and units of local government to establish employment opportunities for prisoners that approximate private sector work opportunities,” according to PRIDE’s website. The benefits to big corporations were clear—a “readily available workforce” for the private sector and “a cost-effective way to occupy a portion of the ever-growing offender/inmate population” for prison officials…
“Prison labor has already started to undercut the business of corporations that don’t use it. In Florida, PRIDE has become one of the largest printing corporations in the state, its cheap labor having a significant impact upon smaller local printers. This scenario is playing out in states across the country…Much of ALEC’s proposed labor legislation, implemented state by state is allowing replacement of public workers with prisoners.
“It’s bad enough that our companies have to compete with exploited and forced labor in China,” says Scott Paul Executive Director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a coalition of business and unions. “They shouldn’t have to compete against prison labor here at home. The goal should be for other nations to aspire to the quality of life that Americans enjoy, not to discard our efforts through a downward competitive spiral.
“Alex Friedmann, associate editor of Prison Legal News, says prison labor is part of a “confluence of similar interests” among politicians and corporations, long referred to as the “prison industrial complex.” As decades of model legislation reveals, ALEC has been at the center of this confluence. “This has been ongoing for decades, with prison privatization contributing to the escalation of incarceration rates in the US,” Friedmann says. Just as mass incarceration has burdened American taxpayers in major prison states, so is the use of inmate labor contributing to lost jobs, unemployment and decreased wages among workers—while corporate profits soar.”
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