As I have written before, we live and function in an official economy which is run by a very small group of very rich people. Their goal is the continued growth of their profits; yet because of emerging constraints on the earth's natural resources, the rich can no longer grow their profits by unlimited industrial expansion. Increasingly, the only way for the rich to maintain or grow their profits is by robbing the poor.
One way of robbing the poor is by depriving them of their liberty and turning them into extremely cheap slave labor. I discussed this in an earlier post, The Replacement of Petroleum Slaves, which described how the state and Federal prison systems of the United States were being turned into a pool of slave labor with the potential to replace cheap foreign labor for industry in the event of a breakdown of globalism. In this present post, I will expand a bit on that theme, based on some confirming information I received relatively recently.
Several weeks ago I was introduced to a person who had been incarcerated in a Federal prison in the American Southwest around decade ago. I had heard something of his background before we met, and I also had an extensive body of knowledge regarding the prison-industrial complex in various American state prison systems. I wanted to see if my conclusions also applied to the Federal system, so we did an interview.
He told me that there is most definitely a “prison industry” at the Federal level, named UNICOR, also known as Federal Prison Industries. UNICOR is a “wholly owned government corporation created in 1934,” shortly after the creation of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. (Source: Federal Prison Industries, Inc. - Wikipedia) UNICOR produces goods and services from the labor of inmates of the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons. According to Federal law, UNICOR is ostensibly restricted to selling its products and services to Federal government agencies, and cannot sell to the commercial market. (More on that later.)
UNICOR produces many products, including clothing, textiles, electronics, and office furniture. My former inmate acquaintance mentioned that UNICOR's labor rates were cheaper than Chinese labor, and said that back when he was in prison, an inmate earned between 11 cents and 26 cents an hour. He also informed me that UNICOR is publicly traded – thus capable of being influenced by the profit motive.
This profit motive, and the opportunity to use the Federal prison system as an instrument of private profit, has had a predictable effect: Federal prisons try as hard as possible to find excuses to keep inmates imprisoned for as long as possible, since all able-bodied inmates who are not security risks are required to work in prison, either for UNICOR or to support prison operations. Also, according to this former inmate, many people sent to Federal prison are framed, including a highly disproportionate number of minorities. Those who are framed are easy for the other inmates to spot, because in conversation it soon becomes obvious that these people do not know how to commit a crime. Native Americans accused of crimes are predominantly judged under Federal law which is much harsher than state laws, and leads to much harsher sentences.
According to my interviewee, prisoners working for UNICOR are not provided with many of the worker safeguards common in private industry. He told me of times where he and other inmates had to dispose of or recycle old electric power transformers containing PCB's, without any protective clothing or safety measures. (By the way, this statement about inadequate worker safety is corroborated by other sources, such as “UNICOR Continues To Use Prisoners To Recycle Electronics,” The Real Cost Of Prisons Weblog, 20 April 2009; and “Prisoners and Workers Poisoned By Prison Recycling at UNICOR Are Suing,” The Real Cost Of Prisons Weblog, 11 August 2009.)
As for prison culture, my interviewee told me that gangs are largely in control at the various prison units, except for the maximum security units. However, the prison guards regularly try to instigate trouble between prison gangs. We discussed the impact of prison culture on the broader American culture. At this point, the interviewee was joined by his spouse, who talked about how with many people from minority neighborhoods being singled out for lockup, the culture and families in these neighborhoods were being ruined. Children in these neighborhoods were now being conditioned to grow up as criminals, due to corrupt and excessive application of police “enforcement” in the places where these children live.
This led to a discussion of ways in which minority culture could be repaired in the United States. My interviewee had two immediate suggestions: first, get rid of mandatory sentencing laws for non-violent crimes; and second, stop the American “war on drugs” as it is now being waged. The interviewee's spouse had suggestions for how concerned and caring volunteers could go into minority neighborhoods to provide exposure to opportunities for learning that would not otherwise be available.
For me, this interview was yet another confirmation of the deliberate breaking of poor neighborhoods and minority communities by the dominant holders of power and wealth in the U.S. It was also a confirmation of the corroding, corrupting nature and effect of growth capitalism. Truly, “the love of money is root of all the evils.” (1 Timothy 6:10) In research that I did following this interview, I found more information on UNICOR's status as a publicly traded company, as well as the efforts of state prison systems to imitate UNICOR. Here are some links:
““Private Prison Industry” Experiences Boom,” Leslie Berenstein, Copley News Service, 11 May 2008. This describes the public trading of UNICOR stock, among other things.
“Dr Boyce: How Companies Make Money off Prisoners,” BLACKVOICES, 28 July 2009.
“SLAVERY ON THE NEW PLANTATION - Hugo Pinell,” Kiilu Nyasha, December 2006.
“UNICOR VI (GSB: DCDave's Column),” a page of footnotes accompanying a longer article on UNICOR. Note 6 is troubling, as it hints that UNICOR may be selling its goods to private parties in addition to the Federal Government, in violation of Federal law.
“Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex: Class warfare from above,” Michael Parenti, Covert Action Quarterly, 29 August 2001. This article gives a slightly different view of the possible motives behind the recent expansion of the prison-industrial complex.
“Workin' for the Man,” Nora Callahan, The November Coalition
One last note. We live in a time of severe economic distress, with falling tax revenues at the State and Federal levels, and states that are unable to balance their budgets. Yet you can just bet that next year, in states where the private prison industry or the prison-industrial complex has gained a foothold, there will be lobbyists pushing for an expansion of harsh mandatory sentencing laws for non-violent crimes – even though there's no longer any money to enforce such laws. I think of the mess these people have already made in California, or of the mess that people like Bill Sizemore and Kevin Mannix would like to make in Oregon.