Editorial: New Millennium Slavery

by shawnna d. and the Fire Inside Editorial Collective
Just as newly freed Africans were convicted of minor offenses and then used as cheap (free) labor for industrial capitalists, poor people and people of color are similarly targeted and incarcerated at disproportionate rates today. Once incarcerated, California prison laborers are paid almost nothing for their labor. In addition they are regularly exposed to extreme weather conditions, abusive supervisors, and unsafe work environments.
Over the past two decades incarceration has become one of America?s top growth industries?an industry replete with Wall Street investors, trade exhibitions, conventions, and scholarly journals. Most prisoners work in running the prisons: as clerks, porters, or kitchen and yard workers and earn nothing or as little as 8 cents an hour.
Prison Industry Authority (PIA), the state agency that operates California?s prison industries, employs approximately 6,000 California prisoners and provides over 60 types of goods and services. Prisoners working for PIA make dentures, glasses, American flags, clothing, and office furniture used by state institutions. They earn from 30 to 95 cents per hour.
A few work for Joint Ventures?a collaboration between California prisons and private corporations which utilize prison labor?and they earn the ?prevailing wages.? These prisoners are required to pay toward their room and board, restitution, and mandatory savings. Only a small portion can be used for purchasing needed items from canteen. The corporations earn huge profits. Allwire Electronics operating out of CCWF reports $10-15 million in annual sales, yet pays most prisoner laborers a minimum wage.
The job skills acquired by those participating in prison labor programs, for the most part, are not marketable in today?s workplace. Prisoners working for PIA are using obsolete equipment and outdated techniques. Those few who do acquire a marketable skill, may still not get a job because of the stigma of being a former prisoner.
Although prisoner work assignments are supposed to be voluntary, prisoners who either refuse or are unable to work suffer significant consequences: they can be out of their cells for only 2 hours per day, they are allowed to spend a maximum of $35, they are ineligible to earn half-time credit.
Workplace injuries are common. Yet neither PIA nor Joint Ventures provide any insurance. If a prisoner insists on receiving medical attention, she will risk possible retaliation from CO?s and free world staff.
A history of prison labor
Prior to the emancipation of the enslaved African, penal institutions were to rehabilitate criminal offenders based on a belief that the offender could be reformed. At the close of the American Civil War, the purpose changed from rehabilitation to providing a virtually free labor source for capital. Emancipation of the slaves created a demand for cheap labor.
The link between slavery and incarceration is clear. Article thirteen of the U. S. Constitution states: ?Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States?.? Thus, today?s penitentiary is nothing more than a new millennium plantation and prison laborers are the new millennium slaves.
The ever-increasing incarceration rates could be reduced by investing in programs that prevent incarceration as well as those which promote successful re-entry to society. Shockingly, California spends over $30,000 per capita for incarceration and less than $6,000 per student for education. The average level of education for California?s prison population is 7th grade.
CDCR?s premise for prison labor is “to reduce prisoner idleness and violence, and increase successful re-entry for prisoners.” The reality is that in California, on any given day, the number of parole violators can easily exceed that of new commitments, which speaks to the failure of that goal and shows the ways poor people and people of color are targeted under America?s newest form of enslavement. The prison system remains complicit in this evolving form of new millennium slavery.