DMI Blog

Ezekiel Edwards

The Proliferation of Prison Labor, Part 2

In my last entry, "The Proliferation of Prison Labor", I raised concerns about the government corporation UNICOR. By employing thousands of prisoners every year at practically no price and supplying cheap goods to both public and private customers (most notably the Department of Defense), UNICOR is often injurious to American businesses (competing against UNICOR), consumers (who often receive poorly made products from UNICOR), criminal justice policy (as incarceration becomes tied to the desire for cost-free labor), and prisoners working for UNICOR (whose health and safety is often ignored).

Since UNICOR is able to expend so little money in making its products, it is able to outbid its competitors. As Republican Representative Pete Hoekstra of Michigan stated, UNICOR has "decimated the textile business" and had a negative impact on companies that make signs for federal agencies. As many workers, particularly those engaged in textile and office-furniture manufacturing, confront the often debilitating effects of outsourcing labor, their employers must simultaneously struggle to secure or maintain government contracts that have increasingly gone to UNICOR. In other words, UNICOR is bad for many American businesses and its employees.

An additional and equally grave concern about UNICOR is the absence of a legal requirement that its industries comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). As OSHA itself states: "OSHA's purpose is to save lives, prevent workplace injuries and illnesses, and protect the health of all America's workers. This includes efforts to protect groups of workers who are small and unorganized but who are particularly vulnerable or who face special hazards." OSHA has a staff of around 2,300 and conducts around 37,000 workplace inspections every year. Companies that violate OSHA's regulations can face fines of up to $70,000. But UNICOR operates with autonomy, without OSHA peering over its shoulder to ensure that it is abiding by its standards. As such, UNICOR does not have to be prepared for unannounced OSHA inspections, and can operate with an unacceptable degree of regulatory freedom.

The results of such impunity can be dangerous, as shown by an article in the New York Times two weeks ago. According to the article, back in 2004, the former safety manager at Atwater Federal Prison near Merced, CA., Leroy A. Smith Jr., complained that factory workers in the prison's recycling facility, as well as at four other federal prisons, were exposed to hazardous materials including lead, cadmium, barium and beryllium as a result of hammering cathode ray tubes from computers. Overexposure to these chemicals can damage the reproductive and central nervous systems, as well as cause cancer, kidney disease, and death, according to federal health officials. Despite Mr. Smith's warnings and recommendations, federal prison officials ignored him, and the Bureau of Prisons declared twice that its staff members had "taken all appropriate steps" to ensure that the inmates' health and safety was being protected.

Mr. Smith persisted, and recently the Office of Special Counsel --- the agency designated to handle whistle-blower complaints --- have substantiated his complaints, finding the Prison Bureau's reports "unreasonable" and based on "strained interpretations of applicable rules and procedures in order to justify past actions". Among other criticisms, the Counsel's report upbraided the Bureau for "dismissing exposure to the chemicals as not 'imminently dangerous, as no immediate threat of death or serious harm occurred.'"

With many UNICOR factories operating 24 hours per day, the threat to inmates' health and safety (and the ease with which UNICOR can disregard it) are serious issues.

Moreover, in addition to the long-term health risks posed to many inmates, there are not necessarily long-term employment benefits. Although some inmates might hone new job skills through UNICOR, they are not permitted to list UNICOR as a reference once they have been released from prison. Even for someone with ten years of experience, many potential employers insist on applicants providing references before offering them a job.

The solution is not to dissolve inmate employment programs, as it is crucial that able-bodied prisoners work, both for society and for themselves. However, as the inmate workforce grows, prison labor --- with its abysmal pay, dangerous working conditions, workers unable to organize, strike, or effectively file grievances, and captive workforce overwhelmingly made up of poor minorities --- has started looking more like slave labor.

UNICOR should pay its prison workers minimum wage (in the same manner as private companies who use prison labor), comply with OSHA, permit its workers a formal avenue to complain without fear of repercussions (such as losing their job, placement in solitary confinement, or transfer to another prison), and allow prisoners to use it as a job reference in the future. If UNICOR continues using the expanding prison population to increase its workforce, production, and profit, it should have to treat its employees like any other law-abiding business (by properly paying and protecting them, for starters).

Doing so would not only respect the rights of its workers, it would level the playing field for American companies competing against UNICOR.

Ezekiel Edwards: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 7:00 AM, Apr 18, 2006 in Criminal Justice | Economic Opportunity | Employment
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