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Making slave labor fly--

Boeing goes to prison

by Paul Wright

excerpted from Prison Legal News, March 1997

With the repeal of welfare, some political opportunists and right-wing pundits are turning their sights on questions of law and order in general and prison "reform" in particular. They are starting to push Congress to impose the same solution on prisoners as on welfare recipients: put them to work.

Currently more than 90,000 state and federal convicts work in a variety of public and private enterprises while serving time. The majority are employed in state-owned enterprises such as making license plates or furniture for government offices. Increasingly, though, private businesses have contracted with at least 25 states to set up businesses inside prison walls to take advantage of state-supplied facilities and low-wage nonunion workers.

In one Washington prison, Boeing Corp., headquartered in Seattle, is discovering the benefits of a captive work force. Last year, while the world's largest civil aviation manufacturer made more planes and more money than ever before, it cut the number of employees on its US payroll. Like most corporations, Boeing has been cutting costs and countering organized labor's threat to its bottom line by moving factories abroad and out-sourcing to nonunion subcontractors in the US. It's search for workers who are unable to unionize or demand a decent wage took it to two widely divergent yet strangely similar places: China and the Washington State Reformatory (WSR) in Monroe.

In China, where Boeing sold ten per cent of its planes between 1993 and 1995, the company operates at a fraction of its US costs. According to the Seattle Times, "Employees live mostly on or next to the factory premises. Workers receive a salary of about $50 a month. They are forbidden to form independent trade union. For those who step out of line on the shop floors in China, there is the notorious Lao Gai 'reeducation through labor' prison work camps."

The newspaper could have written almost the same story by traveling 25 miles to the WSR, where MicroJet is employing prison labor to make aircraft components. Among the recently formed company's customers is none other than Boeing. MicroJet, which lists its address as 16700 177 Av. SE--the same address as the prison--currently employs eight prisoners. They train for minimum wage and progress to $7 an hour, unlike those pesky machinists at Boeing's Everett plant who earn up to $30 an hour for the same work. Like all companies employing prison labor, MicroJet saves further by not paying benefits such as health insurance, unemployment, etc.

In addition to savings on salaries, prison industries also enjoy subsidized overhead. MicroJet's rent-free factory is in a 56,000 square foot industrial building built and maintained by Washington state. The arrangement offers a "just-in-time" inventory of labor: Prisoner workers can be simply left in their cells for weeks on end if there is no work, then be called in on short notice. Outside competitors have to pay overhead and workers even if no production is taking place. Moreover, in prison, any attempt at labor organizing is met with immediate and harsh state repression which generates even less negative publicity than similar moves in China.

With these competitive advantages, prison industries can easily underbid any US competitor. The real losers, then, are the free workers, machinists in particular, whose jobs have gone to prisoner slave laborers or Chinese workers.

FEW PRISONERS ARE willing to speak publicly against the program for fear of losing their industry jobs, being blacklisted by prison industry employers, or incurring retaliation from prison officials. In any case, most of Washington State's 12,800 prisoners would probably say that they support prison industries, regardless of any objective exploitation.

Just like on the outside, people in prison work at jobs they dislike because they need the money and there are long waiting lists for the 300 industry jobs available. Their situation is similar to that of sweatshop and maquiladora workers in South Asia and Latin America who earn a few dollars a day. While such wages are exploitative and paltry by First World standards, in the Third World they make the difference between starvation and poverty and are thus highly sought after.

Prison industries represent a Third World labor model in the heart of America. And while $1.50 an hour take-home pay for work that brings $30 an hour on the outside may not seem like much, it looks pretty good against the 38 to 42 cents an hour Washington convicts earn in prison kitchens, laundries, janitorial services, etc. And even those jobs have eager takers since overcrowding has created a prison "unemployment rate" of more than 50 per cent.

PRISONERS CAN AND should be given the right to perform meaningful work for decent wages and the opportunity to gain job skills and earn money. A sane program that would serve both society's and prisoners' interest would require that:

-- prisoners keep the wages they earn, subject to the same deductions as any other citizen;

-- prisoners be paid the same wages as free workers in comparable industries;

-- prisoners learn job skills that would help them get decent jobs on release;

-- prisoners have the right to unionize and bargain freely;

-- products be labeled to indicate that prison labor was used;

-- the use of prison labor to break strikes or replace striking workers would be outlawed; and

-- prisoners be allowed to live up to financial responsibilities to those on the outside.

Such a program would pay off in lower recidivism without driving down wages on the outside.

The right-wing drive to make prisons pay--while racking up a nice profit for industry--fits well with the continuing transformation of America into a nation of small government, big corporations and big prisons. And just like the welfare bill, it gives the public the false sense that meaningful reform is taking place. Meanwhile it takes pressure off a system which cannot provide enough decent jobs and uses incarceration as the remedy of choice for poverty, unemployment, poor education and racism. If you've lost your job in manufacturing, garment or furniture manufacturing, telemarketing or packaging, it could simply have been sentenced to prison.


Paul Wright, a prisoner at Monroe State Reformatory, is legal editor of Prison Legal News. Subscriptions ($20/year) are available from PLN, 2400 NW 80th St., #148, Seattle, WA 98117.

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