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Work will set you free

by Elissa Rashkin

Three strikes. Mandatory minimum sentencing. Juvenile offenders tried as adults. Limited grounds for appeal. During this time of decreasing civil liberties, one thing has been puzzling me: Keeping people in prison costs a lot of money, and even though voters keep asking for longer, harsher sentences for lawbreakers, they don't really want to pay for them. So, what with overcrowded jails and governments going broke, how will it all work?

Well, I should have realized all along, but a recent special election in Oregon made it clear. Ballot Measure 49, tacked on to a much more controversial budget amendment and virtually uncommented on in the media, dealt with prison labor, expanding access to its use by public and private industry by relaxing interstate shipping requirements and restricting inmate lawsuits. The measure mainly modified legislation already in place since 1994, and not surprisingly, passed by a huge margin (something like 97%). Reading statements like The work or on-the-job training programs shall be established and overseen by the corrections director, who shall ensure that such programs are cost-effective ... Such programs may include boot camp prison programs, and Prison work products shall be available to any public agency and to any private enterprise without restriction imposed by any state or local law, ordinance or regulation as to competition with other public or private sector enterprises, it dawned on me that we were no longer talking about rehabilitation, punishment, or even so-called "victims' rights," but rather—the ultimate sweatshop!

The idea, of course, is that prisoners fund their own incarceration through their labor, thereby paying their debt to society in the terms it best understands. Work is supposed to give prisoners a skill to market when they get out, and 25 cents an hour seems like a fair wage for those whose room and board is paid by taxpayers. But the reality is a cheap deal for contractors—perhaps some of the same ones who are currently under fire for their exploitation of workers abroad. After all, if voters/consumers have a hard time caring about women workers raped on the shop floor in Indonesia or enslaved children in Burma, they care even less about convicts, who (we are told) forfeit their rights as citizens upon committing their crime (even a victimless crime such as possession of marijuana). The rights to organize, to fair working conditions, and even to minimum wage just don't apply. And, unlike most products on the market today, those that come from a prison can bear the proud label "Made in USA."

The institutionalization of this form of labor (as reflected in Oregon state law) is troubling. Will conviction and sentencing, much like government control of legal and illegal migration, become covert means of regulating the workforce, forcing "free" workers into competition with their incarcerated counterparts? Will the root causes of crime go forever unaddressed, becoming instead ever more lucrative sources of cheap labor? Is the movement for "victims' rights" a deliberate smokescreen masking a masterful attack not only on the rights of prison workers but on the hard-won rights of the American workforce as a whole?

My guess is that voters don't realize that they are playing into the hands of corporate interests--any more than the German public in the 1930s fully understood its complicity in Nazi genocide. While I do not wish to use Holocaust rhetoric as an emotional substitute for historical analysis, it is worth remembering that under Hitler, a few industrialists became extremely wealthy off the forced labor of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other undesirables in the concentration camps.

As everyone knows, the gate to Auschwitz bore the motto "Arbeit macht frei" -- "work will set you free." Is this slogan—a mysterious, ironic and cruel joke—to become the neofascist motto of the unspeakable 1990s?

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