| 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 ratherthe 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 contractorsperhaps
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 slogana mysterious, ironic and cruel joketo
become the neofascist motto of the unspeakable 1990s?
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