Oh boy, another week and another series of articles related to prison labor and the never-ending pursuit of profits from, and exploitation of prisoners.
First a new story published yesterday from out of Illinois. Unbelievable but expected in this period of every state trying to make a little money anyway they can off of inmates. Illinois inmate Kensley Hawkins was sentenced in 1982 for murder and assaulting two police officers, receiving 60 years. Once in prison Hawkins went to work for the prison industry. He has worked steadily for them since 1982 - 29 straight years. The industry program pays Hawkins a whopping $2.00 per day for work making wood furniture, plus occasional small commissions on the products he makes and the industry sells. Hawkins is scheduled for parole in 2028. The prison industry program allows the state to take up to 3% of Hawkins' wages to go toward paying for his incarceration - which they have taken over the entire period he's worked in the prison industry program.
Over the years Hawkins has done just what corrections authorities want inmates to do; save some of their earning to go toward supporting them upon release. We've all heard stories about inmates getting out of prison with no money, family or way to make a living or feed themselves and wind up back in prison in months.
In inmate Hawkins' case he socked away as much money as he could for the day he would eventually be released. To date his savings add up to $11,000.00 because instead of buying snacks, books or other items available at the canteen, Hawkins put most of his money into the savings account for his release- as prison authorities suggested.
Now the state is going after Hawkins' savings account, suing him under state law that allows Illinois to charge prisoners for their incarceration costs. They sued him for more than $455,000 the state spent to house him from July 1, 1983, to March 17, 2005, or an average of about $57 a day! The state's position is that though the prison industry laws allow the state to take a percentage of an inmate's wages to offset some of the costs of incarceration, they are not precluded from going after more if there is a source available.
A lower state appellate court ruled in favor of the Department of Corrections, awarding them a judgment of the $455,000.00, but did not allow them to seize Hawkins' money because both sides have appealed the case to the Illinois Supreme Court. The ironic part of this story is that the state says they will go after incarceration costs from current or former inmates. The threshold that determines if they sue or not is $10,000.00. If Hawkins had of spent his money on zoo-zoos, wham-whams and sweetie-golds at the prison canteen over the past three decades, the state wouldn't have proceeded to go after his savings.
This story brings up important issues across the full spectrum of incarceration, prison industries and slave labor. First it raises the issue of whether or not making an inmate work for pennies per hour is right or qualifies as slave labor. Secondly where there is a provision for paying an inmate those pennies per hour and taking a portion for the costs of incarceration, shouldn't the amount authorized and taken be all that is required? Of course, where politicians are concerned, there are always "buts" attached to any legislation, and where the politicians are conservatives and inmate labor, prison industries and money are involved lawmakers are willing to change the laws to benefit the state - always.
A system whereby an inmate can be worked for years and if he/she saves money to assist them upon release, is an ideal situation that takes the pressure of reentry program costs and the inmate as well. For years legislators and prison authorities have implemented programs, such as the PIE Program that urges inmates working in prison industries to save money for their release. Now that an inmate has done just that, the state authorities want to take it all to pay for their incarcerating that inmate and leave him with no money to assist in transitioning back to his community. The fact that the inmate is now 60 years old and has another 17 years to parole may be one of the factors looked at by the state. If they believe he's unlikely to live that long or will not need that much money if/when he is paroled - due to his age - maybe they see the money in his account as something he will have little use for. I disagree, however. This man has been in prison so long that when he does get out he won't be young enough to work, he won't qualify for Social Security, Medicare or many other social programs. I don't know if you see it or not, but I see the revolving door of imprisonment just waiting for inmate Hawkins and many more in Illinois and elsewhere.
Over the past months I have written extensively about the federal PIE Program that most state prison industries participate in (IL. is not a participant) that allows the prison industries to deduct room and board costs from the inmate's wages to reimburse society for the costs of incarceration. I identified Florida and Minnesota as two of the states that actively take these allowed deductions and keep the money for themselves to pay for their work programs - in effect using as much as 40% of the money earned by inmates to fund the industry operations.
PIECP and now Illinois laws are being used to exploit prison workers at every turn now. Not only are they being exploited, but that action puts the burden squarely upon the community's shoulders to care for an inmate when released. They work them as long and hard as possible for the least amount of wages possible, allow the corporate partners to make as much money from that work and low wages as they can, and then turn the inmates loose back in their communities with no funds, no real job skills and no support. Might as well put a fucking sign over the release portal that says "Hurry Back!"
As I wrote last week the conservative lawmakers in Oklahoma are seeking to empty the prison industry coffers of that state to the tune of nearly $7 million dollars. $1.75 million was already pledged to the DOC by the prison industries, but the department wants it all. The use for the money? So that prison workers will only have to take one furlough day a month instead of three or four. Great idea, eliminate the only training available to the inmate, the source of income for the industries and shut it all down so a few guards won't have to lose a couple of days pay a month for a period of about 6 months. This is merely another clear indication that once empowered conservatives go after the money - no matter where it is, what it is used for or the impact upon those they take the money from - rather than allow the richest among us to pay a fair share of taxes. Today the bill allowing the use of this money moves to the Governor's desk for signing into law.
I also wrote about the use of federal prisoners to make Patriot Missile components for the U.S. Military, manufactured by Lockheed Martin. Lockheed immediately denied any use of prison labor in the manufacture of any of their products for the military, demanding that the author of the article make necessary corrections to the article deleting their name being involved with prison labor. However as the article linked to above, provides ample documentation from the U.S. Department of Justice bragging about UNICOR manufacturing "guidance components" for the Patriot Missile system, military fighters (F-15 and F-16). As always, when the public is informed about the involvement of large corporations using inmate labor, they all run for the shadows and loudly deny any participation.
The Patriot Missile expose wasn't the end of this story though - regardless of the wishes of Lockheed. On the heels of these articles came another advising that the U.S. Army handed a contract to UNICOR to manufacture all of the body armor needed for them. The contract is valued at $20 million dollars, and as the article points out, UNICOR was a curious choice due to the recent recall of more than 40,000 military helmets that failed the ballistic testing.
While Lockheed and other corporate giants continue to realize huge profits from exploiting prisoners as a cheap labor source, they continue to attempt to deny their involvement in such use. They fear the public knowing about their duplicity - and how the huge profits they earn are actually made from the slave labor of state and federal prison industries. Where the government is concerned, they don't care if you know of the use of prison labor or not, as they issue contract after contract to UNICOR. More contracts = more inmates put to work = more private sector jobs taken from the private sector and sent to prison where they work for slave labor rates for corporations.
In the 80's Conservatives and their corporate sponsors and funders developed a program to imprison millions of Americans. They wrote and sponsored hundreds of crime bills and legislation in order to do this. New laws involving punishment for drug use and laws to increase length of sentences imposed, abolish parole and expand prison industries were the tools they used. They implemented a campaign to make all Americans fear a false announcement of rising crime rates to assist them in their efforts. Now more than 30 years later they have imprisoned 2.5 million of us and pick and choose workers from that group to manufacture their goods and provide their services. They do this to reduce wages and increase profits. A fairly simplistic formula overall, but it worked.
In the 2010 election cycle the conservatives prevailed at the polls - with the unlimited funding provided by the same sponsors, Koch Industries, Heritage Foundation, Reason Foundation, ALEC, etc. Now with control of one house in D.C. and many state governorships and assemblies under their control, they are in a position to go after our Unions, collective bargaining and the minimum wage laws. This has been a goal of theirs over this 30 year period and the use of prison labor helped them to do just that. With the transfer of so many jobs to prison industries our labor force has been diminished, with more and more people jobless and from that, they have less influence over employment issues and laws - and less time to devote to such issues as they simply try and feed their families.
This is the environment of today - demonstrations ongoing from coast to coast. Many workers are taking time off to travel to rallies and show their support for worker's rights and to stop the abolishing of collective bargaining and the imposition of right to work laws. What we have to understand is this: during this period of labor strife in the U.S. the corporations behind all of this are without harm. While we give up days of work to fight them and the conservatives, inmates are working overtime to make their products and keep the profits rolling in. While we fight in the streets prisoners are being used behind prison fences to keep the money rolling in to pay for the costs to the corporations to wage this war. We are clearly at a disadvantage in the financial costs of this class warfare. Until and unless we can impact upon the income being made by the corporations through prison industries, their unlimited profits from slave labor will continue as we grow weaker.
The one thing we have of value that can be used to overcome this attack is our votes. We have the numbers on our side and as others have suggested, recalling of those Republicants and their corporate masters is a step that has to be taken. We must recall all of the conservatives with their hands in the corporate till and start electing those who will do the will of the people instead of the will of the corporate $$$.
Now it really is necessary to "take back our country" from those who have bought our jobs, our wealth, our political offices and our government.