I’ve written several articles about the rampant and dismaying practice of state prison industries using prisoners as a labor force for private manufacturers. Recently this battle has centered in Nevada – a state with slow recovery and an unemployment rate hovering at 10%. Those supporting the practice of offering companies a labor pool comprised of a captive workforce that receives minimum wage or less – regardless of skill set, knowledge or experience – argue that such industry jobs are “training programs.” They assert these prison jobs are necessary to provide prisoners with a work ethic and skills that will reduce the chance of re-offending after release. Those of us that openly oppose such exploitation argue that these state owned prison industry operations are nothing more than a way of exploiting the labor of convicted offenders while providing huge profits to companies with access to this labor force.
This is an ongoing practice that is devastating our jobs and disadvantaging hundreds of small business ventures that are competing against other companies with access to cheap prison labor, low cost leases and no requirements to provide the typical employee benefits that companies using non-inmate workers have to provide. From 2000 through 2005 it was businesses in Florida that were outright stolen from their owners by a prison industry corporation. In 2004 it was a technology industry in Austin, Tx. that fired 150 employees, closed their facility and reopened two months later in a Geo run prison, using inmates to make the same products. Later in 2008 it was Lufkin Industries in Lufkin, TX. that was forced to close and displaced another 180 workers due to hidden competition from a company operating out of a Texas prison industry.
I have reported each incident, warning that this was going to continue to happen, sucking jobs out of the public and private sectors as more and more industries were coming on line behind prison fences. Much of this story has gone without notice as more and more jobs disappeared and our unemployment grew steadily. Finally in Nevada the Governor and key state executives have paused and taken a hard look at the impact prison labor is having upon unemployment and business expansion by non-prison industry companies. After receiving numerous complaints about losing jobs, contracts and business to companies partnered with Nevada’s Silver State Industries, it appears the Executive branch in Nevada is on the cusp of adopting some much needed regulations to protect workers and small business owners.
To fully comprehend how all this operates we must first realize the power of mass media, the advocates of prison labor, who writes statutes allowing it and how together how they spread disinformation to the public. At the heart of this pursuit sits the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) funded by corporations benefiting from ALEC's "free markets" philosophy and model legislation such as the "Prison Industries Act." Through corporate media outlets the public, workers and business owners are fed a continual stream of bogus facts, statistics and propaganda.
Media has reported for decades that crime is rampant, increasing by the month in all categories. The public is made to live in fear of burglaries, robberies, rapes and murders – and this fear instilled by our media, results in the public sanctioning more and more new laws, stiffer and longer prison sentences for less and less dangerous acts. We've authorized abolishing parole, mandatory minimum sentences, ever increasing drug laws, mandatory completion of sentences imposed and other harsh sanctions. All of this has been done in the name of “making our streets safer” and under the catchy phrase of “Tough on Crime.” This is refutedby facts not reported in the MSM:
"The crime rate for serious crimes, including murder, rape, and assault, has dropped significantly since the early 1990s in part because of changes in technology and policing, experts say.And here:
The last time the crime rate for serious crime – murder, rape, robbery, assault – fell to these levels, gasoline cost 29 cents a gallon and the average income for a working American was $5,807. That was 1963...:
"...Even as crime rates have gone down around the country over the last 20 years, our fear of crime hasn't changed much at all. Between 1990 and 2009, the national violent-crime rate was halved, while property crime dropped to 60 percent of its previous rate, according to the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data. But almost every year since 1989, most Americans have told pollsters they believe crime is getting worse."These claims made by independent non-mainstream media outlets were based upon actual figures put out by the U.S. Department of Justice here. Take a minute and input your state, years and types of crimes and get your own facts directly. Yet in the face of this, ALEC continues to pump out "necessary" model legislation increasing criminal laws, imposing longer sentences and the mainstream media meekly goes along with their claims of increasing criminality.
Many think corporations are not behind this scheme, their profiting off of incarceration is simply a byproduct of crime. More BS...it is no accident corporations funding or holding membership in ALEC and supporting their RW think tanks are involved directly in prison labor; Microsoft and Wal-Mart, 3M, Boeing, McDonalds (uniforms and plastic utensils), Wendy's (uniforms and plastic products), AT&T, IBM (cabling for electronics made by Escod Industries in S. Carolina prisons)
What this has done beyond filling a nation with fear, is to create a huge labor force of 2.3 million convicted prisoners from all classes, with varied technical skills (thanks the drug war for this disparity in vocations). Through prison industries these men and women are put to work in prison industries run by every state and in most these industries are partnered with private companies. Products that used to be made for state agencies, schools and non-profits are now openly sold to consumers and shipped from state to state to fill orders received from outside each state. Products are also exported to other countries – while the U.S. continues to claim we disallow those same countries from distributing their prison made goods to the U.S.
Some “wordsmiths” come up with phrases such as the “Patriot Act,” "Right To Work," “Free Markets” and “Tort Reform” to force feed Americans a diet of wire taps, surveillance, tort reforms that benefit corporate interests, reduce wages to workers and other acts that violate our rights. By doing this they have the ability to accuse those who oppose such “American” principals as being un-patriotic, un-American or a socialist. This serves to keep many of us from weighing in or opposing such acts for fear of being singled out as un-American.
It is no different with prison industries. They continue to advertise that we should be humane and compassionate once we actively pursue, arrest and convict a “criminal” and support rehabilitating that man or woman by providing them with “training” and help to reduce “violence in prison” and “idleness” by putting prisoners to work in these training programs. They claim these programs allow released offenders to secure jobs and thus not return to prison. To be gnarly “this is all pure bullshit.”
In Nevada, Florida, California, Indiana and most other states involved in this prison industry scam, they actively pursue hiring prisoners who already have the skills needed by the industry located at each prison; painters, electricians, heavy equipment operators, lathe operators, medical technicians, metal workers, dental technicians, dog trainers…and the list goes on. How much training is required when the “trainee” is already skilled?
Additionally, these prison industry administrators seek out and employ inmates with mandatory life sentences and those serving 20 years or more. Many of these prisoners will never have an opportunity to use their “training” upon release – as many will never be released. In Florida the prison corporation successfully lobbied for legislation requiring them to hire 40% of their workforce from inmates serving more than 10 years. This helps these exploiters to keep production levels at maximum capacity while maintaining shipping schedules. It isn’t about training it’s about PROFITS, lower operating expenses, less in wages and benefits…in short, it’s about creating and using slave labor to replace non-inmate workers.
Describing an act or program in terms that lend the appearance of something being done that American’s would support has become the norm. More often than not once you delve into the actual wording of legislation so innocently named, we find the innocuous sounding label has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual content of a bill Prison industries and the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP or PIE Program) has become such a situation. We keep being told these industries are necessary for training, while huge amounts of money and work is diverted from the private sector. Not surprisingly the participants take great pains to not reveal this “profiteering” to the public and competing companies.
Back in 1979 when enacted, the law was designed to actually promote training of prisoners, helping them reenter society with skills and a way to locate good paying jobs for them following release. Once corporate executives, business entrepreneurs and lawmakers who support those interests discovered PIECP and the existence of prison industries, they determined this could be a literal gold mine for employers; low cost leases of public owned prison facilities, employees with no ability to bargain for wages or complain about working conditions, no requirement to pay prevailing wages, no need for medical or health insurance and no unemployment insurance premiums required. The perfect work force for manufacturers looking for lower operating and labor costs existed within state prisons in every state in America. Slowly by unerringly the lawmakers and special interest groups took control of all prison industry operations in the U.S. and today have their sights set on establishing similar prison industry operations internationally through the National Correctional Industries Association (NCIA).
This private trade association group has members and Directors who sit at the pinnacle of nearly every state run prison industry in the country – and at the apex of this organization sits the Chairman, Brian Connett who represents Nevada’s Department of Correction’s prison industries – Silver State Industries. Beneath NDOC Deputy Director Connett sits those representing: North Carolina, Montana, Tennessee(Tricor), Alabama, Indiana, Minnesota, New York, UNICOR(Federal Prison Industries), Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Colorado, Maryland, Arkansas, Michigan, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Utahand Louisiana. Notice that the majority of these states are Republican controlled by Governor and/or assemblies or legislatures and thus have substantial ALEC lawmakers sitting in those legislatures.
Those on the BOD represent these states and that isn't counting regular members sitting on Committees that represent other states. The total number of states involved in the NCIA is now in excess of 40 and includes several county jails that are using inmate labor for manufacturing, partnering with private companies. With the head of this trade association having control over the entire Nevada Prison Industry program, it is no wonder that state’s industries program has recently been subjected to corruption involving, huge industry losses, uncollected leases and payroll (inmate and staff) salaries and wages, failed new industries and is completely lacking in actual state oversight.
Don’t be misled when you read these industries can only sell to state, local or non profits…if they are in the PIE Program, they sell products on open consumer markets. This linkfrom the NCIA itself provides the industries involved, companies using the inmate labor and products made. Today the NCIA claims there are 91,000 prisoners working in more than 1,020 separate prison factories in the U.S. Hundreds of corporations are partnered with them working these prisoners. How do corporations learn of available prison labor and low cost leases of prison manufacturing facilities? Prison industries have marketing departments who actively seek new companies for these partnerships. In their presentations they show professionally produced videos such as this one (distributed by the NCIA) and this one to prospective clients.
Additionally, since the NCIA is the agency chosen by the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance to oversee the PIE Program, oversight over the activities involving the PIECP industries is totally lacking - and this "self oversight" paid for through a government grant. One would think that with a state having the head of the prison industry oversight authority (NCIA) heading their prison industry programs, Nevada would have the tightest run ship in the fleet – but not so. Deputy Director Connett’s management skills apparently does not include business knowledge, practice or a policy of adhering to any regulations or federal guidelines. After all why should he, his NCIA IS the oversight authority, so who will catch him or Nevada’s prison industry violations with he and the NCIA overseeing his activities?
The situation involving Alpine Steel’s use of inmate labor to unfairly compete against other steel fabrication companies in Nevada has apparently been “cured” by disallowing Alpine further access to the Prison Metal Industry at High Desert State Prison. However during the research on Alpine, other equally serious activities involving Nevada’s Silver State Industries and the NDOC were discovered. These include an illegal 5% deduction taken from ALL inmate worker’s wages and set aside to expand future prison industry operations; huge accounts receivable totaling more than $1 million dollars have been sent to collections or are pending collection activities from 2008 through 2013; Industries kept open when they are losing money year after year; a expensive motorcycle program that built several custom motorcycles, sold two to one of the prison industry partners and another four have set for years now unsold. Other discoveries included an industry operation used to import foreign water tanks that were used to manufacture water spray vehicles for use on construction sites. These were distributed by Thomson Equipment company (later Silverline Industries) using inmate labor. Silverline was a foreign owned company importing the tanks from Hong Kong. These vehicles were introduced into the Nevada markets at prices far below comparable vehicles made by Nevada private companies, which caused the closure of more than one competing business. More importantly, as with the Alpine Steel situation, none of the competitors were consulted or even made aware of the open competition by prison made goods.
Adding insult to injury, taxpayers have to absorb the subsidies advanced to companies like Alpine and those who have outstanding debts to Nevada’s Silver State Industries. In addition taxpayer money built the factory facilities at Nevada’s prison units and they are not getting a good return for these expenditures. As any contractor performing work for prisons and jails will attest, those construction projects are more costly than similar projects undertaken in the private sector. This higher cost is due to the need for security, more inspections, stiffer code requirements and lockdowns that sometimes slow the projects.
In Nevada the nominal cost of leasing manufacturing space is by the square foot and in 2011 that cost was in excess of $.70 cents per sq. ft (today the cost is down to $.68 cents per). The contract entered into between NDOC Industries and Alpine in April 2011 leased 19,000 square feet of manufacturing space to Alpine for $5,000 per month, or $.26 cents a sq. ft. The same space outside the prison at today’s rates would cost $12,900+ per month. A savings of $7,900.00 every month ($84,800 per year) to alpine and an equal lose in income to the NDOC. Combined with the low cost lease, paying minimum instead of prevailing wages, no health or medical costs, no vacations and no unemployment insurance requirements, Alpine and any other business receiving those benefits have a huge advantage over other businesses in their respective markets. This is the purpose of the NCIA, increasing profits to corporate interests through low wages, manufacturing space at less than 1/3 the cost of their competitors, a cheap labor force that can’t miss work or take time or vacations off. NCIA members include the vendors and suppliers of raw materials to prison industries, corporations partnered in “training programs” and joint venture partners. The net result is unfair competition, bids and contracts in the private sector going to companies using inmate labor, depressed wages in the private sector, less possibility of employing the unemployed due to a dwindling lack of jobs – and all along the line taxpayers footing the damn bill!
I've written steadily about this phenomena for years now and as the topic has been ignored by private companies and workers have lost jobs to prisoners, the industry has grown by leaps and bounds. Texas didn’t hear about this happening in Florida, so Lufkin lost their trailer division. Nevada didn’t hear about this happening in Florida and Texas, so they were unaware a problem even existed. More importantly, the business in the private sector in every state has no idea they are competing against prison industry operations using cheap labor and reduced operating expenses. These competing companies are required by law to be consulted and give their approval prior to starting industries that could impact their labor force or sales, but they aren’t. Labor groups and unions are required by law to be consulted and give their approval before industries are begun, but they aren’t. This is a fact borne out by what’s occurring in Nevada now and in Texas previously. In both cases, operations went on for years before labor or industry discovered the competition from prison industries.
This concludes my “rant” for today. Next week if time permits I will begin a lengthy expose series that fully covers this topic and will cover all aspects of this corrupt practice. Hopefully other state authorities will find the expose and learn from it, taking a close look at their state prison operations. More importantly I am hopeful that small business owners will begin to ask questions of their state authorities to determine if they are being competed against by a prison industry project or product line.
To complain, one must first discover he or she has a reason and need to do so. If you own, operate, or manage a business which competes with a prison industry product or service, you now have that reason…