Do you remember Tim Robbins’ character from The Shawshank Redemption working in the prison laundry? We see him sorting through huge industrial washing machines, sweating in the dim and crowded laundry room. The scene is actually true to life in many ways. Visit any number of prisons around the US and you would find “a small army of workers” laboring in what some are calling the country’s secret sweatshop market.
The steady privatization of prisons has allowed privatizers like the Corrections Corporation of America and G4S to actually sell prisoners’ labor to large corporations, including Chevron, Bank of America, Victoria’s Secret, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, and many others. At first glance this might seem like a perfect solution. Give the inmates some engaging work, minimize outsourcing, and get the American people their much-coveted products. But underneath the surface it’s not so tidy.
Prisoners in this country have produced everything from meat products to bedding, dental instruments, lingerie, Game Boys, airplane parts, and even missile cables. They can be paid as little as $0.93 a day, or up to $4.73 a day (“minimum wage” minus fines and victim compensation.) This is a workforce with virtually no rights, no agency, and no organizing power, much like the prison workers of the 19th century immortalized in the motif of the “chain gang.” The private prisons of our era suggest a kind of ownership of able, disenfranchised bodies, which one company might lease to another for labor. Maybe prison laborers don’t deserve the kinds of rights other workers have? Maybe they enjoy staying busy and find rehabilitation through the work? Who’s to say.
On the other hand, inmates in one Brazilian jail are actually speaking up in favor of prison work. A local fashion designer found herself struggling to keep up with increasing sales in foreign markets and turned to the prison system for helping hands. Now, a group of prisoners spends their days knitting and crocheting, and earning one day off their sentences for every three days spent working. Watch the BBC report to learn more:
Does this story make prison labor more palatable to us? What if American workers were given the same sentence deal as these Brazilian inmates? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!