The prison-industrial complex: some may have heard of it, but this term is still widely unknown amongst the masses despite it’s huge effect on the American economy. This complex is described as “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.” The interests of the government are their efforts to increase their policing of people rather than solving the root of the problems, which leads to over-incarceration. The interests of industries are their financial holds over privately-owned prisons and their exploitation of prison workers who are underpaid and overworked.
How does this affect America? First of all, outsourcing, which is frowned upon by those who know about it because of its economic effect on American citizens, is replaced with “insourcing,” which is when corporations employ prisoners for as little as $0.23 per hour. Outsourcing affects the American economy by choosing to employ workers in foreign countries rather than displaced workers in America itself, thus causing a rise in unemployment and poverty.
Insourcing is just as bad for the economy for several reasons. The extremely low pay for prisoners might be fine if the prices they have to pay for communication and commissary items weren’t so vastly inflated compared to their wages. Instead of being released from prison with job experience and a small bit of money in their pocket to get back on their feet, inmates are often released with a debt to the prison that they can’t pay off because of the low wages. Some might argue that these inmates are criminals, so they should take what they get and not complain, but consider what this means for America as a whole. Since these criminals are in debt upon release, they re-enter society as unstable individuals looking for any way to earn money again, often causing them to relapse into old habits or crimes and landing them back in prison. The American taxpayers are the ones that wind up paying for the prisoners’ continued stays in correctional facilities, which could have been avoided if the inmates didn’t have the debt and had better job training or program opportunities.
Meanwhile, the companies that employ prisoners often get huge tax breaks, which is millions of dollars that the American people could have benefited from. On top of all of that, citizens of America that aren’t incarcerated don’t have those job opportunities that are given to inmates. Less Americans with jobs means that the economy remains stagnant because less citizens are spending money. So yes, it has a significant impact on all Americans.
While most huge companies in America employ prisoners, here is a list of household names that really make a killing off of the prison-industrial complex:
- Whole Foods: Often called “Whole Paycheck” because of its pricey items, this company came under fire when it was revealed that they were selling artisan cheeses prepared by prisoners who were only paid $0.60/day. Critics pointed out that these kinds of wages are not fair trade.
- BP: A perfect example of how insourcing affects displaced workers, BP had a massive oil spill on the Gulf Coast and exclusively hired inmates to come do the clean up. Though there were plenty of fisherman that were displaced because of the oil spill and in need of work, BP did not extend the opportunity of employment to them and offered no remedy for the issue.
- McDonald’s: This fast-food franchise employs inmates to make a number of items for them, from plastic cutlery to uniforms. The inmates who make the uniforms earn significantly less than those who wear the uniforms, which is already called a “starvation wage” rather than a minimum wage because it is impossible to live with the small hourly pay.
- AT&T: Over 20 years ago, this well-known and widely-used tech company laid off thousands of union telephone operators and replaced them with prisoners in their call centers in order to increase their profits. AT&T has employed them in this same fashion ever since 1993 while paying them only $2 per day.
- Wal-Mart: This huge company might claim to never exploit prisoners, but just like everything else Wal-Mart does, their method of increasing a profit is shady at best. Nearly everything on their shelves is supplied by prison laborers through third-party companies that place prisoners in prison farms with minimal access to water or food.
- Aramark: Known for its monopoly over food service throughout the U.S., this corporation also provides food for hundreds of prisons in America. They may be well-known but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their share of issues; a massive food shortage that affected their service to prisons in Kentucky even caused a prison riot in 2009.
- Victoria’s Secret: Inmates in South Carolina sew some of the pricey undergarments sold at this lingerie store. In a famous late 90’s story, two female prisoners came forward and revealed that they were paid to replace already-sewn garments saying “Made in Honduras” tags with “Made in USA” tags. The two inmates were placed in solitary confinement for blowing the whistle on Victoria’s Secret.
If you see a “Made in USA” tag on something, it’s likely that it was made in an American prison rather than by citizens that aren’t incarcerated. While it’s great that these inmates are learning valuable skills that could help them once they’re released, to say that companies are exploiting these prisoners and making a huge profit at the expense of all American citizens would be an understatement.
What do you think about prison laborers being employed by huge corporations? Are you surprised that some of these companies made the list? Comment your thoughts below and share this article!
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