By Alan Bean
On December 9, prisoners at six Georgia state prisons launched a coordinated strike. The silence from the mainstream media has been thundering.
Across America, prison labor remains a vestige of the old convict leasing system that Robert Perkinson describes in great detail in Texas Tough. Some inmates receive nominal wages–ranging from a dollar a day to a princely forty cents an hour; others, like the striking inmates in Georgia, work for nothing.
When discussing prison labor, it is important to avoid vague generalities. Every state has its own laws and practices vary widely. Sloppy references to the “prison industrial complex” can conjure images of multinational corporations earning massive profits from unreimbursed prison labor. This happens, to be sure, but more prison labor involves chores related to prison life: preparing meals, doing laundry, cleaning floors, landscaping, gardening and, in some prisons, large-scale agriculture. In most cases, private corporations aren’t involved, but there are plenty of exceptions.
It has been estimated that 80,000 inmates in America work directly for corporate interests, which suggests that only one-in-twenty-eight American inmates fall into this category. Most inmate labor mitigates the cost of incarceration–one reason why, since the days of convict leasing, it has been so popular. (more…)