Profiting from Punishment

When the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, its drafters specified one exception: prisoners. Prisoners, of course, do not face the same circumstances slaves did, but with a 168-percent increase in prison population since 1980 and the promise of much more to come in the wake of the crime bill, prisons represent a growing labor source for both the private sector and the government.

In the past, state prisons have "rented" prison labor to private contractors. In 1984, Congress created the Private

Sector/Prison Industry Enhancement (PIE) program, removing interstate commerce constraints on prisoner-made goods to make it easier to profit from work done in prisons.

Goods made in U.S. prisons are now being sold around the world. The California Department of Corrections markets its clothing line in Asia. The "Prison Blue" brand of clothes, mostly jeans made by Oregon state prisoners, brings in more than $1.2 million each year to state coffers.

The export of products produced by prison labor has even begun to have an impact on U.S. foreign policy. When China has been criticized for its own extensive use of prison labor, Chinese officials have pointed at similar practices in the United States. As a result, State Department officials have begun to voice discomfort with U.S. prison-made exports.

But some say prison labor is a way for prisoners to pay their debt to society. Several states, primarily in the South, still have unpaid prisoners working in sugar cane and cotton fields, supervised by armed guards on horseback. The work is mandatory, and the profits go to state-run institutions. With newer "prison industries," prisoners' wages are garnisheed for room, board, taxes, victims' compensation, and sometimes family support, leaving the worker with about 20 percent of earnings-at minimum wage, about $1 an hour.

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Sojourners Magazine December 1994-January 1995
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