Bloomberg Discovers Prison Labor

Michael Bloomberg, billionaire late entrant to the presidential race, was recently found using prison labor to make campaign calls. When this was discovered by The Intercept, Bloomberg said he was unaware and immediately stopped.

What happened is that Bloomberg contracted with a New Jersey based call center service called ProCom. ProCom then used women incarcerated in the Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, a minimum security prison in Oklahoma, to call voters in California on behalf of the campaign. Ironically, the women were required to state at the end of each call that the call was paid for by the Bloomberg campaign, but forbidden to say that they were calling from a prison.

What’s the Harm?

ProCom immediately noted that they pay for these prisoners’ labor at the minimum wage of $7.25/ hour. Therefore, they say they are innocent of any exploitation. But there are two key points they don’t mention. First, when paying prisoners they are exempt from tax obligations such as unemployment insurance, which afford them considerable savings and makes this labor much cheaper than any they could find on the open market. Second, the prisoners receive only a tiny fraction of the wages ProCom pays, with the state keeping the rest. For many prison jobs inmates receive mere pennies per hour. There is conflicting information in this case, with one reporter claiming the inmates are paid $1.45/ hr (making this a coveted, high paying position) and another quoting the Oklahoma prison bureau saying that the maximum salary for a prisoner is $27- per month!

Now one could argue that at least in principle this arrangement makes sense. After all, the prison provides the inmates with food, clothing, and shelter, so why shouldn’t the state withhold some of their earnings as payment? But unfortunately in practice this is bad news all around.

Does anyone wonder why ProCom is so anxious to take part in this arrangement? In addition to the considerable financial savings, the benefit they receive is obvious. It is very difficult to recruit and retain a minimum wage workforce. Employees willing to work for minimum wage are hard to find, are often not reliable, and there is high turnover. But the prison makes a large, consistent minimum wage workforce available. And the workers show up sober, arrive on time and don’t try to sneak off early due to their escort of guards.

When businesses become dependent on prison labor to earn profits, it creates a perverse lobby for the government to lock up more people for longer. Combined with private prison operators, telecom and commissary vendors, and others who profit from mass incarceration, this forms a formidable political obstacle to prison reform in the U.S.

Job Skills?

A purported benefit of prison labor is that it gives needed job skills to inmates that will help them upon release. Unfortunately, this is usually not the case. In the instance of the Bloomberg campaign, it’s not clear what skills are actually learned by making campaign calls.

More generally, one of the requirements for-profit companies must meet in order to use prison labor is that they must demonstrate that there is no local unemployment in the field the prisoners will be working. This is to minimize competition between prison labor and outside labor and thereby reduce harm to the local economy. It also means that prisoners will likely have trouble finding a job similar to what they were doing in prison when they get out. Finally, while it wouldn’t seem to be an issue with the Bloomberg workers, in many other cases inmates are legally barred upon release from doing the job they were doing in prison. A notable example is California’s use of inmates to fight forest fires. California forbids felons from working as firefighters, so their skill at using hoses and ladders goes for nought once they get out.

Prison Labor Originated With Slavery

The history of prison labor in the U.S. is closely tied to slavery. After the civil war, plantation owners did not give up their free labor easily. Newly freed blacks were tyrannized with laws called black codes which guaranteed they would be subject for arrest. For example, in South Carolina blacks were prohibited from holding any occupation other than farmer or servant unless they paid an onerous tax. In many states blacks were required to have written evidence of employment for the coming year each January- if they left before the end of the contract they were subject to arrest and forfeit all their earned wages.

Arrested blacks were farmed out by prison wardens to work at the plantations, doing the same labor they had done as slaves, with the prison keeping their wages. Due to the black codes, to quote a common saying, ‘the black man went free, stood a brief moment in the sun, then moved again toward slavery.’

When we consider the racial bias in our justice system,  the prevalence of prison labor on behalf of for-profit corporations creates a similar dynamic today. Michelle Alexander argues this explicitly in her very informative and well researched book ‘The New Jim Crow’.

A Simple Step

A simple step towards improving the situation would just be to let inmates keep more (or all) of their pay. In addition to the unfairness (and overtone of slavery) involved in a person working all day on behalf of a wealthy business for scarcely enough money to buy a candy bar, it would benefit society as well.

One key indication of recidivism (the likelihood someone released from jail will reoffend and wind up back incarcerated) is access to housing and employment upon release. Letting an inmate use earnings from prison employment to accumulate a nest egg of savings to be made available upon release will help that person have a chance to get their life in order when they get out. Even if the government feels entitled to withhold prisoners’ wages to recoup some of the costs of incarceration, it may be cheaper in the long run to let the inmate accumulate some funds.

It’s not surprising Bloomberg didn’t realize his campaign was employing prisoners. Contracting prisoners for outside employment, while common, is invisible to most of us on the outside. We aren’t aware that when we speak with a call center representative we may be talking to a prisoner, clothing we purchase may have been sewn by a prisoner, and goods we purchase warehoused and shipped by prisoners.

Even a billionaire like Michael Bloomberg likes a good deal. But we must not let our desire for cheap goods and services support a practice that exploits and harms many of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Background Information:

Coverage of Bloomberg’s use of prison labor from the Intercept

Information on prison labor in the U.S. from Global Research

An explanation of the scope of prison labor from Vox

Information on the black codes from History.com

Research on how prisoners leaving with money for their immediate needs reduces recidivism from Stanford Social Innovation Review

Photo credit: Photo by k u on Unsplash

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