Bob Sloan on the new slavery of the American prison factory system

When I flew into Providence a few weeks ago, to attend the Netroots Nation conference, I caught a taxi from the airport to the hotel with a fellow by the name of Bob Sloan. Bob, like me, had won one of the Democracy for America scholarships, and we talked about our work as we made our way downtown. Bob told me about his investigative reporting on the growing use of prison labor by multinational corporations, and, somewhat embarrassedly, I told him about the often inconsequential nonsense that I spend my nights working on here. My hope was to meet up with Bob later, and interview him properly about his work, but I never had an opportunity. So, a few days ago, I sent a list of questions to Indianapolis. What follow are his answers, which, I think you’ll agree, are pretty amazing, and completely terrifying.

MARK: Can you start by telling us a little about who you are, the work that you do relating to prison labor, and how it is that you first became interested in the subject?

BOB: …Back in 1981 I was convicted of a white collar crime and went to prison in Florida. While serving my sentence, I worked most of the time for the prison industry there, Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises (PRIDE). Back then it was run by drugstore magnate, Jack Eckerd. During my tenure with PRIDE I worked closely with Eckerd and PRIDE President, Floyd Glisson on product development and inmate issues. I was a college grad with a degree in architectural drafting and design, and my abilities earned me the position of head of PRIDE’s “Tiger Team,” responsible for developing and prototyping new customer products, and designing new seating and modular office systems (office cubicles, work stations, panels, etc.). I designed the new factory for PRIDE’s office systems industry, and, when complete, I headed up their CAD training program, instructing other inmates in computer drafting and engineering.

At that point in time, PRIDE’s pursuits were in keeping with a mission statement that stressed the training and job placement of prisoners, in order to reduce recidivism, and keep these people from reoffending once released. PRIDE not only trained them, they had a job placement service on the outside that got them employed after release.

By 1990, I was home, and continued to work with Eckerd on youth programs, and helping inmates who were released to find jobs. In 1990, Eckerd and Glisson left PRIDE, with Eckerd publicly saying he did not like the direction the new PRIDE executive staff was taking the company, and expressing concern over new “accounting” procedures put in place by the same administration. From 1989 through 1996, I continued to work in my spare time finding jobs for those released from prison, and performing some free-lance consulting with PRIDE’s corporate MIS in Clearwater, Florida. During that time, I saw firsthand that Eckerd had been correct – PRIDE had gone from a company dedicated to rehabilitating inmates to one that was profit-driven. Inmate wages stayed where they had been since 1983, inmates were trained on antiquated equipment (and thus not employable for the same work when released), prisoners were being worked longer (with no overtime), etc.

I moved to Indianapolis in 1996, and, from that distance, lost track of PRIDE, concentrating on my life up here and working like everyone else. In 2002, I had an unfortunate “mistake” created by the Florida authorities, who decided that I still owed them some time on probation from the 1981 case. I was picked up, taken back to Florida, and sent back to prison, where it took me two years to get the court to realize that they were incorrect, and release me. During that period, I was again assigned to work for PRIDE, in a factory in north Florida. When I got there, everything was different than it have been previously… except the pay was basically the same. (It hadn’t really changed over the intervening 20 years.) There was no longer a real job training effort, rather everything revolved around filling orders and shipping them out on time (regardless of the quality).

They were participating in a program known as the “PIE Program” which allowed prisoners to earn as much as minimum wage for working on orders which were sold in the private sector. None of the prisoners knew what the PIE Program was, just that they made more money – even considering that 80% was taken back for room and board, victim restitution, taxes, etc. I had my wife get me a copy of the PIE Program regulations from the US Department of Justice, and send it to me. I sat down and read it, and discovered that it had mandatory requirements that PRIDE was supposed to abide by (mandatory payment of prevailing wages for workers, no displacement of private sector workers or interference with local labor groups and unions, etc.). I was assigned to quality control as a supervisor and discovered that the company was avoiding paying prevailing wages, and was placing “in-house” orders for products that they knew were about to enter the production stream as PIE products. In this way, they paid inmates between $.20 and $.50 an hour for labor, placed the products in inventory, and then drew them out to fill PIE orders, thus avoiding paying even minimum wage scale to the inmates. There was a lot of other hanky panky going on as well (shifting hours from one pay week to another to avoid overtime, etc.).

I filed complaints with the Governor and FDOC about PRIDE opening 9 separate for-profit corporations that were being used to exploit the PIE program, and about their policies and procedures at more than 40 separate factories. I approached supervisors at the plant and explained that what I thought they were doing was illegal under the federal PIECP regulations [18 USC 1761(c)]. I was allowed to change jobs and went home shortly thereafter, once the court ruled and released me.

I continued to pursue complaints with the Governor (Bush) and pushed for an investigation by the DoJ. All federal complaints were directed to the Bureau of Justice Assistance which in turn sent them on to the National Correctional Industries Association (NCIA), which had been given oversight of the program by the BJA in ’95. The NCIA never responded to my numerous complaints. In fact, they blocked any incoming emails from my address. While I was pursuing this from Indiana, the Florida Inspector General responded to my complaints and performed an audit of PRIDE. He discovered that PRIDE board and executive staff had formed the separate corporations, loaned themselves $18 million dollars, awarded the spin-offs no-bid contracts worth another $20 million, and had begun to write down the debts owed to PRIDE by those spin-offs. In the end, the entire executive staff were asked to resign, along with half the board (appointed by the Governor). And, in the end, only $400K, of the more than $38 million, was ever recovered.

The Secretary of the FDOC, James Crosby (a Bush Cabinet appointee) was on the PRIDE Board. He continued to turn a deaf ear to my ongoing complaints, even knowing that my complaints had caused the IG’s to audit PRIDE, and catch the illegal transactions. My complaints, at this point, concerned the PIE Program, and how PRIDE had been allowed to partner with private sector companies that were using the inmates as a nearly slave-labor workforce. Additionally, from 2000 through 2005, PRIDE had simply stolen five of those companies outright. Under the contracts, the partner was to supply all of the equipment, materials and proprietary technologies to PRIDE, which then chose one of its factories in which to make the products for those companies. Once the inmates were trained, and the staff was knowledgeable about the operations and customers of the private companies in question, PRIDE would then falsely claim these partner companies owed them money for processing, etc., and demand hundreds of thousands of dollars be paid to them immediately. When the companies balked, PRIDE had the FDOC throw the company’s supervisors off the prison grounds. Then, PRIDE would seize all of the equipment and materials, and simply continued the operation on their own, selling to the “partner’s” customers. At the same time, PRIDE would sue the companies in a friendly court in Clearwater, and tie them up, making them spend huge amounts of money to try and recover their businesses and assets.

One of those owners that lost his business to PRIDE contacted me and I’ve been consulting with him since 2005, trying to help him recover his losses. I went to Florida and met with the board three times in 2006 on behalf of the owner, and in an effort to get PRIDE to become compliant with the PIE Program requirements. To no avail. That same year, Secretary Crosby was indicted and arrested for corruption and kickbacks on a private canteen contract with the Keefe Commissary network (sentenced to 9 years, and still in). His replacement was James McDonough. He contacted me about PRIDE, and we worked together trying to reform PRIDE through January 2008. He had documents and inmate letters from workers at the PRIDE plant, order numbers, copies of pay checks, copies of time cards, etc., which I had supplied to him. In 2007, he resigned from the PRIDE Board and petitioned Governor Crist to abolish PRIDE completely, and turn the prison industries over to the FDOC to operate. The GOP legislature forced McDonough to “retire,” and left PRIDE intact. (Pride has two top lobbyists in Tally, who they retain for $350,000 per year, and they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to keep the lawmakers in line with their agenda).

I opened my website, continued to try and make PRIDE compliant, and began investigating state prison industries state by state. I found more than 40 states participating in the PIECP program, and that the NCIA, the a trade association for the prison industries, had worked with Congress to change legislation, allowing them to develop “Policy” and procedures for the PIE Program, which they had been given oversight of in 1995. I found that, under the program, PRIDE is supposed to turn over 40% of inmate wages to the FDOC to offset the costs of incarceration, but that they lobbied for state laws to divert that money back to PRIDE, to offset their costs of “training.” So, in essence, the inmate wages deducted are used to operate the prison factories. The employees themselves are paying 40% of their wages back to the company. Unbelievable corruption… and I found that it’s also happening in Minnesota, Oregon and Iowa.

MARK: As you and I have discussed, there’s a sense among the citizens of our country that prison labor, while perhaps distasteful, serves a purpose, in that it provides job training for incarcerated men and women who will eventually enter the workforce. Would I be correct in saying that your research has proven otherwise, though?

BOB: The prison industry program was designed to allow for training of offenders on contemporary equipment, using contemporary technologies, to increase the likelihood that, when released, the trained former offender can secure employment and avoid a return to prison. There were several criteria that had to be met for a prison industry to participate, and, as mentioned above, those have all changed through policy amendments. Here is a link to the program overview. (The 9 mandatory requirements are listed on page 3.)

Today the focus is on profits… and training, along with other core mission goals, have been sacrificed in exchange for increased sales and profits. An example of this is that today Florida’s prison industry workforce is comprised of 15% men and women serving life sentences. Overall, 28% of the workforce has at least 15 years until release or possibility of parole/probation. This helps increase production, but takes positions and training out of the reach of short term offenders who could utilize that training in the shortest time to fulfill mission goals.

MARK: Can you give me a sense of how big this is? I realize that we’re talking about dozens and dozens of companies, ranging from IBM to Nordstrom’s, that are utilizing prison labor, but what scale are we talking about? Does it represent a significant portion of our GDP? Is it growing?

BOB: Currently there are more than 300 full scale prison factories operating nationwide. Many are operating two or three shifts in order to keep up with orders and shipping. 109 of those factories are operated by the federal Prison Industries (UNICOR). Here is a link to the NCIA site where they list the companies “partnered” with state prison industries using inmate labor, the products made, etc. The NCIA also has a “Buyer’s Guide,” where consumers and companies alike can shop for prison made or related goods. The NCIA Board is comprised of all those involved in prison manufacturing – prison industry executives, vendors, UNICOR, ACA, etc., and these are the people who determine policy and have oversight over the entire PIE Program, in effect overseeing themselves.

I cannot provide the % of our GDP that prison-made goods represent. I would have to refer you to a CPA or individual with more knowledge than I on this. I can tell you, however, that a conservative estimate of the gross sales in total prison-made goods, in 2010, was $2.4 billion. This is in addition to the $75 billion spent on incarceration. And, it’s worth noting, none of that $2.4 billion is returned to the taxpayers to offset their expenditures for incarceration. The total number of prisoners working in our prison factories nationwide is now estimated at between 600,000 and 1 million, manufacturing thousands of products that include missile guidance components, aircraft wiring for Boeing products, wiring for electronic equipment, phone cables and related sub-products for companies like IBM, Escod Industries, HP, Dell, etc. Federal prisoners also make nearly 100% of the clothing supplied to our military services, canteens, helmets, web belts, back packs, boots, shoes, dress and camo uniforms, underwear, t-shirts, etc.

The actual number of prisoners reported in the PIE Program are skewed, as many who are in training are not counted, and not paid… yet the products the they make are included in outgoing orders. Likewise, any non-PIE products manufactured using standard prison wages, of between $.20 and $.50 per hour (Florida and elsewhere), put in inventory, and later drawn dawn to fill PIE orders (avoid paying even minimum wage to the workers), are also not counted.

MARK: I suspect it’s different from state to state, but, in general, how are much are these prisoners being paid for their labor?

BOB: Pay for inmates range from $0 per hour to around $10.00 per hour. The PIE Program now authorizes inmate pay to begin at the minimum wage level (it is supposed to be set at prevailing wage). After an inmate completes a “pre-training” period of approximately 6 months (without pay), they can then enter the PIE Program at the lowest pay scale. Only after completing 4-5 years of “training” do the inmate workers earn the “potential” of receiving prevailing wage scale. The NCIA has set the prevailing wage scale at the 10th percentile (which means inmate workers receive less in wages than 90% of other workers in the private sector make for the same job description. Inmates can also be transferred from position to position, requiring new training, which stalls their wage progression, saving more money for the prison industry and their partners. Of the number of prisoners working in prison industries, I estimate less than 1% ever reach even the potential for receiving prevailing wages.

MARK: So, is it safe to assume that this is a profit center for both public and for-profit prisons?

BOB: Yes. Though prison industries are self-sustaining and operate without any tax funding, the taxpayer does not share in the profits made. All profits made are to the private sector companies, with a small percentage going to the prison industry itself. In many instances today, the prison industry is both the employer and customer, not partnering with companies. Instead, they determine the products, develop the markets and sell the products under their own labels. The PIE Program provides a loophole… unless the products leave the state of manufacture, the industry is not required to abide by the PIECP mandatory requirements on pay, benefits, hours, etc. This allows them to sell to brokers who have a shipping address in the state. Once the items are received by the brokers, they ship the products all over the country with impunity, and thus avoid paying PIE wages, or having to abide by the prohibition against unfair competition with private companies, and the requirement of getting labor and unions to sign-off on the operation.

MARK: Can you talk a little about the point of intersection where for-profit prisons and the prison labor industry meet? Are there regulations in place to address the enormous conflicts of interest that must exist?

BOB: The points of intersection between private prison companies and prison industry and profits can best be demonstrated by a former company, US Technologies (UST) and their contractual partnership with Geo Group (then Wackenhut Corrections Corp). Read the SEC filing of UST here. (Begin on page 3 with the overview. Then read about the BOD of UST on Page 4.)

On page 9, you’ll find UST/LTI were given facility leases for as little as $1.00 per year, with subsidized utilities by Geo in Florida and Texas. UST folded in 2006, after the CEO swindled investors out of nearly $20 million, and the SEC devalued their stock. Today, another company now takes their place, brokering inmate labor to companies wanting to reduce wage and overhead – from the same physical address in Lockhart, Texas that UST operated out of. This is OnShore Resources.

Just prior to the 2000 filing by UST… a meeting was held in DC with Janet Reno serving as keynote speaker (in 1998). Another meeting was held the same afternoon. ALEC member Rep. Ray Allen (R TX) was a speaker along with Pam Davis, CEO of PRIDE (the Florida private prison industry corporation) and Florida Rep. Bill McCollum (R). They met to discuss the expansion of the PIE Program nationwide. Following this meeting, the PIE Program exploded from state to state. Ray Allen was the Texas Chairman of the Committee on Corrections, a lobbyist for the NCIA, and, by 200,3 would head ALEC’s Criminal Justice Task Force. In ’94, Allen introduced legislation in Texas to expand the state’s prison industry program under PIECP. Once passed, he took it to ALEC, who adopted it as model legislation titled, “Prison Industries Act,” and disseminated it throughout the US from 1999 on. This has served as the standard for prison industry operations since 1999. This is exactly how the Stand-Your-Ground law was born, introduced in one state by ALEC members, then adopted as model legislation, and now has appeared in more than 20 states. It is ALEC’s most notable and effective MO.

There is no conflict of interest, they drown out the complaints of those in the private sector who object to the use of inmate labor and about unfair competition. The answer given to the objectors is to become competitive in their markets by partnering with a prison industry and using inmate labor.

MARK: Are you aware of any significant prison labor activities taking place in Michigan that my readers should be aware of?

BOB: Your state has the Mackinac Center (funded by the Koch brothers) that has been pushing for using inmate labor for production needs of private companies since 2002. Michigan is pushing for privatization of prisons, inmate healthcare and food services right now. Included in this, they’re pursuing legislation that would allow prisoners to be used by private companies as a labor source… Here’s a clip from the last link:

“Michigan lawmakers are taking it a step further. They want to allow the private prison companies to employ the prisoners to perform duties within the prison, such as custodial and food service, but first the state must legislate an exemption to the minimum wage laws so the private companies can have what will amount to a free work force to run the prison where they will literally have a huge captive labor force at their disposal to contract-out to make millions in corporate profits, all while enjoying Snyder’s generous corporate tax cut on their bounty.”

This article also links these efforts to ALEC, CCA, Geo and the model legislation they’ve introduced in Michigan. What your readers need to understand is that for every job taken over by a prisoner, a private sector worker or union member loses his/her job. In this manner, the state “saves” money through reduced wages and number of employees. Corporations get nearly free labor and use that to replace American workers.

MARK: I can see how this may fly in a country that doesn’t have unemployment over 8% (and much higher in places). How do legislators respond, though, when you ask why our utilization of cheap prison labor is growing at a time when jobs for tax-paying Americans are becoming harder and harder to find?

BOB: The response to my probes about employing prisoners in lieu of private sector workers generates a two-fold response depending upon whether the inmates are taking over public or private sector jobs. In both situations lawmakers respond with claims that inmates need training and the industries fulfill that need to help “reduce recidivism.” This is a lie to begin with. Many studies have shown there is no noticeable reduction in recidivism rates when an inmate is employed in prison industry programs. In the case of the public sector, lawmakers state that they are helping municipalities, state departments and agencies to be fiscally responsible through reducing the number of employees, and health and retirement benefit requirements, while teaching the inmate worker a trade. Of course, when inmates are used for free, cheap or slave labor, employers are reluctant to employ those same inmate employees once released – and pay them a fair wage, when instead they can simply continue to use the replacement provided by the prison classification process.

MARK: Anything that you would like to add on the role of ALEC?

BOB: ALEC created the Prison Industries Act and the Private Correctional Facilities Act in 1995 as the above links attest. This is an agenda they have pushed for their corporate members for more than 15 years now. They have been quite successful, and, as states have approached the bankruptcy abyss due to paying for the increased incarceration, ALEC is now turning their attention to “reforming” that which they created through the “Right on Crime” initiative advanced by Gingrich and Pat Nolan of Prison Fellowship Ministries and the American Bail Coalition (ABC). ALEC pushed for abolishing parole, and that legislation served to increase prison populations exponentially. Now, Conservative politicians are saying that they were wrong in their pursuits of Tough on Crime policies, mandatory drug sentences, and similar efforts. To make it right, they now propose that, in lieu of parole, states pass legislation to allow inmates to apply for an early release bond to ensure the state that they will not reoffend. These bonds will be underwritten by the ABC member companies, and require the inmate or his family pay a 15% fee for the $25 to $50k bonds. Of course this will create a windfall of money for the ABC companies, make the GOP lawmakers appear to have “solved” a problem they actually created in the first place, and will allow the ABC bondsmen to have total control over the released inmates through GPS ankle monitors (made by an ALEC member corp) and monitored by another company (also an ALEC member corp).

Overall the prison industry and privatization legislation has been responsible for more than a trillion dollars in profits over the years, Mark. Though ALEC claims they have dissolved that task force, the legislative efforts of that group has simply been absorbed by the remaining task forces.

For more information on this very important issue, I’d encourage you to visit Bob’s website where you’ll find a great deal more.

And, here, for those of you who are more visual, is an NCIA ad, encouraging companies to make use of prison labor.

It’s fucking chilling, isn’t it?

I particularly like how the voiceover actor says, “Be part of a progressive business solution.”

You asked for a solution to off-shoring, America. Well, here it is… Now, thanks to the likes of ALEC, we can bring jobs back to this country AND compete with the slave wages of China. It’s a huge “Win, Win.”

Oh, and guess what I just saw in the news today? According to new research, it looks as though private prisons are lobbying for longer sentences.

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  1. Edward
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    Sloan makes a great point when he notes the percentage of lifers working in the system. If this program were really about job training, that number would be much smaller. Assuming his numbers are correct, this is clearly all about cheap labor.

  2. Edward
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 5:41 am | Permalink

    And that video could have just as easily been about the slave trade in America. If you switch out a few words here and there, it’s easy to imagine.

  3. Posted June 20, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    with just a little bit of tweeking this could be the model for the reform of public education.
    The NLRB ruled back in the 80’s that prison workers could not organize employee unions, and lacked the right to collective bargaining. As a result any attempt by the worker/inmates to demand economic justice results in additional criminal charges against the worker/inmate and lengthier prison terms.

    I was once told by a prisoner rights activist that “the only vehicle for prison reform is a bulldozer”

  4. Knox
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    It would be cool if, now that this platform for cheap labor has been established, we started passing laws targeting individuals who had valuable skill sets. For instance, if industry needed coders, they could pass more hacking laws, and thereby guarantee an ample supply of cheap labor in that area. The possibilities are endless.

  5. Thom Elliott
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    Kafka would blanch. This level of corruption is frankly astounding, our nightmarishly surreal slave state makes the frightening gulag system of the Soviet Union seem rather forthright by compairison. This is the consequence of allowing the world and human beings to become resource and nothing besides, being in the world is reduced to nothing but economics, engineering, and industry which makes-over human being into an orderable stockpile of componant parts with no worth apart from capacity to work. That our cynical ‘leadership’ are fully aware of this gruelling injustice I have no doubt, and utilize the mechanical sophistry of job creation and small business to distort the perception of the clueless electorate for manipulation.

  6. Eel
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    I’m at a loss for words. This is terribly depressing.

  7. Posted June 20, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    I wonder if prisons are allowed to buy and sell workers from and to other prisons?

  8. Dan
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Yes great analogy.

    We all know how the slaves broke laws and were convicted of crimes. Those criminals had the audacity to be born black, they deserved to be slaves, obviously.

    It’s exactly the same as convicted criminals in today’s society, give or take a few words.

  9. Meta
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    I read this today on Reddit:

    Prison rape accounted for the majority of all rapes committed in the US in 2008, likely making the United States the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women.

    Following the link, I then found this:

    Fun fact: The Norwegian supreme court refuses to extradite prisoners to USA because the prisons are regarded as not upholding minimum humanitarian standards.

  10. Natalie
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Low-wage prison labor is definitely a problem throughout the US. But, the DetroitPolitico article Bob Sloan refers to regarding what is happening in MI is actually really inaccurate when it comes to specifics about MI’s prison system. The hyperbole used by the author paints a messed up picture of what really takes place in MI’s prisons. She states, “As it turns out, a Michigan resident has a better chance of finding employment if incarcerated than they do through traditional means. Knocking off a liquor store will land them guaranteed full-time employment faster than any advanced degree.”

    To say that you have a better chance of finding employment if you go to prison is just plain false.

    There is no such thing as full-time employment in MI’s prisons. If you are lucky to get a job assignment, most jobs are 3 to 6 hours a day.
    Idleness abounds in MI’s prisons.

    I think that kind of over-the-top rhetoric does us all a disservice. It is inaccurate and it feeds into the public’s serious misconceptions about the reality of prison life.

    In addition, the legislation that has indeed made its way through the House and Senate regarding prisoner pay has specific exemptions in it that would forbid the products created inside to be sold to anyone other than other prisoners. This is from the House Floor summary of the bill: “Prison labor could be assigned to a private contractor for the production of goods or services to be used solely within a correctional institution, jail, or reentry facility that houses a population under the Department of Corrections’ (DOC) jurisdiction. Inmates assigned by the DOC for the production of goods or services that are solely used within such a correctional facility or institution would not be subject to the prevailing or minimum wage.”

    Obviously, profits could still be made by the private company that could take over MSI (Michigan State Industries-a publicly run prison factory system currently in place), but Wal mart, Victoria’s Secret, and Microsoft would not be allowed to produce products via low wage prison labor and then sell them to the public. And, honestly, I cannot foresee a private company wanting to set up production factories for prisoner commissary, clothes, and shoes due to severe security measures that they would need to be able to comply with and get around.

    Just so you know, food services and custodial services inside prisons are currently provided by prisoners, but they work for the state not a private company. And the state pays them for shit wages. Food service workers make 17.5 cents per hour/ 23.5 cents per and skilled pay is 32.5 cents per hour. I realize no corporation is making money off of this low-wage labor at this time, but with the system in place as is, we keep state employees employed and our communities reliant on prisons for economic vitality.

    Also, much of MI’s prison health care services is already run by a for-profit company and has been run by one (or another for years and years). The for-profit company employs all doctors, physicians assistants and NPs. The state employs the nurses. The republicans have been working to privatize all of health care services and mental health care services…

    And, when it comes down to it, I can attest to the fact that health care was terrible when it was state run and it is terrible now, so what do we do?

    We work to depopulate our prisons. We work to build stronger communities that are rooted in an ethic of compassion and care not in the violence of consumerism that fuels the proliferation of companies like Wal Mart, Starbucks and Victoria’s Secret. We are, in part, to blame for the success of unethical companies that use low-wage prison labor.

    We need to take care of the children in our communities. How many of you have mentored an at-risk kid?

    We need to look at substance abuse as a public health issue not a criminal justice issue. And, the violence that accompanies drug distribution needs to be confronted not with more violence (which is what prison is) but with non-violent models of change developed by the communities most impacted by the violence.

    I would say that we also need to treat sexual abuse as a public health issue…

    Ultimately we need to close prisons (both publicly run and privately run prisons) and only use separation from society for people who are really, really dangerous. Until we do this, there will always be abuse and negligence within the prison walls and we will continue to rely on keeping prisons full in order to provide jobs in our communities. Private companies involved in keeping folks in cages is unethical and we need to confront the problem for what it is, but we also have to confront the reality that in MI many legislators (democrats and republicans alike) want to think first of the economic impact of a prison closure in a community and this too is problematic, because we should not be relying on prisons as the main source of employment for any community in MI.

  11. Anne
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    One of the big draws for companies to manufacture at prisons is the ability to secure no-bid contracts from the federal government (this also applies to Indian reservations). The company I work for has been exploring setting up our tech partner’s manufacturing at a CA prison exactly because of this reason. We have been pursuing large scale projects on military bases and even though we could possibly qualify as a sole source provider due to the uniqueness of our technology, this is much more difficult to do. This is the reason that many products (such as military clothing) that are sold to the federal govt are produced in prisons.

  12. Knox
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Natalie, are you saying that Michigan prisoners, under no circumstances, as the law currently stands, can produce materials for sale outside the prison system?

  13. Posted June 20, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Mark – again thanks for your attention to these issues and for allowing me to provide your followers with factual information allowing them to better understand prison industries.
    Unfortunately there is such a level of corruption involved in prison industries and prison privatization, it is difficult for researchers to narrow the discussion to a few key elements. Also unfortunately, the video you included demonstrates the “partnership” and participation of our DoJ and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) in enabling the practice of exploiting inmates for their labor and as a consequence, helping increase our private sector unemployment rate(s).
    Hopefully the new awareness in the media on this and related criminal justice issues will lead us back to fewer laws, prisoners and less corporate influence and profiting off of the misery and labor of others.
    Thanks again for airing the interview.
    Bob Sloan
    Advisor to the Presbyterian Criminal Justice Network

  14. Lynne
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    I kind of wonder why our society is so interested in punishment. We want to really punish anyone who commits a crime more than could possibly be necessary for a deterrent effect. We want to punish poor people for being poor and women for having sex. When did the people in the USA get so mean?

  15. Dan
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink


    I totally disagree re: criminals. Reading through, almost every violent criminal gets a ridiculously light prison sentence via a plea, only to be out on the streets again doing the same shit. I have no sympathy for people that commit violent crimes, and find themselves in prison. I puzzles me why so many people are sympathetic towards them. Armed robbery, drug manufacturing, rape etc aren’t “accidents.” These monsters decide to make the choice to commit those crimes.

    No one I know is shooting up houses, or making meth, or breaking into people’s homes while they sleep. Why the hell shouldnt those people be punished?

  16. Posted June 20, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Much of your post is accurate, well thought out and provides others with great advice about dialing down incarceration in our prisons and abolishing private prison operations.

    One aspect of the MI. prison industry legislation you may not be aware of is that MI. is in fact a newly certified Pie Program participant (though currently they have no active project in operation) This link shows the 3rd 1/4 report for 2011 and you will see MI. is not listed:

    The application for participation in the federal PIECP program by MI. has not been reported in the media for some reason (similar to PA.’s application).

    What most are unaware of is that once a state is certified and accepted into the “fold” of participating state prison industries, vendors, suppliers and companies making and selling prison made goods, they are pressured to operate their industries in compliance with the parameters set by the NCIA discussed in the above interview. They are required to be a member of the NCIA and take part in overseeing the program – to the standards set by the NCIA. A state cannot be a PIE Program participant without becoming a member of the NCIA, and once in must abide by the guidelines and bylaws of that trade association.

    In addition the state is required to pass legislation that allows inmates to participate “voluntarily” in the PIE program, to allow for partnerships with private companies, to set the amount of wage deductions taken from inmate pay for room and board, victim restitution, savings, child support, taxes, etc…and to ensure that the state will abide by the nine federal mandatory requirements at all times.

    Other states that have applied for certification have found that once a member, they are urged to partner with private companies to manufacture products that are sold upon open markets to consumers. They receive discounts from suppliers who provide raw materials to other state industries, providing incentive for the new state to switch or begin using existing NCIA member vendors.

    Today there are no states in the PIE Program that do not adhere to and strictly follow the agenda advanced by the NCIA – for that organization now has total control over the program, from application consideration to compliance reviews. A state prison industry cannot remain a member and participant if they refuse to open their industries to private companies, use NCIA member vendors – or try to pay inmates in excess of the wages pre-determined by the NCIA.

    This is why many today urge states to resist the temptation to apply for and become a participant in the PIECP program. The corruption has been discovered, tracked and reported on…yet in the face of such factual reporting, the MI. legislature and Governor Snyder are determined to join with the others to profit off of this program and inmate labor.

    As the link I provided above indicates, MI. is a new PIECP member state. They have all $0’s across the board and no partnering companies. The current legislation has no clear wording indicating that with passage they will be opening the door to using inmate labor to manufacture products for sale to MI. consumers – yet if the legislation passes, return to the link above for 2012 next year and you’ll begin to see the companies using inmate labor, the products made and money generated from sales reflected. This is sadly, just how it works and I’ve seen it time and again from state to state over the past decade plus. I wish it were not so, but it is what it is and is done in such a sneaky manner, that unless you’re tracking the progress, you’ll never know about the partnerships, profits and exploitation that follows certification in the PIE Program.

    Unfortunately the PIE Program has been corrupted and by joining, Michigan cannot operate in a manner inconsistent with the way the existing and corrupt members are operating. They would quickly be isolated and a way found to revoke their certification.

  17. Posted June 20, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Edward – here is a link to Governor Rick Scott’s Law and Order transition team report: First, note the members supporting the “Right On Crime” initiative on page 2.

    Then on page 5 you’ll find the figures I referenced in the interview. Actually the number of lifers was found to be 16% not 15% and the 28% figure was for 10 years to release or parole not 15. I would urge you and others to read this full report and realize that when Scott took office in 2011 he was urged to make several adjustments regarding criminal justice reforms, the FDOC and PRIDE…and has not taken the advice given.

  18. John Galt
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    It’s perfect, really. You’ve got a captive workforce that’s never late, requires little pay, and whose food, lodging and health care is paid by the tax payers. What’s more, you don’t have to contend with unions, and you can beat people, and put them in solitary, when necessary. And how cool is it that you can pay people shit, and then take 80% of what little they do make, right off the top? And that’s not even the best part. The best part is, they then go to the prison commissary, where they hand over the remaining 20% for old, overpriced candy and cigarettes. This is America at its best.

  19. Anonymous Mike
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Somewhere, the welfare-collecting corpse of Ayn Rand is masturbating.

  20. Dan
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    John Galt,

    I appreciate your woe-is-the-convicted-criminal attitude. Those poor people, getting fed and having a place to live because they committed heinous acts. Golly, they sure are the victims. Heck, maybe we should march on Lansing, and demand they be given a pension after their time is served. That’s the ticket, we need Prisoner Unions!

    I imagine you feel the same about the corporate crooks and ponzi scheme rip off artists sitting in prison, right?

  21. Posted June 20, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    The problem here is that demand for cheap labor may be encouraging states to pass laws that put people in prison that really shouldn’t be there. Weed possession would be an example.

    In some states, things like writing a bad check can land you in prison. Not paying your taxes can land you in prison. In Mississippi, they’ll just make something up if they have to, whether you did anything or not.

    Not all people imprisoned are child rapists. Actually, less than half of all prisoners are in for violent crimes.

    The simple fact is, that we have more people in prison than ever, but I’m not convinced that we rape children any more than we did in 1980, when the prison population started it’s mostly linear climb.

  22. Natalie
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Michigan State Industries does produce goods that are sold to other state agencies and these items can be purchased by non-state agencies. Check their link,1607,7-174-23874_23927—,00.html

    MSI employees are among the highest paid workers in the MI prison system at .25 cents per hour being the lowest and .90 cents per hour the highest pay rate (this is according to MDOC’s 2009 statistical report; that is the most recent complete statistical report available at this time,4551,7-119-1441—,00.html). MSI reports being in the red most years between 2003 and 2009…

    It is my understanding that the new legislation HB 5658 was meant to get rid of language that inferred that a private company would have to pay minimum wage to prisoners and the bill included within it language that made it clear that all goods and services produced under the private contractor would be solely for use within prisons, jails, re-entry facilities under the jurisdiction of the MDOC…And as I stated before, prisoners are not currently paid minimum wage by the Michigan Department of Corrections.

    Also check out MCL 800.326 which seems to keep big corps like Wal Mart from coming into MI and exploiting prison labor.

    “(3) Except as provided in subsection (4), the labor of inmates shall not be sold, hired, leased, loaned, contracted for, or otherwise used for private or corporate profit or for any purpose other than the construction, maintenance, or operation of public works, ways, or property as directed by the governor. This act does not prohibit the sale at retail of articles made by inmates for the personal benefit of themselves or their dependents or the payment to inmates for personal services rendered in the correctional institutions, subject to regulations approved by the department of corrections, or the use of inmate labor upon agricultural land that has been rented or leased by the department of corrections upon a sharecropping or other basis.

    (4) If more than 80% of a particular product sold in the United States is manufactured outside the United States and none of that product is manufactured in this state, or if a particular service is not performed in this state, as determined by the department of corrections in conjunction with the advisory council for correctional industries, inmate labor may be used in the manufacture of that product or the rendering of that service in a private manufacturing or service enterprise established under section 7a. A determination by the department of corrections under this subsection shall be made at the time the individual or business entity applies to the department for approval to produce that product or render that service pursuant to section 7a.

    Sec. 7.
    (a) Routine maintenance and operation of correctional institutions.”

    This doesn’t mean that some legislator might not work to pass a bill that would allow full on privatization to enter the system (we’ve already seen this with efforts to try to re-open Baldwin prison as an adult facility run by GEO group; efforts that have thus been stalled)…As Bob points out, the Mackinac Center has been pushing hard for privatization. And, republicans have been introducing legislation that moves towards more privatization.

  23. Natalie
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for all of the information on what it means now that MI is PIE certified and must comply with NCIA rules and guidelines. I will take some time to digest this and will have questions…

  24. Posted June 20, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    Just to shed some sunlight….
    There is a FANTASTIC prison work program over in Jackson, called the Michigan Braille Transcribing Fund. The guys at the prison learn Braille (literary Braille, “math Braille” called the Nemeth Code and even music braille, which I don’t know!) and produce Braille books for kids who need them. When I was in teacher school, I got a scholarship from them and went to visit the prison. The guys were extremely polite. Every one worked from 8 until 5 in an office-like setting. The guy who stuck in my mind said that he went to bed at night feeling really good because he, and most of his buddies, had done some really “not nice” things in life and he felt like he was doing some good.
    This is actually win-win because Braille orders are only filled at something like 50%, because there is a huge shortage of transcriptionists. So they aren’t competing with people on the “outside”, and this very important work gets done.

  25. Thom Elliott
    Posted June 21, 2012 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    That’s amazing Patti, what an excellent occupation for a prisoner, a valuable skill that is actually beneficial to society, indeed for humanity itself. Surely it generates meaning in prisoners lives as well, whose crimes I imagine are at least partially the result of the existential vacuum and pervasive dearth of personal meaning human beings are confronted with in our callous mechanical civilization. It is indicative however of how people only consider the disabled when ‘forced- to’ shall we say?

  26. alan
    Posted June 21, 2012 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    Let’s not forget one of the main CAUSES of the prison-industrial complex: the racist War on [Some] Drugs — enthusiastically supported by D as well as R administrations, for decades. Joe Biden’s behavior has been particularly egregious, but Obama and other Dems are not far behind.
    Drug war causes high U.S. incarceration rate
    The majority of all prisoners in the USA (federal, state, local jails) are incarcerated due to the drug war. Drug offenses, drug-related crimes (such as theft to get money for drugs), drug trade crimes, drug-related parole violations, etc.
    True cost of drugs: More than half of inmates currently in U.S. federal prisons were convicted of narcotics offences….
    Weekend Edition, June 9-10, 2012
    Drugs and Repression from Obama to Cuomo
    A heart in love will decipher every squiggle in a letter as a kiss. In the final days of the 2008 campaign and in the opening ones of his administration, Obama and his top legal aides seemed to the eager ears of marijuana legalizers on the West Coast to be opening the door to a new, sensible era. […snip…]
    [There is] a far-reaching national campaign against medical growers right across the US. All the usual arsenal of harassments have been brought into play by multiple agencies, starting with the IRS, bankrupting dispensaries by simply denying elementary business expenses.
    Has the drug war – as a war on the poor – slowed down? In 2010 some 850,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana related offenses of which the vast majority was for possession. That means since Obama took office it is likely well over 2.5 million Americans have been arrested for marijuana. This under the aegis of a President who cosily discloses his marijuana habit as a young man. One bust, Mr Obama, and you’d be still on the South Side. But then, your sense of self-righteousness is too distended to be deflated by any sense of hypocrisy.
    Tuesday, March 6, 2012
    Vice President Joe Biden, on a two-day visit to Mexico and Central America, said that while the drug legalization debate is “worth discussing,” there is “no possibility” that the Obama Administration will change its policy….
    “The shallowness of the Vice President’s comments reflects the fact that this administration, like its predecessors, has not yet bothered to even think seriously about alternatives to current policies”
    Obama Administration says it will make no changes to drug policies regardless of facts
    Joe Biden pretty much said that the facts and findings of studies are unimportant, presumably because the policies are not based on or derived from facts but are simply empty political positions that nonetheless wreck millions of lives….
    Biden’s comment that there are more problems with legalization than non-legalization is completely empty: devoid of facts, reasoning, or content. It reveals a shallow, flippant attitude toward a serious problem, and his declaration that that facts will not influence policy decisions, though refreshingly honest, is breathtakingly stupid: “wooden-headed” doesn’t touch it.

  27. alan
    Posted June 21, 2012 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    …. with “liberals” like that, who needs fascists?

  28. Hector Solon
    Posted June 21, 2012 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Remember the first time Bob showed some of us that video down in Cinci (April 2011) – It’s like some Sci-Fi film with the tone of Starship Troopers – “Serve Us Citizen”. Not scary enough? Read one of the foundation essays on Paul Weyrich’s “New Traditionalist Movement” – CAUTION it is disturbing.

    Thank you so much for posting (with lots of awesome links too) this great interview of the incomparable Bob Sloan, who is not just an expert on ALEC prison privatization, but on all things ALEC. If there is heavy duty research and pieces on ALEC, Bob’s work is either the basis or his leads part of the narrative. More on the way, he’s amazing (support him on his website Mark linked above).

    Got NEWS FOR YOU FELLOW MICHIGANDERS (sorry to be the bear of it)
    Last year 2011 was the Year of Greed (The Business Leaders for Michigan(BLM)/ALEC “State Budget Toolkit” budget and tax cuts packages while literally taxing the poor and dinging the disadvantaged) and a Year of the Mackinac Center “Legislation by Amendment” in some case striking out whole bills and inserting one paragraph (example on Prisons).

    This year is going to be the Year of ALEC in Michigan, where not only are ALEC models introduced, passed by current ALEC members (there are 150+ past and present ALEC MI in Michigan BTW) . Also we have now produced in MI 5 “new” ALEC Models that were presented by Mackinac and Goldwater down at the ALEC Task Force Conference in Charlotte (I have a post on Kos for the list).

    On the Prison front, we are heating up with the passage of HB 5658 re-titled “USE OF PRISON LABOR BY PRIVATE CONTRACTORS” sponsored by the GOP/ALEC Michigan crowd.

    Bob will help verify that is either standard ALEC model or a new one. There will most certainly be more, there are only a few prison bills passed so far (Example of preping for privatization House Bill 4689 in 2011). Anyone interested in ALEC either on prisons or other issues (and the list is long) get a hold of Bob, Mark or myself, there is plenty of work (not easy stuff anymore, that’s done) to do in Michigan alone.

    Glad you stumbled into Bob’s cab – as he would say and I concur, this ALEC fight (and it is really with the whole INDUSTRY and power structure behind them, they are just a “service provider”) is about “Corporatocracy” (government by corporations and mega-wealthy) VS. Citizen Government “yes” or “no” and is the most critical issue we face in our generation, founding fathers knew this challenge would happen, in American democracy.

    Also thanks to Mark and a few others that have been mentioning or working on ALEC in Michigan.

    Bottomline: Michigan is now the premier ALEC state “laboratory” of choice.

    We need to wake up not just activists but major org leadership, our lack of committed resistance, is of great harm to other states and our nation.

  29. Posted June 22, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    Krugman wrote a nice article on privatized halfway houses in New Jersey:

  30. bg
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    It’s not coincidence that the parties responsible for mandatory minimums also own the Keefe commisary brand that makes record profits in federal prisons. The same people responsible for sentencing have a monetary interest in keeping the inmates incarcerated longer. Privatized prisons contribute funds against the legalization of marijuana. And I’m sure the crack enhancements are not a result of locking up minorities in greater proportion (sarcasm). But I never heard any of this at any debate. Because big money plays both sides of the fence. Those who’s rights are stripped and have no money are the easiest prey.

  31. Posted October 25, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    Having private companies manage our prisons makes about as much sense as having private companies run our schools and our oversee our elections. And it’s all happening simultaneously before our eyes.

  32. Meta
    Posted August 12, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    From CNN:

    Saying the U.S. prison population is “outsized and unnecessarily large,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder today said he has ordered changes in Justice Department polices so that some low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or drug cartels won’t be charged with crimes that impose “draconian mandatory minimum sentences.”

    In a speech at the annual meeting of the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates in San Francisco, Holder said the United States can’t prosecute or incarcerate its way to becoming a safer nation. He urged that incarceration be used to “punish, deter, and rehabilitate — not merely to warehouse and forget.”

  33. Gabinet P.
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    There is nothing more American than a prison that both keeps criminals off the street and makes its shareholders a profit. Why do you hate this country so?

  34. Posted November 12, 2014 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    It’s sickening how America’s prison system has become. It’s also sickening how it’s fueled by a war on drugs that has failed. Only when individual states stand up for their rights and begin to vote on legalizing marijuana does real change come into the picture. It’s not a new president, or someone new in power, it’s the people regaining their constitutional rights that initiates real change. It’s time state rights becomes a primary focus and more states vote on things that truly matter.

6 Trackbacks

  1. By Has Satire Had Its Day? | RoosterTree on July 11, 2012 at 10:14 am

    […] & the privatized prison system, which makes much of its money by putting prisoners to work at near-slave wages ($0/hr for the first 6mos, ‘potentially’ up to $10/hr at 5yrs, but transfers between […]

  2. […] no accident that the privatization of imprisonment and the fastest-growing job market in the US (prisoner employment) is the precise template for the future of their America, […]

  3. […] of the 2.5 million incarcerated in the American gulag, some 600,000 prisoners have replaced free world labor at not much more than 12¢/hr. and no unions! Their desire for […]

  4. […] on MichigandersBy Mark | December 26, 2012Prison rights advocate Bob Sloan, who, as you may recall, I’ve interviewed here on the site before, has just written a new piece for on the role of the American Legislative Exchange […]

  5. […] since this was written.[note: For more on the threat posed by private prisons today, check out my recent interview with prisoner rights crusader Bob Sloan.]Davis, who is being brought to campus by Students Organizing Against Prisons (SOAP), will be […]

  6. […] and the police unions would do everything in their power to keep it from happening, but I think our friend Bob Sloan may be onto something with his suggestion this evening that the Department of Justice’s Civil […]

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