Jul 01 2013

‘Why Abolish Prisons?’ Thoughts by John Clutchette…

I’m working on a project that will be happening this fall. I’ll share more about it later. In the meantime, I am reading A LOT of the writing by black political prisoners from the 1920s through 1970s.

Anyway, John Clutchette who was one of the Soledad Brothers, wrote a letter that was excerpted in the book “If They Come In the Morning.” I wanted to highlight his thoughts about the need to abolish prisons because it illustrates the theorizing and analysis that prisoners offered in the late 60’s-early 70’s in particular.

Today’s prison system should be abolished because it is a system predesigned and constructed to warehouse the people of undeveloped and lower economical communities. Under the existing social order men and women are sent to prison for labor (free labor) and further economical gain (money) by the state. Where else can you get a full day’s work for two to sixteen cents an hour, and these hours become an indeterminate period of years. This is slave labor in 20th-century America. Repeat! Men and women are sent to prison for free labor, not for what contributions they might make to their communities, under the guise of rehabilitation. Ninety-eight per cent of (all) people held in U.S. concentration camps are people of oppression, we are the people who come from the under class of the system, we are the people castigated and barred from the productive arenas of social employment, decent housing, correct education, correct medical care, etc., etc., a war of survival… Bear with me, I don’t intend to sound bitter, but only to relate the truth; we must come to know the truth, we are the people left to the crumbs of the system… we are the people who lay prey to the criminal elements of the system. The choice — survive or perish! The first always being to survive. It is a fact that man is a product of his environment; that the character and state of mind of a people, a race, a nation, the world, depends essentially and decisively on being able to control their economic environment in relation to controlling the fruits of their labor (production) in essence this is the determining factor of one’s social, political and economical power. Again ninety-eight per cent of all the people in concentration camps are members of the oppressed class. You won’t find members of the ruling-clique in places like this, but you will find their victims.


Building more and better prisons is not the solution — build a thousand prisons, arrest and lock up tens of thousands of people; all will be to no avail. This will not arrest poverty, oppression and the other ills of this unjust social order. But the people, working in united effort, can eliminate these conditions by removing the source that produces them. We need people who will stand up and speak out when it is a matter of right or wrong, of justice or injustice, of struggling or not struggling to help correct and remove conditions affecting the people, all I ask is that the people support us, I will break my back in helping to bring peace and justice upon the face of the earth.

May 10 2012

The State As ”Collective Slavemaster:” Criminalizing Black People After Emancipation

As I begin to think about pulling together an exhibition about confinement and captivity in black life, I am re-reading several books and articles about slavery and emancipation.

In Alabama, even before the Civil War, prisoners were responsible for their own court and incarceration costs at the county level. After the Civil War, this continued with one day in prison costing thirty cents. If prisoners could not pay, they served extra time and labored to pay the fees. While Alabama state prisoners had always worked, the state had never made a profit off their labor. This changed in 1875 when the state began to lease out prisoners for their labor to coal mines and to railroad companies. This money was essential to Alabama as the state was broke in the 1870s and prisoner labor helped to fill its coffers.

Alabama like many other Southern states desperately needed laborers for the lease system to work and they used the criminal code as a tool of racial discrimination. One cannot understand the racial subordination of black people post Emancipation without also exploring its links to the need in the south for a cheap and stable labor supply. Adolph Reed (1996) has described the state post-Emancipation as a “collective slavemaster.” This is an important insight that underscores the link between slavery and the continued criminalization of black bodies.

Post-Emancipation the criminalization of black people found its best expression in the Black Codes. In his book “Worse Than Slavery” (which I think is a must read), David Oshinsky suggests that the goal of the Black Codes was:

to control the labor supply, to protect the freedman from his own “vices,” and to ensure the superior position of whites in southern life…The Black Codes listed specific crimes for the “free negro” alone: “mischief,” “insulting gestures,” “cruel treatment to animals,” and the “vending of spiritous or intoxicating liquors.” Free blacks were also prohibited from keeping firearms and from cohabitating with whites…At the heart of these codes were the vagrancy and enticement laws, designed to drive ex-slaves back to their home plantations. The Vagrancy Act provides that “all free negroes and mulattoes over the age of eighteen” must have written proof of a job at the beginning of every year. Those found “with no lawful employment…shall be deemed vagrants, and on conviction…fined a sum not exceeding…fifty dollars.” The Enticement Act made it illegal to lure a worker away from his employer by offering him inducements of any kind.

Another example of manipulating the criminal code to control and subordinate black people is Mississippi’s 1876 “Pig Law” which lowered the threshold for grand larceny and resulted in a quadrupling of convicts in the state in just a few years. The “Pig Law” is discussed in the excellent recent documentary “Slavery By Another Name.”

Watch Pig Laws and Imprisonment on PBS. See more from Slavery by Another Name.

Southern Convicts (1900)

Using the criminal code to steal free labor from black people allowed many Southern states to recover economically after the civil war. The convict lease system was brutal and the lessees had little incentive to safeguard the lives of prisoners. If one died, he/she could easily be replaced by another. The Lease system engendered a great deal of resistance from black people and their allies. For those who are interested, you can read Frederick Douglass’s words about the cruel system here. In the early 20th century, Alabama women were actively struggling to end convict leasing. I’ve written about some of those efforts here.

I will have more to say about the convict lease system in the coming weeks…

Jan 28 2012

Slavery By Another Name: Feb 13 on PBS

I am so excited that Slavery By Another Name will premiere on PBS on Feb 13th at 9 p.m. Eastern. It is one of my favorite non-fiction books…

Jun 16 2011

Kensley Hawkins Gets To Keep His Money: The Illinois Supreme Court Rules that IDOC Cannot Steal Wages Earned by Prisoners

A few months ago, I wrote about the case of Mr. Kensley Hawkins on this blog. As a reminder, Kensley Hawkins had accumulated $11,000 over 20 years in prison from jobs that he has had while behnd bars. The State of Illinois wanted to garnish those earnings to have Mr. Hawkins pay for the costs of his own incarceration. Mr. Hawkins has been making about $2 a day building furniture at Stateville Prison which amounts to about $75 a month.

Today, I received this e-mail from the good folks at SNR Denton, a law firm that represented Mr. Hawkins pro-bono in his appeal [the e-mail has been slightly edited for length]:

“SNR Denton obtained victory (7-0) in its appeal before the Illinois Supreme Court in the case, titled People v. Hawkins. People v. Hawkins was on an appeal from an Illinois Appellate Court decision that upheld a $456,000 judgment against Kensley Hawkins for the cost of his incarceration and allowed the Department of Corrections to collect the approximate $11,000 that Mr. Hawkins had earned and saved over 21 years while working in prison as a furniture assembler.

This attachment of savings was in addition to the legislatively mandated 3% offset that was automatically deducted from Mr. Hawkins’ prison wages to pay toward his incarceration costs. The relevant statute requires that “{a}ll other wages” beyond the 3% offset must be deposited in the inmate’s account.

Mr. Hawkins was represented pro bono by SNR Denton. In addition, the Institute for People with Criminal Records filed an Amicus Curiae Brief in support of Mr. Hawkins’ appeal.

In the ruling authored by Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman, the court took issue with the Department’s policy noting that: “Here, the Department’s literal interpretation of sections 3–12–5 and 3–7–6 produces a result that is absurd, unjust, and that our analysis indicates was not contemplated by the legislature. We therefore reject that interpretation.”

A separate concurrence by Justice Lloyd Karmeier, joined by Justice Charles Freeman, noted the adverse impact of the Department of Corrections policy. Justice Karmeier wrote: “Work may be its own reward for some, but probably not for most inmates in the Department of Corrections. Once inmates realized that the extra work necessary to generate savings would benefit only the Department of Corrections, not them, they would quickly reevaluate the utility of prison employment. The result would likely be a precipitous drop in the amount of labor available to prison industries. If the number of work hours plummeted, the various enterprises operated by prison industries would no longer be able to provide the services and produce the goods necessary to keep them economically viable. The income they generate would evaporate, and they would no longer be able to provide any meaningful contribution toward offsetting the substantial costs of maintaining this state’s prisons. In addition, any real hope of providing inmates with marketable skills, instilling a work ethic, or improving their ability to support themselves and their families following their release would be lost. In the end, virtually the entire economic burden necessary to support this state’s large and growing prison population, while they are incarcerated and after their release, would revert to Illinois’ taxpayers.”

Studies have found that inmates like Mr. Hawkins who participate in vocational training programs have a 20% lower rate of recidivism. As the Institute noted in its Amicus Brief, “Not only is there a direct connection between unemployment and crime, there is considerable evidence of a connection between unemployment and repeat crime, i.e. recidivism.”

The Institute’s Amicus Brief also highlights the severe financial problems inmates face upon their release. For example, a study found of the more than 20,000 inmates who were released to Chicago communities in 2005, a staggering 1,200 of them ended up homeless.

Our victory shows that Illinois is serious in promoting the basic hope of its prison system – namely, that once inmates are released they will not return to a life of crime – they are showing inmates that working and saving pays off. This is a necessary step to prevent inmates from immediately falling into poverty and homeless and back into the cycle of crime. Mr. Hawkins and other inmates in his position are not asking for a handout by any means. They simply want to be able to use the money they earned while working in prison to get them back on their feet,” said David Simonton, SNR Denton’s appellate counsel for Mr. Hawkins.

Indeed, from a practical point of view, the confiscatory policy espoused by the Department of Corrections was self-defeating and financially backwards,” Mr. Simonton continued. “The State would have received a relative pittance from an inmate, as compared to the cost of his or her incarceration, but for the inmate it would have been everything. Without any savings to fall back on, the inmate was more likely slide back into a life of crime, which would cost the State far more in future incarceration expense. We are very happy that the Court’s decision unanimously recognized the absurd nature of the Department’s policy. ”

Out of deep respect for the lawyers who argued this case on behalf of Mr. Hawkins, I will refrain from commenting on some of the arguments advanced by the Justices in this case. That will be for another post on another day. You can read the judicial opinion for yourselves HERE

Dec 28 2010

‘Chain Gang Blues': Black Labor, Neo-Slavery, and Imprisonment

Chain Gang of Prisoners in North Carolina (1910) Engaged in Roadwork

Description of the photograph: The prisoners are quartered in the wagons, which are equipped with bunks and move from place to place as labor is utilized. The central figure is J.Z. McLawhon, county superintendent of chain gangs. The dogs are bloodhounds used for running down any attempted escapes

If you are a reader of this blog, you will notice that I regularly focus on the historical underpinnings of the PIC along with its current manifestations.  My reason for this is that it is impossible to understand what is currently taking place in terms of mass/hyper-incarceration without looking back at our history.  It is not an accident that people of color (particularly black people) are disproportionately impacted and targeted by the criminal legal system.  In addition, without a historical context, one cannot currently understand people of color’s (particularly black people’s) mistrust and fear of the American criminal legal apparatus.

Last week I shared a few songs about jail/prison based on a request that I received from a reader of this blog.  One of the songs that I mentioned was Sam Cooke’s classic “Chain Gang.”  This prompted someone to send me an e-mail asking if chain gangs were still in operation in the U.S.  The short answer to that question is YES.

In terms of prison iconography, the chain gang is one of the most recognizable and enduring images. I doubt that many people are aware that even in the 21st century chain gangs continue to exist in states across the U.S. A few years ago the insane Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona started a chain gang for men convicted of DUIs and his “innovation” was to make the men wear pink clothing while toiling.

Here is a clip from a recent film called American Chain Gang that illustrates its current incarnation in the U.S.

Chain gangs are an extension of the convict lease system.  Robert Perkinson (2010) suggests that the creation of the chain gang in the early 20th century “was celebrated as a humanitarian advance” (p.151).  In his terrific book “Texas Tough,” he quotes Joseph Hyde Pratt, a convict labor advocate in North Carolina, who provides a rationale for the chain gang: “Life in the convict road camp…is more conducive to maintaining and building up the general health and manhood of the convict than when he is confined behind prison walls” (p. 151).  Proponents suggested that this was particularly so for black prisoners. According to the assistant director of the U.S. Office of Public Roads: “The negro is accustomed to outdoor occupations…[and is] experienced in manual labor…[he] does not possess the same aversion to working in public…as is characteristic of the white race” (in Texas Tough, p. 151). It is important to understand that both the convict lease system and chain gangs were forms of neo-slavery. They were created as a way to maintain black cheap (free) labor after slavery officially ended.

Perkinson (2010) explains why chain gangs gained favor especially in the South:

“[P]oliticians rallied to the chain gang because it provided public works on the cheap.  Between 1904, when state felons first began working on its roads, and 1915, convicts were primarily responsible for expanding Georgia’s surfaced road grid from two thousand to thirteen thousand miles, making its state highway system the most advanced in the South…Just as leasing had jump-started postbellum railroad construction, sugar milling, and coal mining, chain gangs helped lay the infrastructure for twentieth-century rural development.  The American South was built not only by slaves but by convicts  (p.152).”

David Oshinsky (2006) describes some of the black people in Mississippi who found themselves on the chain gang:

The chain gang took people like Walter Blake, a ‘crap-shooting little colored boy’ who received a $50 fine for illegal gambling and a $132 bill for court costs, a sum he could not possibly raise. Blake spent a full year working off his debt. A ‘negro thief’ named Julius Hoy found himself reduced to virtual peonage during his stay on the Covington County chain gang. “He is being charged 60 cents per day for board,” a local attorney noted, “and at present the fine and accumulated board amounts to approximately $89.20, and it will never be possible for him to serve out his time” (p.42).

I am currently re-reading the wonderful “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism” by Angela Davis. In the book, Davis suggests that imprisonment was one of the central themes in blues music. Davis explains that Ma Rainey’s “Chain Gang Blues’ “most incisively and realistically addressed this omnipresent fact of life in the black community (p.102).”

The judge found me guilty, the clerk he wrote it down
The judge found me guilty, the clerk he wrote it down
Just a poor gal in trouble. I know I’m country road bound

Many days of sorrow, many nights of woe
Many days of sorrow, many nights of woe
And a ball and chain, everywhere I go

Chains on my feet, padlock on my hand
Chains on my feet, padlock on my hand
It’s all on account of stealing a woman’s man

It was early this mornin’ that I had my trial
It was early this mornin’ that I had my trial
Ninety days on the country road and the judge didn’t even smile.

According to Davis (1998), “Sandra Lieb points out that the lead sheet for this song contains a penultimate verse which was omitted in the recording.”

Ain’t robbed no train, ain’t done no hanging crime
Ain’t robbed no train, ain’t done no hanging crime
But the judge said I’d be on the country road a long, long time.

Davis (1998) writes: “Black people throughout the South who listened to Rainey perform ‘Chain Gang Blues,’ and who were all too familiar with the chain gang and convict lease systems, likely would have interpreted this song as a deeply felt protest aimed at the racism and sexism of the criminal justice system.”

I share this information about Ma Rainey’s music because it is important to point out that as black people we have always RESISTED our oppression. This is particularly important to remember at this juncture in our history when what we need is a mass movement to resist the hyper-incarceration of black people. We need to remember our history in order to change our current conditions.

One of the most important parts of Blues music is improvisation. Singers and performers take songs and then interpret them for themselves. They often change lyrics and therefore the meaning of the songs. Here is Kokomo Arnold’s 1935 interpretation of Chain Gang Blues. Listen closely to see how he reinterprets the original lyrics as performed by Ma Rainey.

Let’s take some inspiration from our past to affect change in the present…

Dec 12 2010

Prison Industries: A Very Short Early History

The origin of prisoner labor in the Anglo-American context dates back to the early jails of the 11th through 13th centuries.  The main purpose of inmate labor during that time was to pay the costs of incarceration — including the sheriff’s wages.

By the 14th century, the moral virtue of labor had been ensconced in the English tradition.  English laws began to criminalize “idleness” and “vagrancy.”  The English Statutes of Labor of 1348 and 1357 made “idleness of the able-bodied a crime.”  In the 16th century, workhouses for vagrants began to be established starting with one at Bridewell built in 1557.  This development introduced the concept of hard labor as a reformative program rather than simply as a way to pay for one’s own incarceration.

A little over 300 years ago is when the idea prisons as an alternative to other forms of punishment emerged. As such the concept of prisons is relatively new in human history.

“According to Carroll Wright, first director of the U.S. Bureau of Labor the earliest writing emphasizing inmate labor as a critical element of the prison regime was that of Mabillon, a Benedictine monk at the Abbey of Saint Germaine in Paris during the reign of Louis XIV.  Mabillon suggested that ‘penitents might be reclused in cells, like those of the Carthusian monks and there (be) employed in various sorts of labor.’  This idea was soon implemented in 1704 by Pope Clement XI, who established a reformatory for juveniles at Saint Michael’s in Rome.

The forerunner of a formal prison industry program dates from the prison at Ghent, which was constructed in 1775.  Viscount Vilain XIV, the builder of the prison emphasized labor as the primary agent for reforming criminals.  The prison industries selected were highly diversified and intended to minimize competition with free labor.” (ACA, 1986)

The U.S. system followed a similar pattern as its European precursor.  The first American jail opened in Massachusetts in 1635.  Early American jails also insisted that inmates pay for the cost of their incarceration.  However they did not really promote the idea of labor as a rehabilitative concept.

The first prisons were established in the United States in the late 18th century in states like New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.  In these prisons, labor was connected to the concept of doing penance but was mainly focused on the goal of economic upkeep (meaning that prisoners should pay for their own incarceration).

It wasn’t until after the Civil War that many more states began to open their own prisons.  Once prisons became more prevalent, prison industries became more formalized as people began to see the value of having a site for communal labor.  This emergence of prison industries was not uncontroversial.  Early prison reformers (who were often very religious) worried that the employment aspect of penitentiaries was resulting in the loss of  the penitence component underlying the initial concept of introducing a labor function to prisons.  Other outside forces representing business and unions also wanted to make sure the prison industries did not have an unfair advantage over “free” labor.

At the beginning of the 20th century, about 85 percent of all “inmates” worked in prison industries; by 1940 the figure had fallen to 44 percent — nearly a 50 percent decline. This decline was precipitated by greater opposition to prison industry from businesses and unions based on the charge of unfair competition.  A number of bills were introduced in Congress to restrict prison industries.  One of the most important was the Hawes-Cooper Act which Congress passed in 1929 to permit states to bar the importation of prison-made goods.  The Great Depression also added voices in opposition to prison industries since unemployment was so widespread across the country.  The Summer-Ashurst Act of 1940 made it a crime to ship prison-made goods in interstate commerce whether or not the receiving state barred their import.

Things remained pretty much stagnant around the concept of prison industries until the 1960s when many changes in corrections facilitated the re-emergence of the concept of labor, employment and industry within penitentiaries.  The 1967 President’s Commission Taskforce Report re-enshrined a work-oriented philosophy of rehabilitation and reintegration for prisoners.  This is a good date from which to mark the beginning of the contemporary re-emergence of prison industries.

As I hope that you can see from the very short description of a history of the emergence of prison industries, this concept has been contested from its inception.  There have been opponents of this idea from the very beginning.  The reasons that they offered for their opposition were different depending on the values that they sought to advance and on their self-interests.  I think that it is instructive to look back as we look forward.  It’s the concept of Sankofa.  The current fights that we have about the concept of the prison industrial complex are ones that have their roots in years of previous argument and struggle.  La Lucha Continua!

Oct 19 2010

The Global Prison Industrial Complex: Worldwide Exploitation

Areca Plates Manufactured by Prisoners in the Central Prison

I think that it is important to be clear about the fact that the reach of the prison industrial complex is global. This was brought home to me again this weekend when I read an article about the labor of Indian prisoners who make everything from soap to clothing.

From an article in the Hindu newspaper titled “Jail Production Hits A New High“:

Production by the prison industrial units in the Tiruchi Central Prison involving convicts touched a new high in the 2009-10 financial year.

Over 100 convicts undergoing lengthy prison terms are making products such as file pads, washing soaps, candles, areca plates, bandage cloth and gauze cloth and uniforms, which are supplied to various government departments and private units.

Production of file pads by the binding industrial unit crossed the one lakh mark for the first time in 2009-10. The total number of file pads, which are supplied to various government offices, manufactured in 2009-10 was 1.25 lakh — 50,000 more than that of the previous year.

The total number of soap bars manufactured in 2009-10 exceeds 2.79 lakh.

The soap bars are supplied to prisons across the State besides government hospitals, government homes and the Fire and Rescue Services Department, say prison authorities.

Through 30 handlooms, the weaving industrial unit produced over 11,000 blankets. In addition to supplying to prisoners and prison staff, the blankets are delivered to the police and fire and rescue services departments, government hospitals and government homes.

Ten thousand metres of gauze and 18,000 metres of bandage were produced in 2009-10. The raw materials are procured and given to prison industrial units for manufacture of the products.

The prison industrial units in Tiruchi jail recorded highest production in 2009-10 when compared to the last four years, says the Superintendent of Prison, Central Prison, Tiruchi A. Murugesan.

Wages are paid to the convicts involved in the manufacture of products and the amount is handed over to them at the time of release, say the authorities.

Mr. Murugesan said about 34 tonnes of candles were manufactured through support and assistance from a non-governmental organisation and supplied to a private unit.

Ever since the areca leaf plate manufacturing unit was set up inside the prison in April 2009 in association with a service organisation, over two lakh areca plates had been manufactured and supplied, he added.

The prison also had a tailoring unit which makes uniforms for convicts lodged in Tiruchi and Cuddalore Central Prisons besides to Borstal School at Pudukottai where young offenders are lodged.

Oct 07 2010

It’s All About the Money: The Prison Industrial Complex

Three items that I saw this week underscore the connections between money and prisons. I wanted to take a moment to highlight them here.

[A] Fox 5 News investigation found the biggest cost in the New York State Department of Correctional Services isn’t prisoners, it is employees.

At Bedford Hills Correction Center in Westchester some employees will work double time, legally doubling or tripling their salaries.

In 2009, 28 corrections staffers and nurses made more than $100,000 because of overtime. Overtime at this one prison cost the state $1.7 million in 2009.

What I found interesting about this story was not the large amount of overtime pay that employees were accruing but rather the fact that prisons provide middle class jobs that have all but disappeared in this economy. This explains why the concept of abolishing prisons is even more of a uphill battle in the U.S. As Bill Clinton famously said: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Next I found this article to be profoundly troubling.

Cash-strapped states are increasingly imposing a number of fees on poor criminal defendants, including fees for a public defender, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy and law institute affiliated with New York University’s Law School.

The report (PDF) found that of the 15 states with the largest prison populations, 13 allow low-income defendants to be charged fees for exercising their right to counsel. Some states even mandate these fees, meaning the court can’t waive the fee for even the poorest of defendants. In two states — Florida and Ohio —  individuals must pay defender fees even if they are acquitted or charges are dropped.

While these fees are used to boost revenue to the criminal justice system, their imposition raises “serious constitutional questions,” according to the report, which noted that the fees “often discourage individuals from exercising their constitutional right to an attorney — leading to wrongful convictions, over-incarceration, and significant burdens on the operation of courts.” These defender fees can come in several ways:

Defender fees can include charges to “apply” for representation before an attorney is appointed, charges during the course of a criminal proceeding to offset the costs of representation, and charges at the termination of a criminal proceeding to reimburse the state for all or a portion of the costs of representation.

But defender fees are just one of a number of the fees courts may impose on defendants throughout a criminal proceeding. Other fees states imposed included jail fees for incarceration prior to trial, prosecution reimbursement fees, prison fees, fees for court administrative costs, probation and parole fees, drug testing fees and mandatory treatment fees, in addition to fines dealt simply as punishment. Often, the fees continue to stack up when defendants are unable to pay off their criminal justice debts, or make their payments late.

“Every stage of the criminal justice process, it seems, has become ripe for a surcharge,” the report said. Many states deny ex-convicts voting or driving privileges if they miss payments or have not paid off such debt.

Not everyone thinks these fees are unfair. Jim Reams, president of the National District Attorneys Association, told USA Today that most criminal defendants don’t serve time and receive some form of probation, so “their job status and economics can and should change relatively quickly,” allowing them to pay off their debts.


Finally, the logical extension of all of this is that we are now incarcerating people in debtor’s prisons.  The ACLU has just released a report about this issue:

Incarcerating people simply because they cannot afford to pay their legal debts not only is unconstitutional but it has a devastating impact upon men and women, whose only crime is that they are poor. The sad truth is that debtors’ prisons are flourishing today, more than two decades after the Supreme Court prohibited imprisoning those who are too poor to pay their legal debts. This report seeks to document the realities of today’s debtors’ prisons and to provide state and local governments and courts with a more sensible path – one where they no longer will be compelled to fund their criminal justice systems on the backs of the poor, and one where the promise of equal protection under the law for the poor and affluent alike will finally be realized.


Sep 20 2010

Exploitation = Paying Prisoners 15 Cents an Hour for their Labor & Charging $150 for a Black & White TV…

Last week, I featured the story of Paul that was documented in the Tri-County Times. The story provided a detailed account of a prisoner’s life on the inside. Part 2 of that story was published on Friday while I was on hiatus.

Below I highlight the part of the article that speaks to the prison economy:

Prisoners with jobs work during yard time. Paul was a “porter,” doing janitorial work.

Taxpayers provide the buildings, the staff, and basic room and board. Deodorant, razors, shampoo, chips, ramen noodles, a personal TV or radio has to be purchased from a prison store. That money comes from prison jobs like Paul’s, who made approximately 15 cents an hour, working 40 hours per week [emphasis mine]. Money from families also paid for extra items.

Essentially, said Paul, families give inmates the small daily pleasures the prison does not. A small, black-and-white TV, with a clear case to prevent inmates from hiding contraband inside, can be purchased for $150. “You sit that (TV) on the shelf of the bunk bed, and you use your toe for the remote control,” said Paul.

Inmates, who don’t have family support or a prison job, can’t buy deodorant or razors for shaving. They can “hustle,” by rolling cigarettes or doing other odd jobs for inmates.

What jumps out of course is the $0.15 cents an hour that Paul was paid to work as a janitor and the fact that prisoners rely so heavily on their families to help provide them with financial support while they are on the inside. Since we know that most prisoners are poor people, one can only imagine the financial strain that this places on family members who are likely to be just scrapping by themselves.

The second key part of the passage above is the fact that the prison store is marking up the cost of a small black and white TV to $150 which is obscene.

Finally, the prisoners who do not have jobs nor families to help provide them with financial support have to “hustle” to get money for basic hygiene products. This is wrong. While we are pushing for decarceration, basic hygiene products should be provided to all prisoners as a human right.

The rest of the article highlights the role that religion played in getting Paul through his incarceration, the relationships that he built with other prisoners and his life since he was paroled. It is well worth reading the entire story.

Sep 08 2010

Understanding the Relationship between Slavery, Coerced Labor and the Current Prison Industrial Complex

One of my favorite recent books is Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon. Here he is on NPR back in 2008 talking about the central premise of his work.  Blackmon’s book helped me to truly understand the connections between slavery, prison labor in a historical context.

You can read the story and listen to audio by clicking on this link.

Or I am going to try to embed the audio here again…