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[Commentary] COVID-19 Underscores Prison Labor Exploitation Crisis

As the country responds to the rise in new COVID-19 cases, which is exceeding 1 million in the last 7 days, the prison labor system remains both, a breeding ground for COVID-19, and a system riddled with exploitation. More than 252,000 people have been infected with COVID-19  in U.S. prisons and jails and about 1,500 inmates and correctional officers have died.

Among those that have become seriously ill and died were laborers in 20 states who produced N-95 masks, face shields, and hand sanitizer in response to COVID-19, which they themselves had no access to in the workplace. This means that they were producing the very products that could save their lives but unable to utilize these life-saving measures.

These laborers faced grave illness without safety measures in place for a whopping 0.76 cents an hour – including hazard pay. Our criminal justice system is one that incentivizes mass incarceration because private companies have the ability to make more money when more people are incarcerated. The private prison industry views each incarcerated person as a new, low-wage employee with the ability to increase corporate profits.

The Prison Policy Institute reported in 2017 that low wages are commonplace in the prison labor system. The average incarcerated laborer makes between 0.14 and 0.63 cents an hour in state jobs and between 0.33 and 1.41 cents in correctional industry jobs that produce revenues for the prison institutions.

Meanwhile, these workers do fieldwork, agricultural functions, metal fabrication, make signs and license plates, rebuild computers, make furniture, sew, and process food for long hours, in dangerous conditions, and for nominal pay.

The low wages, long hours, and lack of safety protections is only made worse as the prison labor system grows as a hub for profit-making initiatives in private industry. The goal of private companies is to make a profit and the private prison industry is no exception. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) inspector general initiated a review to examine conditions in for-profit prisons between fiscal years 2011 to 2014. The report found that private prisons are more likely to endanger inmates’ security, which was illustrated by 28 percent higher rates of violence among inmates.

Since 2000, the number of people in private prisons has also increased by nearly 40 percent, while the overall prison population has only increased by 7.8 percent. This means that the issues of exploitation particularly in the private prison industry is rapidly increasing.

The Sentencing Project reported that in 2017 approximately 121,000 individuals were held in private prison institutions. With only 121,000 individuals available as potential laborers, the private prison institutions amassed $4 billion in revenue. Core Civic and GEO Group, the largest private prison corporations that manage half the private prison institutions in the United States, had combined revenues of $3.5 billion annually as of 2015.

This is all occurring in our famed land of the free. This “free” land we call America, has the highest rate of imprisonment according to the World Imprisonment Population List. America imprisoned 2.2 million people, more people than China and Russia with 1.65 million, 640,000, respectively in 2015.

Not only has the exploitation of prison workers been a vehicle for corporate profits, but this issue is further exasperated by the social justice issues in the criminal justice system. For example, Black males ages 18 to 19 were 12 times as likely to be imprisoned as their white male counterparts. There were also 1,096 black prisoners per 100,000 black residents, 525 Hispanic prisoners per 100,000 Hispanic residents, and 214 white prisoners per 100,000 white residents incarcerated in the United States. This means that the system is overwhelmingly targeting and incarcerating persons of color.

Many have proposed measures to address this issue. My solution is a concrete example of how to effectuate immediate change: provide prison laborers with the right to be represented by a labor union.

When groups of employees are represented by a union, the union reduces inequality, raises wages for women, creates an avenue for individuals to have a fair share of economic resources, improves workplace safety and health, and creates a path for knowledge sharing and problem-solving.  All of these major changes are critical to giving prison laborers a voice, creating workplace safety measures, providing for higher, fair wages, and having a representative for individuals who wish to expose the harsh realities of the for-profit prison labor system.

To be clear, many prison laborers are incarcerated for breaking the law and committing crimes. Some argue that because many of these individuals have broken the law, they should not have any rights. However, the fabric of the country is built around acknowledging the humanity of all persons and no one deserves to die for 0.76 an hour. Moreover, many of the individuals who are incarcerated have been wrongfully convicted in a systemically racist system. In fact, 50 percent of the murder exonerations, 59% of sexual assault exonerations, 62% of robbery exonerations, and 55% of drug crime exonerations after conviction include Black defendants.

Although the issues of systemic racism, mass incarceration in the criminal justice system are wide-spread and may not be resolved through one act, providing these workers with the right to be represented by a labor union is a start that will yield substantive gains.

For example, workers that are represented by a union make approximately 20 percent more than non-unionized workers.  The increased revenue will provide prison laborers with financial footing to build upon and a start to fighting back against their exploitation.

Providing labor rights for private sector prison workers could be accomplished through an amendment to the National Labor Relations Act, which is a law that provides employees who work for private companies impacting commerce with the right to be represented by a union. The Act was designed to create equity in the work relationship that promotes greater societal ideals of democracy. The time is now for the private prison system to embody the notion of fairness that our democracy demands. It is time to bring union representation to the prison labor workforce.

I implore Congress to propose an amendment to the National Labor Relations Act that authorizes prison laborers to be represented by a union and have access to the rights that have been available throughout the private sector since 1935.

About Keisha Williams, Esq.

Keisha Williams, Esq., is a union-side labor attorney, an Adjunct Professor of Law at the University of Maryland School of Law, and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.



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