Columns Opinion

Prison labor deserves better working conditions

Embed from Getty Images

The Attica Prison riot was an infamous uprising of prisoners at a New York correctional facility that was, largely, in response to the killing of incarcerated activist George Jackson.

One often-overlooked fact concerning the reason behind the incident is that Jackson was imprisoned in San Quentin, California, on the opposite coast of the Attica Correctional Facility. Although organization around a common cause in the prison system is next to impossible, Sept. 9, the date of the riot, was set to be the beginning of a series of strikes regarding the working conditions of prisoners.

Inmates’ voices are stifled due to the absence of a federally protected legal right to bargain collectively. This has further distanced the public from being aware of their horrendous living and working conditions.

To detach the prison population from the free world is prolonging the false notion that our tax dollars will support some faceless, rehab-resistant criminals. In actuality, the money goes to corporations that have been profiting off prisoners’ labor.

The Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program is an example and has provided the legal framework for industries to partner with prisons that “employ” these inmates.

While union groups and lobbyists on the outside have had the power to barter for a happy medium between free-world workers and their respective industry’s role, prisoners have no say in the matter despite numerous hours of labor.

The 13th Amendment abolished involuntary servitude except when used as a punishment. It’s a fallacy if you believe a terrible hourly wage is the only grievance about putting inmates to work.

Many inmates are forced to work for no wage as a punishment, or even to avoid the threat of something harsher like solitary confinement. Although this is undoubtedly a worker’s rights issue, it’s also a victim’s issue.

The lower the wages for the average prison worker, the smaller the deduction set aside for compensation to a victim — as well as allocations set aside for familial support.

This is also a race issue because there is a disproportionate amount of minorities in the prison system, providing an eerie allusion to the history of slavery, indentured servitude and unfair wage systems with the black and Latino populations.

Most of all, despite what is normally associated with the term, it is gender issue. More than nine out of 10 inmates in the prison system are men; we’ve been locking up our brothers and fathers and putting them to work with little to no compensation for decades.

Although it seems counterintuitive, if we don’t stand with the inmates across our country in their effort to have their voices heard and their working conditions reevaluated, we side with corporate interests.

The latter aren’t inherently evil, but they most definitely are in regard to profiteering off the backs of incarcerated human beings in a hyper-criminalized nation.

Opinion columnist Nicholas Bell is an MBA graduate student and can be reached at [email protected]

1 Comment

Leave a Comment