As you’ve probably seen on the Netflix series, Orange is the New Black, prisoners in America do odd jobs while serving their sentences. U.S. inmates in federal and state prisons also provide a unique labor force for the publicly traded corporations in America. From raising and training seeing-eye dogs to operating fully functional call centers, prison labor has permeated every industry of America’s capitalist society. These inmate workers often work for Federal Prison Industries Incorporated (FPI). FPI was established on June 23, 1934 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law. FPI was organized as a “state use” system which restricted sales to only the federal government in order to not negatively affect the private sector.
FPI has transformed itself over the years into a mega corporation. In 1974 FPI was organized into seven divisions: automated data processing, electronics, graphics, metals, shoe & brush, textiles and Woods and plastics. 1977 marked FPI’s new corporate logo and trade name, UNICOR. New lines were also introduced that included stainless steel products, thermoplastics, printed circuits, modular furniture, ergonomic chairs, and optics. These new lines were created in order to increase UNICOR’s competitive position. According to CNN in 2011 UNICOR’s annual revenue was $900 million. UNICOR has been able to show its effectiveness on rehabilitating inmates with its seven year study titled the Post-Release Employment Project (PREP). The study compared post-release activities of inmates who had participated in UNICOR to those that did not and the findings showed that those that participated in UNICOR were 24 percent less likely to return to prison than those that did not participate in the program.
Despite the positives of the program for the inmates, the private sector of businesses have been having a hard time being able to keep up with the way UNICOR operates. For example, according to ABC News wages paid to inmate workers are sometime as low as 23 cents and federal law requires government agencies to buy products from UNICOR without competitive bidding. According to The Nation, starting in the 90’s many inmates began to be employed by subcontractors in order to provide work at slave rate wages for large for-profit corporations. However, it is often difficult to pinpoint which giant corporations are using inmate labor since they don’t want to have any ties with it due to marketing purposes.
Many corporations are hiring prison labor, directly or indirectly as it allows them to be able to cut their own costs since inmates are paid way less than the average worker and they are not offered any type of medical benefits.
Here is a list of products that you probably didn’t know were made by prisoners in America.
McDonalds Employee Uniforms
McDonalds publicly states their commitment to human rights stating “We do not use any form of slave, forced, bonded, indentured, or involuntary prison labor. However the fast-food giant indirectly uses prison labor by working with subcontractors that provide uniforms that have been sewn by Oregon inmates. The prison labor is voluntary, but one needs to question if prison labor can ever really be “voluntary?”
Military Attire and Battle Gear
UNICOR’s inmate employees work on making jackets, helmets, uniforms and shoes for the United States military. An Alabama company, American Apparel Inc. also provides the same services to the U.S. military however, an executive at the company told CNN Money that competition for the contracts has become too stiff resulting in the company having to lay off 150 people over several years.
Packaging Starbucks Coffee Beans
At the Twin Rivers Corrections Unit in Monroe, Washington, Signature Packaging Solutions uses inmate labor for its packaging needs. Signature Packaging Solutions provides packaging services for corporations such as Starbucks. In 2002, Starbucks’ public affairs director Audrey Lincoff released a statement to the Seattle Weekly stating “Starbucks is aware that Signature uses inmate labor and believes its contract with Signature is entirely consistent with our mission statement.”
In 2001 The National Prison Braille Network (NPBN) began to team up with correctional facilities across the United States and the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) in order to create quality braille textbooks for blind students in grades K-12. As of 2009 there were 31 braille programs operating in correctional facilities in 26 states. 29 out of the 31 programs operate in state prisons while two operate under federal facilities. The goal of the prisons who work with the APH is to prepare inmates for reentry into society.
According to Government Executive, furniture is UNICOR’s biggest business with furniture sales making up more than 40 percent of total sales. Back when Clinton was in office, Tipper Gore’s side chairs were reupholstered by inmates who work for UNICOR and former Attorney General Janet Reno held meetings over a conference table that had been refinished by UNICOR workers.
Victoria’s Secret Lingerie
It was during the 90’s that South Carolina inmates were hired by subcontractor, Third Generation Inc. to sew Victoria’s Secret lingerie and leisure wear. Third Generation Inc. operated a garment manufacturing plant inside of the Leath Correctional Facility. The Leath plant has produced more than $1.5 million worth of garments.
Law Enforcement Training Gear
Prisoners are often found making human silhouette targets which are used in law enforcement training and Texas prisoners make duty belts, handcuff cases and prison-cell accessories for law enforcement officers.
Packaging of Nintendo Games
During the holiday season, inmates at Twin Rivers Corrections Unit in Washington worked on packaging Nintendo Game Boys and games such as Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong. The inmates worked under subcontractor, Signature Packaging Solutions and the inmates stated that the work was very dull and repetitive but at least inmates were paid $6.72 an hour versus their normal rate of 35 cents to $1.10 an hour.
Many tech companies such as IBM, Dell and Texas Instruments have turned to prison labor to make their circuit boards. While these companies do not work directly with prison labor they work with the suppliers that contract out to the prison labor force.