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May 7, 2004

US Prison Labor: Another Cog in the War Machine


by Kathy Kelly
Voices for Creative Nonviolence

It's Saturday morning, May 1, 2004, and women here at Pekin Federal Prison Camp who watched CNN news feel indignant about the way Iraqi prisoners have been treated by US military guards. "Did you see those pictures?" Ruth asked. What in the world is going on over there?"

The news coverage they watched had photo-ops from last year's May Day, when President George Bush triumphantly boarded a USS Carrier ship to declare "Mission Accomplished," juxtaposed with the recently released ghastly photos of US military members apparently enjoying degradation and torture of Iraqi prisoners.

"Where did May Day traditions come from?" I later asked aloud, in the prison library. The librarian, Lori, quickly found an Encyclopedia item detailing various May Day traditions. Several of us laughed about one which holds that the dew on the grass, on May 1, holds special qualities for restoring youth. Authorities would be mighty surprised if we all started rolling on the grass. "It would be better to celebrate morning dew than to boast about dropping all those bombs over Iraq," said Carol. "Looks like people there are going to hate us so much, they'd rather kill us than look at us."

Discussion turned to an April 7, 2004 press release which arrived in yesterday's mail. Issued by the American Federal Government Employees union, it urges members to lobby against Senate Bill 346, introduced by Senators Carl Levin and Craig Thomas. The bill proposes rescinding federal contracting preferences for Federal Prison Industries (FPI).

The FPI, or UNICOR, was begun in 1934, under President Franklin Roosevelt, as a program to keep prisoners busy and equip them with job skills in preparation for release. It now employs 21,000 prisoners. The UNICOR workers earn hourly rates ranging from 0.23 to $1.23. Much of that money goes back into prison related industry if the prison laborers buy highly priced commissary items or make regular phone calls which cost 0.25 per minute.

At the Federal Correctional Institute (FCI) medium high security men's prison adjacent to this camp, and at many other FCIs, the UNICOR factories operate 24 hours per day, employing three shifts of prison laborers.

The laborers may be learning new skills, but their experience won't guarantee them jobs on "the outside" where they are not allowed to even list UNICOR as a reference. Imagine telling a prospective employer that you have 15 years of experience as a welder, but can't supply a reference. and you're an ex-con.

I don't think the American Federal Government Employees union cares, primarily, about helping prisoners "while away the hours" or prepare for employment after being released. A clue about their interests in maintaining UNICOR lies in the fact that the only ones who can hold a share in UNICOR profits are federal employees. Since the FPI/UNICOR doesn't have to compete with any other industry to procure federal contracts, they can charge any price they want for the products or services they supply. One prisoner here is helping make chains for light switches at her UNICOR job. Each chain is sold for $32.00.

UNICOR factories use antiquated equipment, have a hard time meeting deadlines, and aren't subject to much quality control. If they were forced to be competitive with outside industries, many within the prison system forecast that UNICOR wouldn't last long. However, under the present conditions, UNICOR is a profitable company. The wages are low, the client base (the US federal government) is guaranteed, and there's no need to worry about paying company insurance, retirement benefits, or vacation pay. Nor is the FPI/UNICOR subject to compliance with OSHA regulations.

"Prisoners are responsible for producing a diverse range of products," stated Senator Craig Thomas before the Senate Committee on Governmental affairs, on April 7, 2004, "ranging from office furniture to clothing, from electronics to eyewear, from military gear to call centers and laundry services, to mapping and engineering drafting."

"It is ironic," Senator Thomas continued, "that in recent months as we have been debating the issue of off-shoring of American jobs, we continue to lose good paying American jobs to a government sponsored prison labor program."

In a Harper's Magazine article, Ian Urbina reports that "FPI, the federal government's 39th largest contractor, sells more than $400 million worth of products to the US military." (October 2003) Prison laundries clean, press and repair uniforms. Prisoners manufacture helmets, shorts, underwear, flak jackets and ammunition.

On May Day, 2003, when President Bush proudly outfitted himself in military clothing, posing for a photo-op to proclaim "Mission Accomplished," did he wear clothing manufactured by forced laborers in US prisons?

This May, remembering the "Mission Accomplished" banner displayed behind President Bush a year ago, we need to ask ourselves very carefully, while listening to the stories of prisoners here and abroad, what is the mission? What has been accomplished?


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Kathy Kelly is co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness and a three-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.

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