Saturday, June 14, 2008

THE NEW SLAVERY: PRISONERS WORKING FOR CORPORATION

FOUR WINDS How many people know that when they dial 411, the operator at the other end of the call is often a federal prisoner? Or that when they call to reserve a camping space at a national park, the person taking their personal information may be sitting in a cubicle in a maximum-security prison? Or that the body armor for the soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is being manufactured by federal inmates?

In what critics call slave labor and advocates call job training, more than 100 factories and service centers in federal prisons across the United States employ inmates in jobs such as those above and hundreds more, making everything from underwear to military gear to intricate electrical components, all under the umbrella of a near-billion-dollar corporation known as the Federal Prison Industries, Inc., trade name Unicor.

This little-known and wholly owned arm of the BOP has come under fire in recent years from environmentalists, prison reform groups, and congressional investigative committees for, among other things, exposing inmate workers to dangerous levels of lead and other toxins in its computer recycling centers. The company has also been investigated for profiting from sales of tens of thousands of excess Defense Department computers that were supposed to be given free to low-income schools around the country and, what may be worse, failing to remove sensitive data from the computers it resold. Unions and even the U. S. Chamber of Commerce are up in arms over its use of dirt-cheap prison labor to take jobs from the private sector.

The prison workers are just as unhappy. Unicor and the companies it contracts with "are making a killing off of us here," one of the Carswell workers wrote recently to Fort Worth Weekly. "And then we leave prison and have nothing to fall back on. Just think how beneficial it would be if they paid at least minimum wage, paid into Social Security ... so that we would have something when we leave, old and broken down.". . .

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