Investigative journalists Joseph Darius Jaafari, Jimmy Jenkins, Justin Price and Geoff Hing have just completed a research project and a series of articles for The Arizona Republic which dive very deeply and unsettlingly into the world of prison labor in Arizona. The title of the first in the series sums up their main findings: “Arizona has changed the way it sells prisoners to corporations. The state has made millions, but the workers have been neglected.
AZ Central describes the project:
After 15 months of collecting and analyzing more than 11,000 documents and creating a computer program that downloaded tens of thousands of public prisoner profiles that the Arizona Department of Corrections refused to provide, reporters from The Arizona Republic and KJZZ News have discovered that prison labor – for the past 10 years – has become ubiquitous across the state.
Prison work, for example, takes place in places many people would never have imagined: prisoners fabricate custom woodwork in trendy bowling alleys; they build trusses, cabinets, wall frames in well-known private residences and luxury apartment buildings; they work inside kennels for pet adoption shelters; they build confessionals in churches; they act as janitors and gardeners in schools, but are told to stay out of sight of staff and students so no one knows they are there.
The first report in the series explains that while private companies and the state benefit, workers are often exploited and, if injured, have little power to remedy it.
AIT [Arizona Correctional Industries] made millions – except during COVID when profits plummeted – and private companies benefited. They can access a captive workforce, which is required by law to work and does not have the same rights as civilian workers. Prisoners cannot officially report poor working conditions to the state. They don’t receive any financial support if they are injured on the job and if they try to withdraw, they are punished. . .
Many jobs offered by private companies are dangerous. The Republic and KJZZ have documented at least 45 incidents in which prisoners were injured while working during Radecki’s tenure. This is by no means a complete list, and it is unclear whether this represents an increase over Radecki’s predecessor, as the Department of Corrections would not provide medical claims filed by prisoners, claiming the right to privacy. Prisoners do not have the same rights as other workers. In most cases, they cannot even file a complaint with the state security service if they are in danger. Meanwhile, the Department of Corrections says all work is voluntary, but it punishes prisoners who don’t show up or quit ACI jobs.
And it’s not just happening in Arizona. Businesses across the United States are powerfully benefiting from cheap and exploitative prison labor. The title of this Guardian article, which provides information on another new report on prison labor recently released by the American Civil Liberties Union in conjunction with the Global Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, says it all:
“America’s prison workers produce $11 billion worth of goods and services a year for a pittance: A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union finds incarcerated workers are either paid poorly or not paid at all. “
The Guardian further explains:
Nearly two-thirds of all prisoners in the United States, which imprisons more of its population than any other country in the world, have jobs in state and federal prisons. That figure rises to around 800,000, the researchers estimated in the report, which is based on extensive public records inquiries, questionnaires and interviews with incarcerated workers.
ACLU researchers say the findings presented in Wednesday’s report raise concerns about the systemic exploitation of prisoners, who are forced to perform sometimes difficult and dangerous labor without basic labor protections and little or no training while earning next to nothing.
More than 80% of incarcerated workers perform general prison maintenance, including cleaning, cooking, repair work, laundry and other essential services. For paid non-industrial jobs, workers earn an average of 13 to 52 cents per hour, according to the report. Seven states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas — pay nothing for the vast majority of prison labor.
Page 41 of the ACLU report lists some of the many businesses that benefit from cheap prison labor:
Private businesses profit from prison labor by purchasing goods and services through correctional industries at a lower cost than they would pay in the private market. Colorado Correctional Industries, for example, sold goods and services to about 100 private companies, generating more than $6.2 million in revenue for the state’s Correctional Industries Program in 2020. Utah Correctional Industries has sold goods and services to nearly a thousand private companies, including such large corporations as 3M Company, Allstate Insurance Company, American Apparel, American Express, Apple Inc., AT&T Mobility, Costco, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, FedEx, Frito Lay Inc., Fujifilm North America, Hertz Corporation, Hewlett-Packard, Hickory Farms, Infiniti Motor Company, Little Caesars Enterprises, Lowe’s, KFC, OfficeMax, Pepsi-Co, Procter & Gamble, Sara Lee Corporation, T-Mobile, Verizon and Xerox Corporation.
You can read the full ACLU report, titled Captive labor: Exploitation of incarcerated workers, here. It was produced in collaboration with the Global Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.
The entire Arizona prison labor series is behind a paywall, but smart people can get around that. Hmm. But the series is so good that it’s also worth your money. You can find links to the series in this article.