'Orange Is the New Black' Makes Prison Labor Look Arbitrary. But Is It Really?

When Attorney General Eric Holder announced plans Monday to stage a federal retreat on the War on Drugs, the country responded in standard fashion: with general bipartisan support and a conversation revolving  around an agreed upon set of numbers.

Wait, what?

Turns out, Congress can come together when the statistics get really shocking: America imprisons more people than any country in the world. Federal facilities are operating at nearly 40 percent above official capacity.

Which raises the question: What do all of those people actually do behind bars? The answer has changed over the past decade, and it might surprise you. Click on.

What Overcrowding Means For Prison Labor

When Attorney General Eric Holder announced plans Monday to stage a federal retreat on the War on Drugs, the country responded in standard fashion: with general bipartisan support and a conversation revolving  around an agreed upon set of numbers.

Wait, what?

Turns out, Congress can come together when the statistics get really shocking: America imprisons more people than any country in the world. Federal facilities are operating at nearly 40 percent above official capacity.

Which raises the question: What do all of those people actually do behind bars? The answer has changed over the past decade, and it might surprise you. Click on.

Talk About Mandatory

All able-bodied federal inmates must work in both federal and state prisons.

Prison factories have seen a boom in recent years, with inmates producing everything from their own uniforms to the solar panels powering government buildings. For the past 80 years, most labor has fallen under the umbrella of the U.S. government corporation Federal Prison Industries (FPI), otherwise known as UNICOR.


Soaring Inmate Population + Only So Many License Plates = ...

One point Orange Is the New Black gets right? That classic image of inmates stamping out license plates for the DMV is way outdated.  As the inmate population has grown, some prisons have actually become private, for-profit companies themselves — and small changes to the laws have allowed companies to "partner" with government-run prisons as well, through subcontracting or the "leasing of inmates." This sort of contracting has been legal since 1979, but began to spread nation-wide in the mid-90s starting with a model bill in Texas. 


Your Underwear and Coffee, Via Prison Labor

Today, nearly one million prisoners make office furniture, and manufacture textiles and clothing for stores ranging from JC Penney's to Victoria's Secret. They take hotel reservations, work in slaughterhouses, and package holiday coffees for Starbucks. (Just check out this list.)

Some companies are very upfront about their use of prison labor, such as the "Prison Blues" denim company in Oregon (slogan: "Made on the Inside to be worn on the Outside©).


Are Prisoners Being Exploited?

So, prisons offer a captive workforce under constant oversight — and labor comes cheap

Prisoners get paid between 93 cents and $4.73 per day, with some reports of wages as low as 16 cents. Check out this article from an internal prison newsletter, in which an inmate compares wages to rising prices in the prison canteens.

Made in the USA

Prison labor comes so cheap, in fact, that some members of ALEC have quietly touted it as a sort of closer-to-home, reverse-outsourcing mechanism to bring jobs back to the United States. American companies who once looked to places like China and Bangladesh to cut costs have found an even more cost-efficient solution in these workers, who can neither form unions nor demand minimum wage.

That Said, Prison Labor is Nothing New

Penal labor as cost-cutting mechanism isn't a new concept in American history (think: chain gangs a la O Brother Where Art Thou? and de-facto penal colonies like, oh, the whole state of Georgia). Historians Steve Fraser and Joshua Freeman write: "Convict labor has been and once again is an appealing way for business to address these dilemmas.  Penal servitude now strikes us as a barbaric throwback to some long-lost moment that preceded the industrial revolution, but in that we’re wrong.  From its first appearance in this country, it has been associated with modern capitalist industry and large-scale agriculture."

And That May Be a Problem

So, we have huge numbers of under-compensated, non-unionized workers as a state-sanctioned backbone of the economy? And, as Attorney General Holder pointed out, a disproportionate number of these workers are black? 

Yeah, something may be wrong with this picture.

So is Prison Labor the Same As Prisoner Exploitation?

Inmate advocates argue that well-considered labor policies can also serve as job training and a focused means of filling idle hours. UNICOR has always proclaimed its goals to be "to protect society and reduce crime by preparing inmates for successful reentry through job training."

In practice, critics have been skeptical of labor programs efficacy. What's the point of training a prisoner on a factory line, hundreds of miles from their home town? Why not pay minimum wage, with salaries building into a trust pending release? 

One Thing We Do Know: Imprisonment Is Expensive

One of Attorney General's most widely-accepted talking points: Skyrocketing imprisonment has become an economic drain on tax payers. When there are so many inmates costing so much money, why not use prison labor as a means of defraying the costs of the prisons they're living in? 

The answer? Many already do: Prisoners sew their own uniforms, grow their own food, and paint their own cells. And, as this trend continues, they'll also go to work for the private companies turning a pretty profit.