Incarceration Nation

Some Reflections on Prison Labor

Ruth Wilson Gilmore Interviews James Kilgore

Ruth Wilson Gilmore: A popular notion in some progressive circles holds that U.S. prisons are a chain of sweatshops and plantations where hundreds-of-thousands of incarcerated people labor under excruciating conditions to generate profits for transnational companies. Can you shed light on this view?

James Kilgore: We need to re-think this notion. While such images contain kernels of truth, overall prison labor holds more complexity than a simple stereotype of super-exploitation does justice to. Based on my own experience of six-and-a-half years in federal and state prisons, plus considerable research into this topic, I would like to offer a few observations about the nature of labor inside prisons. Let’s begin with a profile of the incarcerated workforce, then we can take a close look at some big-picture analysis of how these workers fit into the current capitalist economy. 

Ruth Wilson Gilmore: Great! Can you start with breaking down the myth of private companies and prison labor?

James Kilgore: Sure. While some companies do make profits by super-exploiting incarcerated workers, such employers are few and far between. The Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) is a federal agency with which all companies wanting to hire imprisoned workers must register. In 2018, the PIECP reported just over 5,000 men and women in prisons under contract with private companies in 2018. This is less than three percent of the nation’s incarcerated population. 

Ruth Wilson Gilmore: Then what’s actually happening inside?

James Kilgore: For one thing, far more individuals work in producing goods and services for government departments and institutions. Here we find some of the nation’s most oppressive working conditions. Prisons such as Angola in Louisiana and Parchman Farm in Mississippi cruelly imitate the conditions of slavery, replete with a majority Black agricultural workforce being supervised by armed White men on horseback. They generally grow crops for consumption by government entities, including prisons. 

Ruth Wilson Gilmore: So if the farms were intended for profit instead of cruel and murderous humiliation, they’d probably do as other cotton producers do and use efficient machines. What else have you learned?

James Kilgore: A somewhat different ethos prevails in the federal prison system, which currently holds about 180,000 people. Roughly 17,000 men and women work in UNICOR, a company owned and operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. They produce a variety of goods from clothes to mattresses to telecommunications equipment. UNICOR sells virtually all their production to federal government bodies. Similar dynamics operate in some states. In Florida, for instance, some 500 local government units contract with the Department of Corrections for labor to do road maintenance, though some counties have pulled out due to concerns about exploitation of prison labor. 

Ruth Wilson Gilmore: If I’m following you, even these stark images don’t apply to most people who work inside. What do most people who work inside do?

James Kilgore: In nearly every prison most of the people who work perform basic operational and maintenance work inside their institutions—cooking, cleaning, grass cutting, as well as highly skilled trades like plumbing and office administration. In other words, they do the labor that reproduces the prison itself.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore: And what about wages? What are people who work inside paid?

James Kilgore: According to a 2017 study by the Prison Policy Initiative, wages for prison production work vary from no pay at all for agricultural labor in Oklahoma prisons to $6,000 a year for some jobs under the Maine Department of Corrections. UNICOR workers make between 23 cents and a $1.15 an hour.

States like Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana don’t pay anything at all to those who do cooking, cleaning, and other such labor. Most of my work in prison was in the education department, where I earned anywhere from eight to fifty-cents-an-hour for teaching GED classes. I also worked breakfast shift in a kitchen, for which my only compensation was extra pieces of French toast and cartons of milk. 

Ruth Wilson Gilmore: So far we’ve talked about formal jobs, and whether or not people get paid. What about the informal sector? What kinds of goods and services do incarcerated people trade among themselves?

James Kilgore: Prisons also house an enormous informal or underground economy sector. At the pinnacle rests an illicit drug trade, generally tightly controlled by leaders among the prison population who run their operations much like on the streets. 

Ruth Wilson Gilmore: Although the movement of illicit substances across prison walls has been said to involve paid staff, including guards.

James Kilgore: The other major money-makers in a prison yard are “legal beagles” who specialize in writing writs for people trying to appeal their cases. A well-worded document for the courts may bring in several hundred dollars, usually paid into a relative’s account on the street. 

But the informal sector extends much farther. Kitchen workers smuggle food into the cellblocks and sell it to their neighbors. Industrious service workers do tattoos, wash clothes, cut and style hair, do makeup. Plus, nearly every prison building or wing has a “convenience store,” a locker in someone’s cell filled with candy bars, jars of coffee, Top Ramen, and other products stockpiled from the commissary. 

Just like its counterpart in the community, the prison informal sector is a way to survive in a brutal economic, social, and health environment. Since they are against the rules, these economic activities are also a form of informal resistance to an oppressive system—way for people to assert their humanity and claim their right to improve living conditions inside an institution that aims to grind them into the dust. 

Ruth Wilson Gilmore: So what is the nature of the unfree workers you’ve detailed for us?

James Kilgore: As you’ve written, people in prison are members of the marginalized sector of the working class, not some exotic criminal subculture. The restructuring of industrial production as well the reconfiguring of urban and rural landscapes, especially Black and Brown communities, often forces people into the underground economy or part-time survival jobs in the formal sector. The resultant poverty then leaves them vulnerable to the carceral state and subject to the racist and classist policing of homelessness, substance abuse, mental illness, and community instability. 

Ruth Wilson Gilmore: You describe vividly what I call “organized abandonment.” What kinds of organizations can fix this problem? Are unions the answer?

James Kilgore: Unionization is one frequently proposed solution to the plight of incarcerated workers. In considering unions, the question becomes: do we put resources into improving prison working conditions or do we fight to get people out of prison? Suddenly raising people’s pay rate from ten-cents-an-hour to a living wage would require massive increases in corrections budgets or, in the absence of large-scale decarceration, a huge reduction in employment inside prisons. Moreover, since many non-prisoners are also part of the marginalized sector of the working class who don’t earn a living wage or belong to unions, unionizing prison workers could essentially be creating a situation where prison offered economic advantages over the labor market on the street. 

Ultimately, we need to view work and worker activity inside prisons through a broader lens. It is not about wages. Since 2010 we have witnessed “strike” actions inside prisons, from hunger strikes in Pelican Bay in 201113 to the refusals to go to work at the center of the national prison labor strikes called by the Free Alabama Movement in 2016 and the Jailhouse Lawyers Speak last year, to a number of work stoppages in immigration prisons. These are not actions over bread and butter issues. They are about the dehumanizing environment of contemporary prisons, the warehousing of Black, Brown, and poor human beings, the squelching of their soul and spirit. Strikers and prison workers in general want higher wages but more importantly, they want a future. They are striking to rekindle some collective sense of hope in their lives. They need far more than higher wages or a union card. They need freedom.  

Ruth Wilson Gilmore: A broader lens might also help us urgently consider the relationship between workers inside and outside the walls. At least 70,000,000 people in the U.S. have some kind of arrest or conviction record that makes it difficult for them to get or keep jobs in the “free world.” In other words, half of the U.S. labor force is documented not to work. Half! Add to those individuals’ communities and households. It seems to me that every kind of organization trying to make life better for vulnerable people should have the fundamental problem of unfreedom on their agenda. Unions. Faith groups. Community development. Youth. Elders. Advocates for public education. Everybody. The problem, in other words, is prison—and therefore the entire society.

You underline the fact that people inside need freedom. And it needs to be real. Real freedom means abolition of the conditions that have made it necessary for us to have this conversation in the first place.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore is Professor of Geography at the CUNY Graduate Center. A co-founder of many social justice organizations, her research and writing link political, economic, and environmental struggles in the growing local, regional, and international movement for prison abolition.

James Kilgore is a Media Justice Fellow at the Center for Media Justice. He has written widely on issues of mass incarceration, labor, and electronic monitoring, as well as authoring Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time (The New Press, 2015).

The Brooklyn Rail, June 2019