Eddie Conway: Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. Because of COVID-19, the pandemic, and a huge amount of people have been unemployed or refusing to go back to work, multinational corporations, and even small businesses, have been taken advantage of prison labor. They’ve been using the prison industrial complex to fill out their rosters and to get cheap labor. Joining me today to give us an overview of this is Michael Sainato. Michael, thanks for joining me.
Michael Sainato: Oh, thanks for having me, Eddie.
Eddie Conway: OK. Now, you’ve recently written an article about this, and you talk about the multinational corporation. Give us a little background. What’s been changed? Because, obviously, corporations have been using prison labor since slavery. What’s been changed now?
Michael Sainato: Well, once the pandemic started, you had a lot of states look to prison labor to make PPE, to make hand sanitizer. And these workers were making 40 cents an hour or two. Some states weren’t paying any of these workers at all, and that’s because, like you said, this has been around since the 13th Amendment, since slavery ended. Prisoners in the US are not protected by any basic labor protections that we all have. The Fair Labor Standards Act, OSHA, the National Labor Relations Act. It’s really a non-transparent source of labor for companies and a way for state and federal correction departments to make money off of incarcerating Americans.
Eddie Conway: OK. So, go back for a minute and just talk about the PPE, because some of the people in the audience might not know what that means. What does that mean? Because I recall how they were using prisoners at the beginning of the pandemic. Talk about how they treated those prisoners, prisoners that were doing that, and especially in New York and in other places.
Michael Sainato: In New York, I’m sure a lot of us were introduced to that really smelly hand sanitizer in the pandemic. It’s really alcohol-based. A lot of that was produced in prisons. I know Gov. Cuomo in New York got New York prisoners to make that, so this was like an emergency production. And prison labor was used as a cheap, efficient way to get that stuff made. Masks, the protective gear, things like that, those were made in a lot of states by prison labor.
Eddie Conway: Yeah, and what struck me at the time was that prisoners were not even allowed to use the hand sanitizer or receive the masks, or they didn’t get the protection that we provided for the public through their labor. I thought that was criminal. All of it’s criminal. But now, give me a couple examples today of companies since then came online and that are using prison labor, and what’s the qualification? What’s the criteria for using prisoners like that?
Michael Sainato: The federal prison system has its own system where corporations can partner and use federal prisoners for their own labor, and that information is released eventually, but at the state level, it’s hard to get that data of what’s being produced with prison labor. A lot of these companies use shell companies, so there’s a lot of lack of transparency. In a few of the examples I cite in the story I did for the Guardian, in Kansas, there’s Russell Stover. I’m sure everyone is familiar with the candy company. They have a manufacturing production plant out in Kansas, and they were reportedly experiencing issues in finding enough workers.
For the past few months, we’ve all been hearing about labor shortage issues and whether the data actually shows that, or whether it’s employers who don’t want to pay adequate wages and benefits. But in this case, this candy company went to the Kansas Department of Corrections, which already had a program in place with over 40 private corporations, and said, “We want workers. We’ll pay them this amount.” And they have a contract where they’re guaranteed a number of workers every day, every week.
That’s appealing to them, and they pay them less than their average workforce. These particular workers are getting paid a lot more than most workers in the prison labor industry at $14 an hour, which is great for these individuals, but it drives down wages. In that area, everyone else is getting over $15 an hour to over $20 an hour just to start off with, plus benefits. Obviously, working out of a prison, these people are not getting days off. They’re not getting paid time off. They’re even being charged to take a two-hour bus ride to the plant and then two hours back, so that’s a 12-hour day for them. Four hours on a bus.
Eddie Conway: You make a point, and it’s important, that they even pay for being kept in prison. 25% of that particular pay that they get each day and an additional 5% goes to the victims fund, and I calculated it, so that leaves them about $9, minus probably the $2 that they have to pay for transportation. That’s not a tremendous amount of money. So they’re getting labor, cheap labor, for half price. Being a former prisoner, I worked for $6.50, and I was part of the upper middle class in the prison system at the time, back in the day. Prisons want those kind of jobs. What do you say to people that say, “Look, this is giving them a skill. They’re learning to make chocolate, and they got a few dollars to save.” What do you say to people? There’s not too much you can say to a prisoner about that, but what’s the explanation for that being a luxury job and people in the larger society saying that it’s not right?
Michael Sainato: To start off with, these programs aren’t being created with the best interest of the prisoners in mind. It’s really a way for the prison-industrial system to benefit off of this cheap source of labor. The companies benefit the most, and so do the Department of Corrections. Like you said, they get paid, they get extra money for room and board where they’re already getting taxpayer money for that. So, they’re getting double. They’re either getting extra fees, whatever else is in the contract, so they’re getting revenue-
Eddie Conway: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Let me just get, you’re saying the state is paying to house the prisoners anyway, and then you’re saying, in addition, the prisoners is paying again for that same housing.
Michael Sainato: Yeah. The prisoners are getting taxed twice, because they’re getting taxes out of their income anyways, which goes to things like that, and they’re getting taxed directly for room and board, which is already covered by taxpayer funds.
Eddie Conway: What kind of agreements do they have? I noticed in your article you said that a certain amount of prisoners have to be maintained in the Department of Corrections to satisfy the contract of particular companies, and you suggest that’s an expansion of the prison-industrial complex into a slave labor force, or something. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but talk about that a minute.
Michael Sainato: Well, with these contracts, a company like Russell Stover, just for example, we’ll say we have 50 positions we need filled full time. We need 50 workers every day, consistently. And say there’s 40 other similar contracts. The prison needs to fulfill those contracts to keep up with them, to keep the revenue coming on both sides. So they need those people in prison. If you have 2,000 prisoners tied to prison labor contracts, you can’t go under that number of prisoners, so it’s putting a cap on the minimum amount of people, and that’s based on these labor contracts. It’s not based on any actual rehabilitation or decarceration efforts. It’s antithetical to that, because it’s saying we need people in prison. We need people to stay in prison to fulfill these contracts, to fill these obligations. So it keeps people in prison, essentially, and it offers an incentive for the state Department of Corrections to have people say, “We need people to fulfill these contracts. We need workers to send out to these companies.” These programs are growing, so they want more private companies to get involved with it, things like that.
Eddie Conway: You mentioned early on as we were talking about shell companies. So big construction companies or other large companies, they use shell companies to contract with the states and to hire prisoners. What’s the purpose of the shell companies? Is there liabilities involved? Why do they do that?
Michael Sainato: Part of it’s liability. And, basically, that’s how a lot of these corporations operate, based on their sectors of whatever they’re producing. They have specific companies, but it really is for that lack of liability, the overt transparency. So if you have a public company that has to publicize what they’re doing, they can use one of these shell companies, so they don’t really have to report on, oh, these are the products that are getting made by prison labor. You don’t see any corporation … You’re not going to see a logo on Russell Stover candy, made by prison labor. Companies want to hide that. That’s not something they want to promote. In the cases I covered in my story, these are corporate executives, or just cases that have happened to gauge public interest, because it came apart, all of a sudden, they don’t want this known. They don’t want to publicize that. It’s not something that’s getting them good PR.
Eddie Conway: Is there health insurance involved, or are there other benefits? Because I spent a tremendous amount of time in prison, and when I got out, I discovered, unfortunately, that I wasn’t even eligible for social security. I came out at an age that was eligible for social security, but I had none. Are there benefits or liabilities to prisoners in terms of their health, or falling down or getting hurt, or any of this stuff? Or what’s happening about that?
Michael Sainato: There’s no OSHA protections for prisoners. If you get hurt on the job, there’s no specific safety protections by law that the rest of the population is provided with. In addition, a lot of these programs, some of them do hire prisoners once they get released, but a lot of them don’t. So how does that help that individual in the long term? We already discussed a lot of the income that these prisoners do receive. It goes to different debts, commissary costs, which are increasing; prison phone calls, incredibly expensive almost everywhere in the US. The prison-industrial complex is getting this money back in all sorts of different ways.
When these individuals get out, they’re often not given the job, and a lot of viral stories have come across this. In California, you have prison labor being used to fight fires, but when those individuals get out, they’re not eligible because of the check box that you have to put on job applications. And that’s a big deterrent to employment, and something that a lot of organizations are pushing–to ban the box, to remove those barriers for people getting out of prison, to be able to find work. Or in cases like I talked about, the construction industry in New York City, 24% or 25% of prisoners who are getting jobs out of prison in New York City are working in the construction industry. A lot of these companies are paying these workers poorly in unsafe working conditions and turning them in and spinning them out for projects, and it gets into a really exploitative cycle. And then when these workers that do get hurt, they’re bound to stay within that employment, no matter the conditions, or else they risk being sent back to prison.
Eddie Conway: I’ll just point out, this is something just recently happened, because I had been following the firefighters in California and their struggle and the inability to get licensed because of the felony charge. Well, just recently, this is a rare exception. The governor has pardoned the prisoner firefighters, or former prisoner firefighters, so that will allow them to go through that process, but that’s only because the state of California is burning down and prisoners are almost the first line of defense in terms of fighting those fires. That’s a rare, rare exception. What is the public doing? What is the unions doing? This is impacting the workers, the drivers, the construction workers. What are they doing about demanding a fair wage for prisoners, so as not to undercut their wages and ability? Are they doing anything?
Michael Sainato: Well, in New York City, the construction union, LIUNA, is pushing for the city council to instill regulations on this industry. They’re called body shops because of how they operate to reign it in and provide these workers with protections and ensure that there are a basis for wages and eventually getting them into union represented jobs. The construction industry is one where they had labor shortages, so-called, before the pandemic even started. That’s in part because you have a lot of firms and companies trying to drive down wages, but it’s very physically demanding, dangerous work, to work in construction, obviously. Few people are going to want to do that for $15, $16 an hour when they have a lot of different options for other jobs where they’re not working in construction.
These body shops target people coming out of prison, work release programs, they have with New York City Department of Corrections to get workers, constantly. There’s a website they have, LIUNA, it’s called Justice for Re-entry, and they have a lot of testimonials about prisoners. There’s videos and stories about those people, and the focus is really a justice for re-entry. Creating good jobs, good union jobs with benefits, getting these prisoners into training programs, and actually looking out for their wellbeing rather than just leaving it up to these companies to make money off their backs.
Eddie Conway: While you were saying that I was thinking–I knew several prisoners that were excellent carpenters. They did all the qualifications to 5,000 hours of apprenticeship, and they were making fantastic equipment. Desks, tables, chairs, stuff that the state would use. And they were like model prisoners, and year after year, I watched them go up for parole and get turned down, and they had no violations, no nothing, and they just couldn’t figure it out. And, of course, I had figured it out already that they were valuable and their expertise were needed, and so they were actually held in prison longer than they should have been because of the diligence and the skill level that they had in their work.
What should the public be doing? Prisoners are, to a great degree, we … I keep saying, “We.” They can’t help their self, in terms of what they accept sometimes, that looks like benefits. What should the public be doing, or what can the public be doing? And I heard you talk about the testimonials, but what can the public do to break this trend in the prison-industrial complex before it becomes locked in cement, so to speak?
Michael Sainato: Well, they need to be pushing Congress to give these workers protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act, under The National Labor Relations Act, under OSHA, so that you don’t have people in prison doing work for 40 cents an hour. I think that’s an immoral abomination, and I think a lot of states and the system gets away with it because of lack of transparency. People don’t really understand it. Even in civil detention, immigrants are owned by these private companies, Core Civic and Geo Group, are forced to basically work, even though they’re in holding, not committed of a crime. This is a multi-billion dollar business. A lot of people are making a lot of money off of it and don’t want it changed, and want to keep it hidden. I think the efforts need to be made to stop companies.
I live in Florida, where it’s a big issue, and at the University of Florida, there’s been a big organizing effort among students to end prison labor that the school uses for construction gigs around the area, and for food service at the school, in their new contract. I think those are efforts, but I think like you said, where does that leave the people in prison who benefit from having some sort of work or some sort of income? I think it really comes down to pushing for prisoners to be able to have those rights that everyone else does in terms of the minimum wage worker protections, things like that, that they’re exempt for.
In 1993, the courts decided that Congress has the authority to decide whether or not prisoners have those rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act. And it’s Congress that needs to act, and there’s things that people can do at the local level. Like I said, getting involved in campaigns and ending prison labor, and pushing for funding and growing programs that help justice for re-entry programs. Programs that actually serve the best interests of prisoners rather than are controlled by a private corporation with state Department of Corrections, that’s for their benefit.
Eddie Conway: All right. Thank you for joining me, Michael.
Michael Sainato: Thank you, Eddie. It was a pleasure.
Eddie Conway: OK. And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.
For months, business owners and corporate media pundits in the US have complained about a “labor shortage,” claiming that businesses are struggling to find new employees because “no one wants to work.” Rather than enticing applicants with more competitive wages and stronger benefits and protections, though, many businesses are opting to exploit prison slave labor.
In this episode of Rattling the Bars, TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway speaks with Michael Sainato about his recent report for The Guardian, which details how bosses in the US are exploiting prison labor to maximize profits and avoid paying workers fair wages. Michael Sainato is an investigative reporter and a regular contributor for The Guardian; his work has been featured in outlets like Vice, The Nation, and the Miami Times.