John Armitage on Fri, 29 Oct 1999 21:41:32 +0200 (CEST)

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CORPORATE WATCH FEATURE: The Prison Industry: Capitalist Punishment

Did you know:

* Corporations like Starbucks, TWA, Microsoft, Victoria's Secret and 
Boeing all use prison labor. 
* Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest private 
jailer, was dubbed "the theme stock of the 90's" by one investment firm.
* There are currently more than 1.7 million prisoners in the United 
States--more than in any industrialized country.
* 70% of US prisoners are people of color.

Corporate Watch's new feature looks at the expanding "prison industrial
complex" in the United States and the increasingly intertwined
relationship between private corporations and the criminal justice system.
We highlight writings by prisoners including: 

* An original column by death row journalist, Mumia Abu-Jamal, entitled
"Privatizing Pain." 

* Writings from Prison Legal News, edited by two Washington State inmates

In this Feature you'll also find:

* Analysis by scholar/activists Christian Parenti and Angela Davis
* Reporting by investigative journalists
* Activist resources and corporate links
* In-depth background
* Activist alerts to help Mumia Abu-Jamal win a new trial

*For the first time you can also download the Feature in PDF form to 
print out for friends, colleagues, students and family.

Check it out, and pass on the word!

Oct 28, 1999

The assembly lines at CMT Blues look like those at any other US garment
factory, except for one thing: the workers are watched over by armed
guards. CMT Blues is housed at the Maximum Security Richard J. Donovan
State Correctional Facility outside San Diego. 

Seventy workers sew T-shirts for Mecca, Seattle Cotton Works, Lee Jeans
and other US companies. The highly prized jobs pay minimum wage. Less than
half goes into the inmate workers' pockets--the rest is siphoned off to
reimburse the state for the cost of their incarceration and to a victim
restitution fund. The California Department of Corrections Joint Venture
Program, and CMT Blues owner Pierre Slieman say they are providing inmates
with job skills and work experience.

But two inmates and former CMT Blues employees say Sleiman and the
Department of Corrections are operating a sweatshop behind bars. What's
more, they say that prison officials retaliated against them when they
blew the whistle on corruption at the plant. Inmates Charles Ervin and
Shearwood Flemming spent 45 days in solitary confinement after talking to
reporters about an alleged label switching scheme in which they claim they
were forced to replace "made in Honduras" labels with "made in USA" tags.
They are suing CMT Blues and the California Department of Corrections for
labor and civil rights violations. 

The CMT Blues scandal and the host of human rights and labor issues it
raises, is just the tip of the iceberg in a web of interconnected
business, government and class interests which critics dub the "prison
industrial complex."  Borrowing from the phrase "military industrial
complex" coined by President Dwight Eisenhower during the Cold War, the
term refers to the growing political and economic power that emanates from
the increasingly intertwined relationship between private corporations and
what were once exclusively public institutions. In short, incarceration
has become big business. And it's booming. 

The prison industry now employees more than half a million people-more
than any Fortune 500 corporation, other than General Motors.  Mushrooming
construction has turned the prison industry into the main employer in
scores of economically depressed rural communities. And there are a host
of firms profiting from private prisons, prison labor and services like
healthcare and transportation. 

Today, there are over 1.7 million people incarcerated in the United
States, more than in any other industrialized country. They are
disproportionately African American and Latino (almost 70% of US prisoners
are people of color) and two thirds are serving sentences for non-violent
crimes. One in three African American men between the ages of 20 and 29 is
either in jail, on probation or parole. 1.4 million black men-or 13% of
African American men-- have lost the right to vote because they have
committed felonies. 

Taxpayers foot the bill for "get tough" policies that treat a generation
of young people-mostly young people of color-as expendable.  New York and
California, states that once had arguably the finest public university
systems in the country, now spend more money locking people up than on
giving them a college education. Meanwhile, prison gates are swinging wide
open for corporations. Some like CMT Blues, Microsoft, Boeing, TWA, and
Victoria's Secret, are using low cost prison labor for every thing from
manufacturing aircraft components and lingerie to booking reservations.
In addition to companies exploiting prison labor, there are eighteen or so
private prison corporations that control about 100,000 prison beds across
the country. The largest, the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of
America-whose securities were dubbed the theme stock of the nineties by
one investment firm--also operates private prisons in Puerto Rico,
Australia, the UK and will soon open one in South Africa. These private
lockups cut corners on labor costs, often hiring untrained, inexperienced
guards, leading to a dismal record of escapes and brutality against

In a Texas prison operated by one company, guards were videotaped beating,
shocking, kicking and setting dogs on prisoners. While private prisons
hardly have a monopoly on such violence, critics argue that hiring low
wage, untrained guards-some of them with criminal records of their
own-makes brutality more likely.

The prison industry is not a new phenomenon, but rather has some grim
historical antecedents. As death row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal argues in
a special column for Corporate Watch, mixing the profit motive with
punishment only invites abuse reminiscent of one of the ugliest chapters
in US history. "Under a regime where more bodies equal more profits,
prisons take one big step closer to their historical ancestor, the slave
pen," writes Jamal.

In fact, prison labor has its roots in slavery. Following reconstruction,
former Confederate Democrats instituted "convict leasing."  Inmates,
mostly freed slaves convicted of petty theft, were rented out to do
everything from picking cotton to building railroads. In Mississippi, a
huge prison farm resembling a slave plantation later replaced convict
leasing. The infamous Parchman Farm was not closed until 1972, when
inmates brought suit against the abusive conditions in federal court. 

Today, criminal justice issues have become so urgent that organizing
efforts by diverse communities around the country are beginning to pierce
the deafening "tough on crime" drumbeat espoused by pundits and policy
makers for the last 20 years. Community organizers, church groups, labor
unions and progressive think tanks are coming together to fight prison
privatization in the South. Organizations like Families against Mandatory
Minimums are fighting discriminatory sentencing. Amnesty International and
Human Rights Watch put prison issues at the top of their US agenda. In
Concord, California 2,000 Latino students have taken to the streets to
demand "education not incarceration," as part of a protest against the
backlash against immigrant communities. 

Labor code and freedom of speech violations like those alleged in the suit
against CMT Blues also resonate beyond prison walls.  UNITE, the garment
workers union, has joined inmates Ervin and Flemming in their suit against
the clothing manufacturer and the California Department of Corrections.
And the suit has caught the attention of first amendment advocates who
would like to overturn California's ban on journalist interviews with
state prisoners.

Punishment endured by prisoners like Ervin and Flemming has "an incredible
chilling effect on prisoners because, combined with the media access ban,
they know they can't communicate (with the press) with out suffering
retaliation," explains Joseph Pertel, an attorney for the inmates. Pertel
says it was actually a prison employee, not his clients, who called a
local television station. Nevertheless, the two men, both convicted of
second-degree murder, spoke out against working conditions at CMT Blues
jeopardizing their eventual parole. 

Because prisoners have so little voice on the outside, we highlight
writings by prison journalists in this Feature, including an original
column by Mumia Abu-Jamal and writings from Prison Legal News, edited by
two Washington State inmates. Contributor Alex Friedmann, due to be
paroled next month, was transferred out of a CCA private prison into a
Tennessee state penitentiary, when his reporting behind bars angered
company executives. We hope that by giving a voice to those inside prison
walls we can contribute to a dialogue on redirecting criminal justice
policy in this country. 

--Julie Light For Corporate Watch

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