Saturday, December 21, 2013

If our prisons were a country, what would Incarceration Nation look like?

I'll skip the racial disparities, etc. which Doug Berman nicely summarizes at Sentencing Law & Policy.  Just check out the facts on labor standards.  Think how the Times would cover this story if the administrators of the system were in China. - gwc
If our prisons were a country, what would Incarceration Nation look like? Foreign Policy opinion | by Prof. Rosa Brooks/ Georgetown Law School
"WASHINGTON — You already know that the United States locks up a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world. If you look at local, state and federal prison and jail populations, the United States currently incarcerates more than 2.4 million people, a figure that constitutes roughly 25 percent of the total incarcerated population of the entire world. A population of 2.4 million is a lot of people -- enough, in fact, to fill up a good-sized country. In the past, the British Empire decided to convert a good chunk of its prison population into a country, sending some 165,000 convicts off to Australia. This isn't an option for the United States, but it suggests an interesting thought experiment: If the incarcerated population of the United States constituted a nation-state, what kind of country would it be?"
Labor Standards: If you think low labor costs in countries such as China and Bangladesh are a threat to U.S. workers and businesses, labor conditions in Incarceration Nation will dangerously raise your blood pressure. Take UNICOR, a.k.a. Federal Prison Industries, which employs 8 percent of "work eligible" federal prisoners. Hourly wages offered by UNICOR range from 23 cents an hour -- about on a par with garment workers in Bangladesh -- to a princely $1.35 for "premium" prisoners, comparable to the hourly wage of Chinese garment workers. That's a good deal less than the $2 average hourly wage for a manufacturing worker in the Philippines, or the $6 an hour average wage for Mexican manufacturing workers.
Who benefits from these low wages? The U.S. Department of Defense, for one. The DOD is UNICOR's largest customer; in fiscal year 2011 it accounted for $357 million of UNICOR's annual sales. UNICOR makes everything from Patriot missile components to body armor for the DOD: In September 2013, for instance, the DOD announced that the Army has awarded UNICOR a "$246,699,217 non-multi-year, no option, firm-fixed-price contract . . . to procure Interceptor Body Armor Outer Tactical Vests for various foreign military sales customers."
This is a great deal for everyone except the population of Incarceration Nation, since they're stuck with forced labor at wage levels that would make many third world employers blush. No one likes to talk about this, of course: "We sell products made by prison labor" isn't the kind of slogan likely to generate consumer enthusiasm. But to those in the know -- as an online video promoting UNICOR's call-center services boasts -- prison labor is "the best-kept secret in outsourcing."
Maybe Incarceration Nation really is a foreign country.

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