POWs of the Class War: Profiting Off Prison Slave Labor

Colin Jenkins

I am convinced that imprisonment is a way of pretending to solve the problem of crime. It does nothing for the victims of crime, but perpetuates the idea of retribution, thus maintaining the endless cycle of violence in our culture. It is a cruel and useless substitute for the elimination of those conditions -poverty, unemployment, homelessness, desperation, racism, greed – which are at the root of most punished crime. The crimes of the rich and powerful go mostly unpunished.

It must surely be a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that even a small number of those men and women in the hell of the prison system survive it and hold on to their humanity.”

– Howard Zinn

The modern criminal justice system in the US has not only acted as the “New Jim Crow,” as Michelle Alexander so eloquently points out in her book, but also facilitates an extensive network of “new corporate cotton fields” known as private prisons.

Legislation that began with the Reagan-led privatization run in the early 1980s has allowed for prisoners within the US system to be accessible to private companies seeking cheap labor.

Not surprisingly, corporate America has jumped on board with names like IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Lucent Technologies, Revlon, Macy’s, and Target salivating at the chance to acquire their very own plantation workforce.

Unlike chattel slavery, room and board is not required. All that is requested are “wages” which range anywhere from 17 to 50 cents an hour. In keeping with the neoliberal blueprint, the operations are publicly funded while the profit is privately collected – profit that has surpassed billions of dollars, and most of which is funneled to very few at the top of the corporate structure.

The constant need for “new bodies” has been fulfilled by draconian drug laws which were also implemented during the 1980s, coincidentally (or not). Such laws have allowed police to make more arrests, and courts to exact frequent and lengthy sentences for minor, non-violent crimes (Example: NY mandates a minimum sentence of 15 YEARS TO LIFE for anyone in possession of 4 ounces of any illegal drug).

States have joined the fray, with places like Colorado agreeing to a $2-per-hour wage; and even the federal system has established a $1.25 hourly wage with “opportunities for overtime.” (how benevolent!)

With millions of lives already lost to this repulsive system, we’ve only just begun to understand its inner workings. With books like Alexander’s, awareness is forming. And with organizations like the Prison Activist Resource Center in Oakland and Critical Resistance, action is starting to take place.

Slavery never died; it has merely repackaged itself over and over again.

In solidarity with our working-class sisters and brothers behind bars, POWs of the class war. YOU are not forgotten.


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