SJR 8212 and the Prison Slave Plantation: Dismantling the Profit Motive for Incarceration

[Front paged: NM. The author is founder of JusticeWorks!.  Some updates on national and state statistics provided by Noemie Maxwell. Senate Joint Resolution 8212, if passed, would amend the state's Consitution to permit incarcerated people to work under contract to private companies.]

A lot of people in the criminal justice reform movement and in the anti-racism movement use terms such as `prison plantation' and `prison slave labor'. Some people consider these words as inflammatory or overly dramatic. Our organization aims to dismantle the profit motive for incarceration.

Those words make some people very nervous and others very confused. Those who benefit from the status quo understandably get nervous with all the talk of exposing and crumbling the existing system for dealing with crime. However, even those who are otherwise informed about criminal justice reform issues, don't always understand what "profits" we're talking about, since everyone knows that the criminal justice system is the largest part of our state budget, and thus costs taxpayers dearly. Or, people say that since Washington State doesn't have private prisons, these issues don't relate to us. Not so.

We'll explain it this way. First, outlined in this piece, you'll see the legal framework that is the basis for this wording. Next, we'll provide statistics to show you which group of people is being targeted by the criminal justice system. Then, we'll explain exactly who is profiting and how. Finally, we will explain some of the costs of the prison industrial complex.

No, we aren't being extremist or inflammatory when we use the term "prison plantation". Consider the facts.

Most people believe that the 13th amendment abolished slavery. This is not correct. It actually legalized it. Consider the exact wording of the amendment. "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States". So, in order to be a slave in this country, you must be convicted of a crime. Slavery is legal in our country.


On June 30, 2006, there were 2,245,189 people in prisons and jails in the United States -- an increase of 2.8% from 2005. The incarcerated population has increased at an annual average of 3.4% between 1995 and 2006. (1)

In 2006, nearly 12% of black males in their mid to late 20s were in jail or prison in the United States.

In 2005 approximately 7 million -- or one in every 32 adults -- were controlled by the criminal justice system, including prison, jail, or on probation or parole. Over 60% of this population is composed of people of color. The disparity is particularly high for Black people, who comprise about 13% of the population but about 40% of people in prison or jail or on probation.

National Incarceration rates, June 30, 2006
From: Prison and Jail Inmates at midyear 2006
Number of people in jail per 100,000 people in the U.S. adult population

Total US Pop.White Males Black MalesWhite Females Black FemalesWhite Males 25-29 years oldBlack Males 25-29 years old
7507364,78994 354 1,68511,695

Or you can make some international comparisons: South Africa under Apartheid was internationally condemned as a racist society. South Africa under apartheid (1993), Black adult men: 851 per 100,000 U.S. under George Bush (2002), Black adult men: 7,150 per 100,000

Why would our country, as the leader of the "free world", lock up its Black men at a rate 8.4 times higher than the most openly racist country in the world?

According to the Human Rights Watch Press, in 1996, Blacks constituted 62.6 percent of all drug "offenders" admitted to state prisons. In at least fifteen states, Black men were sent to prison on drug charges at rates ranging from twenty to fifty-seven times those of white men.

Washington State

Washington Incarceration rates, June 30, 2006
From: Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2005
Number of people in jail per 100,000 people in Washington's adult population

Rate for total state populationWhite BlackHispanic
As of September 2007, Washington State had 15,574 people in state prisons. Nearly 20% of those incarcerated are African Americans while Washington's total population is only 3.5% African American. (Washington State Department of Corrections Statistical Brochure, accessed October 18, 2007.

The actual incarcerated population of Washington is much larger than these state statistics reflect, however. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington State had 29,225 inmates in custody of State or Federal prisons or local jails in 2005.

Over 45% percent of all Washington State prisoners sentenced to life without the possibility of parole under the "Three Strikes" law are African Americans. (Persistent Offenders through first Quarter, 2007, Washington Sentencing Guidelines Commission.)

Twenty four percent (24%) of African American males are permanently disenfranchised under current Washington law. (Farrakhan v Gregoire, Brief of Amicus Curiae, National Black Police Association, et al., 12/11/06)

Twenty one percent (21%) of Washington state prisoners are incarcerated for drug crimes.

Washington's prison system is currently operating at 105% of rated capacity.

In King County, 53 percent of the people sentenced as three-strikers are Black, according to an analysis by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Fewer than 6 percent of the county's residents are Black. And, the most common "strike" is second-degree robbery, a crime that involves no actual weapon and no injuries.

Does this mean that African Americans are committing more crimes than white people?


According to a 2003 study by UW sociologist Professor Katherine Beckett, all of the available evidence indicates that the majority of those who deliver serious drugs (cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, and ecstasy) in Seattle are white, and that a much smaller percentage of those who do so are Black. And yet, according to Seattle Police Department arrest records, 62.6% percent of those arrested for this crime from January 1999-April 2001 were Black; only 19% of those arrested for delivery of serious drugs were white. Seattle was just 8.3% Black according to the 2000 census. Professor Beckett's report clearly shows that Blacks are not arrested at these extremely high rates due to being over-represented among drug dealers or deliverers. Rather, the report demonstrates that police enforcement choices are responsible for the racial composition of those arrested for drug delivery.

According to George Bridges, a UW sociologist, no one may make a decision to focus arrests, prosecution or tough sentences on Blacks, but the results may exactly be that. Our Justice Works! Analysis of Racism in the Criminal Justice System as Experienced by African Americans provides specific examples of how the criminal justice system can legally be plied at every step of the criminal justice system to incarcerate more Blacks and to incarcerate them for longer sentences than whites. This document is available via email upon request.


Private Sector
UNTIL IT WAS FOUND TO BE UNCONSTITUTIONAL IN WASHINGTON STATE, private companies used prison labor and prison space and were called "Class 1: Free Venture Industries". These companies had a pool of prisoner workers with no labor unions, no strikes, no health benefits, and no unemployment insurance. They only needed to pay a wage of 75% of what is paid to "free" people. They avoided language problems and steep international shipping costs encountered with cheap overseas labor. The free industrial space was provided with vocational training and a program coordinator provided with taxpayer dollars. For example, MircoJet, a company that used prison labor at Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, got more than 11,000 square feet of industrial space rent-free. Many utilities were provided to MicroJet, free of charge or at discounted rates. The Department of Corrections (DOC) also provided security and a security orientation session. In 2001, according to Washington State Supreme Court Justice Bobbe Bridge, DOC actually enticed employers with the promise of lower overhead costs and a motivated and readily available work force. These prison workers were motivated because the only other pay options available to them are 42 cents per hour, to maintain the prison environment, and up to $1.10 per hour to produce products and services for the state. The exact wording used by the DOC to entice employers was as follows: "By employing highly motivated workers and lowering your overhead rate by operating within an institution, you make money. If you don't have your own manufacturing plant or are unhappy with an out-of-state or offshore supplier, you can lower your procurement costs and get better service by contracting with Correctional Industries." Justice Bridge also said that employers were also told that in addition to lowering their costs, they could potentially receive bid preferences on state contracts.


The following are some of the companies who have used or are currently using US prison slave labor; IBM, Motorola, Compaq, Texas Instruments, Honeywell, Microsoft, Boeing, Nordstrom (Oregon prisoners make clothing), Revlon and Pierre Cardin (Maryland prisoners). Other companies include MicroJet, Nike, Lockhart Technologies, United Vision Group, Chatleff Controls, Dell Computers, Eddie Bauer, Planet Hollywood, Redwood Outdoors, Wilson Sporting Goods, Union Bay, Elliott Bay, A&I Manufacturing, Washington Marketing Group, Omega Pacific, J.C. Penney, Best Western Hotels, Honda, K-Mart, Target, Kwalu, Inc. McDonalds, Hawaiian Tropical Products, Burger King, Imperial Palace Hotel, C.M.T. Blues, Konica, Allstate, Merrill Lynch, Shearson Lehman, Louisiana Pacific, Parke-Davis and Upjohn. Prisoners do data entry for Chevron, make telephone reservations for TWA, raise hogs, shovel manure, make circuit boards, furniture, limousines, waterbeds and lingerie for Victoria's Secret. And, all this labor is at a fraction of the normal cost. Are you surprised to see so many well known and big names on this list? If these corporations can increase their profits with prison labor, how would that motivate them to view the problem of "crime"? How much money do they spend to lobby for a "tough on crime" society? Fear sells.

Many people see the prison system as a source of income. Financially strapped rural communities often welcome prisons to boost their economies. Goods and services must be provided to keep imprisoned people alive. On a routine basis, prisoners are transported across state borders as they are transferred from one state or federal prison to another for financial reasons. Government contracts to build prisons have bolstered the construction industry. A major new niche for the architectural professionals is prison design. Prison construction bonds are profitable investments for companies like Merrill Lynch. Technology developed for military purposes by companies like Westinghouse are being marketed to the law enforcement and prison sectors. Telephone companies charge prisoner families extremely outrageous prices for the collect calls from prisoners trying to stay connected to their loved ones.

The prison commissary charges above normal retail price for all items sold to prisoners. Washington State prisoners are required to pay a monthly fee for cable television hookup, whether or not they have a television. If they are indigent, their debt simply grows.

Public Sector
In addition to for-profit businesses, many government agencies use cheap prison labor. As government officials feel the pressures of budget cuts and they see the possibilities of getting their work done with cheap prison labor, they also move towards supporting a "tough on crime" society. Prisoners can be paid up to $1.10 per hour for these jobs. State entities using prison labor for internal needs and interstate trade are called "Class 2: Tax Reduction" jobs. We know some people believe in reducing taxes no matter what the circumstances. This motivates these people to support the prison plantation.

Here are examples of government work being done by cheap prison slave labor. Schools throughout the world buy caps and gowns made by South Carolina prisoners. Government forms, furniture, uniforms, street signs, park equipment, license plates and tabs, and products sold by the state are produced by prisoners.

Class 3 jobs pay 42 cents an hour. These jobs include those where prisoners do the cooking, laundry and cleaning to maintain the labor force. These jobs are called "Class 3: Institutional Support" jobs.

Money is earned by the state in other ways besides jobs. The state charges prisoners 12% interest on their legal financial obligations (court costs, restitution, etc). That debt grows while they are locked up. Keep in mind that it is primarily the poor who are incarcerated. The system overwhelms these prisoners with obligations that are literally impossible to meet. Thus, they set people up for failure and promote future crimes committed in desperation. Ironically, the state fails to pay interest to prisoners on their personal saving account that is held by the state. Also, many people assume that prisoners have free access to basic items they need. Three meals a day, very basic clothing and a cell with a hard mattress, a desk and toilet are "free" to the prisoner. Otherwise, the prisoner must pay for toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo and all other personal care products. All stamps, pens, and writing paper must be purchased. Everything. Again, all items must be purchased at the commissary at a price above what it costs a free person. The recreational equipment is paid with money taken from prisoner wages and personal money sent by family and friends. No, prisoners don't live for free. That is a myth some people would like you to believe.

Some people are benefiting from the prison industrial complex or it wouldn't continue. The system targets the poor and people of color. Desperation and defiance are the primary causes of crime. The current criminal justice system creates high levels of desperation and defiance and therefore contributes to crime.

We believe that basic necessities such as food, shelter, and education are what make communities safe. We believe that all people need to be treated with respect and dignity. We see that the crimes against humanity that previously took the form of slavery and Jim Crow laws are currently being replaced with the modern day institutional racism against African Americans in the form of the prison slave plantation.

While big business profits from the punishment industry, taxpayers lose. It costs approximately $27,000 per year to house one prisoner. According to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, the cost of the criminal justice system to Washington taxpayers has nearly doubled in the last two decades. The average Washington household spends $1,062 in taxes per year on the criminal justice system. The main factor driving this spending has been the increased use of incarceration in county jails and state prisons. Also, during the 1990's the economic bottom line for increasing the incarceration rate for drug offenders turned negative. It now costs taxpayers more to incarcerate additional drug offenders than the average value of the crimes avoided. But they are still locking people up for drug offenses at very high rates. Why? Prison slave labor?

As budgets succumb to the pressures to increase money spent on the criminal justice system, other government programs created to support social challenges, such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, are moved out. The public schools, especially those in the poorest communities, suffer. Childcare, youth programs, elder care, low-income housing, arts and recreational programs suffer.

By targeting Blacks and then labeling them as "felons" unfit for employment when they are released, the prison system supports the racism of the economy and all the other institutional racist structures in this country. Claims of low unemployment ignore the huge numbers of people who have been removed from their communities and are hidden behind prison walls. Not allowing people convicted of drug delivery access to public housing cries foul when considering the huge injustices done by the Seattle Police Department as spelled out by Professor Beckett. Again, if the system is set up to cause people to fail, it is set up to perpetuate the prison slave plantation. Is that extreme or inflammatory or is it simply the way it is?

Prison is not the solution to problems associated with poverty. Prison labor disrespects the American worker. Homelessness, unemployment, addiction, illiteracy and mental illness are social problems that cannot be solved by putting people behind walls and wire. We can do better than that and we must do better! Justice Works! when its principles are not compromised.


  1. Source documents for these figures come from the following documents:
    Prisoners in 2005; US Department of Justice Prison Statistics, Summary Findings, 2006; Number of Adults in the Correctional Population, 2005, Probation and Parole in the United States, 2005; Prison and Jail Inmates at midyear 2006, Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2005.

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That's the conclusion I reach after seeing this information and really thinking about it.

8212 would give some prisoners work experience and a little more pay -- would help some companies.  Those are good things.

But relatively few prisoners would benefit.  Not enough to overcome the fact that this measure would help perpetuate the inhumane and corrupting monstrosity in the middle of our society -- a prison system that locks up a substantial portion of the population -- and does so way disproportionately by color.  

If prisoners need more work experience -- let's provide it in some way that lessens, not increases, the motivation to incarcerate people unnecessarily.

by noemie maxwell on Sat Oct 20, 2007 at 12:52:06 PM PST

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The Prison-Industrial-Complex already realizes large profits from incarceration.  There is too much profit from the incarceration of human beings.

The private prisons that are renting bed space for Washington's incarcerated are profit-making organizations.  Since the justification of imprisonment is to protect society from crime, this can only be achieved if the incarcerated are returned to society as law abiding and self supporting people.

 Just how much rehabilitation is present when more crime equates with more profit.

by Shirley White on Tue Oct 23, 2007 at 03:01:43 PM PST

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It is extremely cynical to believe that we are running state prisons to benefit corporations. Rather, it is because of the sentencing laws and fear of crime, mostly passed or pushed by Republicans, or by Democrats in shaky districts, before the large majorities we have today. Remember when Frank Chopp was "co-Speaker of the House"?  All the "three strikes" and "soft on crime" stuff is what is filling our prisons. We do have power to shape the political conversation on this issue, and we should.

I support and agree with the impact of your data. Too bad it doesn't support your conclusion, to oppose prison labor of any sort. What's worse, it distracts from the reforms that you are working for, which I support and admire.

I started this thread on the PDCW listserv because I had no answer for the 46th endorsement meeting in September. Since then, I asked Alice Woldt, who asked her husband, who asked the prisoners at Monroe.  They said (paraphrasing), the bill is imperfect, but it's better for us to have work than not, and to be bored. That carries a lot of weight with me. ("Nothing about us without us!" said the advocated-for to the advocates.)

Second, as a journalist by training, I cannot abide when people misuse and, yes, abuse the language. The widespread use of the word "abuse" is one example, when used to apply to almost anything you dislike.  While there is lots wrong with the prison labor system, it is not slave labor. It doesn't fit that definition because it is 1) paid and 2) voluntary.  So find another term.  Prison labor does it for me.  I get it.

Third, while corprate profit is obviously a motive, as it is for almost everything corporations are involved in these days, that doesn't exclude benefit to prisoners.  Why must we be so black and white?

Fourth, the vast majority of prisoners are non-violent. The majority are there for drug crimes (75% to 80% for crimes related to their addiction). If we provided alternative sentencing (community service/restitution/obtain GED/probation/house arrest/clean urine tests/drug court) for all non-violent drug offenders (who are mostly guilty of a medical condition called addiction), we could stop building new prisons today.

I call on everyone reading this to add Ending the War on Drugs to your list of must-haves to request from all public officials. Many would do so, privately, but are afraid to say so publicly.  They need our support. That means not sentencing non-violent drug offenders to jail or prison, eliminating the crack cocaine differential that leads to so much more time for African American males, and fully funding drug treatment (now at less than 50% of the need), especially residential treatment, to remove people from the streets.  Watch our car prowls, burglaries and branch bank robberies go down if we do this!

Fifth, I heard today on the news that some prisoners from California have received training and are fighting the wildfires for $1 per hour. Obviously, they volunteered.  Obviously, we would like them to be paid more. Is it fair to deduct their room, board and supervision? Many people think so. But again, it is voluntary, gives them a skill, and restores their self-worth. We couldn't possibly prefer that they sit and rot.

In my experience, the "both/and" position is likely to be closer to the truth than the "either/or." Prison labor isn't all bad.

Together with Ivan, I urge your support for this constitutional amendment, which received the unanimous vote of the Senate, and an 83-15 majority of the House.

"The arm of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." --Martin Luther King, Jr.

by Sarajane46th on Sun Oct 28, 2007 at 06:18:15 PM PST

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The data presented provides very  useful background on our States' overpopulated,racially scewed, and growing prison complex. However the use of "Slave Labor" and the linking of Prison Labor (Correctonal Industries) as a driving force to prison expansion is a stretch. As one who has volunteered "inside" and served for 6 years on Washington State Correctional Industries Advisory Board, I have heard the benefit side of jobs from inmates, and heard their complaints about not enough job opportunities. I have seen private industry supervisors take a personal interest in helping inmates (male and female) get excited about learning skills and stepping up to the challenge of producing quality products.
SJR 8212 removes an old Washington State Constitution provision that protected inmates from labor abuses by the old-time Warden Czars. Todays Prison Industries in our State are closely monitored and controlled by the Legislature and the C.I. Board made up of representatives from labor, the legislature, business, and general public. Eliminating industry jobs inside to somehow squeeze DOC is like international sanctions or blockades which ultimately cause suffering by those who have no control over the situation.
If our concern is for those locked up, let's put the energy into sentencing issues which are the root of the problem, and allow some rehabilitation through job skills transfer to continue.
Jack R

by Jack R on Thu Nov 01, 2007 at 11:04:35 PM PST

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Another observation is slavery is more common when the labor dome is relatively simple and thus easy to supervise, such as large scale growing of a single crop. It is much more difficult and doing their best and with good quality when they are doing complex tasks. You may not have heard of DebtSki. DebtSki sounds like a pejorative nickname applied to an expensive personal watercraft, but it is an online video game wherein the player guides a pig on a jet ski (okay, a personal water craft is involved) through a field of income and expenditures. You try to make only the necessary expenditures and avoid the rest.  You even set the income level. It's a great way to think about credit and spending. The game is on InDebtEd, a website devoted to debt education, where you can learn about debt, credit cards, and personal loans while playing DebtSki.

by JadenCeleste on Thu May 07, 2009 at 09:55:45 PM PST

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Most people believe that the 13th amendment abolished slavery. This is not correct. It actually legalized it. Consider the exact wording of the amendment. "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States". So, in order to be a slave in this country, you must be convicted of a crime. Slavery is legal in our country. Civil Engineering Notes

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