Prison Labor: Exposed

From Starbucks to Microsoft: a sampling of what US inmates make, and for whom

prison labor

Tens of thousands of US inmates are paid from pennies to minimum wage—minus fines and victim compensation—for everything from grunt work to firefighting to specialized labor.

The breaded chicken patty your child bites into at school may have been made by a worker earning twenty cents an hour, not in a faraway country, but by a member of an invisible American workforce: prisoners. At the Union Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Florida, inmates from a nearby lower-security prison manufacture tons of processed beef, chicken and pork for Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises (PRIDE), a privately held non-profit corporation that operates the state’s forty-one work programs. In addition to processed food, PRIDE’s website reveals an array of products for sale through contracts with private companies, from eyeglasses to office furniture, to be shipped from a distribution center in Florida to businesses across the US. PRIDE boasts that its work programs are “designed to provide vocational training, to improve prison security, to reduce the cost of state government, and to promote the rehabilitation of the state inmates.”

And Each month, California inmates process more than 680,000 pounds of beef, 400,000 pounds of chicken products, 450,000 gallons of milk, 280,000 loaves of bread, and 2.9 million eggs (from 160,000 inmate-raised hens). Starbucks subcontractor Signature Packaging Solutions has hired Washington prisoners to package holiday coffees (as well as Nintendo Game Boys). Confronted by a reporter in 2001, a Starbucks rep called the setup “entirely consistent with our mission statement.”

Texas inmates produce brooms and brushes, bedding and mattresses, toilets, sinks, showers, and bullwhips.

In Texas, prisoners make officers’ duty belts, handcuff cases, and prison-cell accessories. California convicts make gun containers, creepers (to peek under vehicles), and human-silhouette targets.

A stitch in time: California inmates sew their own garb. In the 1990s, subcontractor Third Generation hired 35 female South Carolina inmates to sew lingerie and leisure wear for Victoria’s Secret and JCPenney. In 1997, a California prison put two men in solitary for telling journalists they were ordered to replace “Made in Honduras” labels on garments with “Made in the usa.”

Open wide: At California’s prison dental laboratory, inmates produce a complete prosthesis selection, including custom trays, try-ins, bite blocks, and dentures.

Constructive criticism: Prisoners in for burglary, battery, drug and gun charges, and escape helped build a Wal-Mart distribution center in Wisconsin in 2005, until community uproar halted the program. (Company policy says, “Forced or prison labor will not be tolerated by Wal-Mart.”)

On call: Its inmate call centers are the “best kept secret in outsourcing,” Unicor boasts. In 1994, a contractor for gop congressional hopeful Jack Metcalf hired Washington state prisoners to call and remind voters he was pro-death penalty. Metcalf, who prevailed, said he never knew.

Federal Prison Industries, a.k.a. Unicor, says that in addition to soldiers’ uniforms, bedding, shoes, helmets, and flak vests, inmates have “produced missile cables (including those used on the Patriot missiles during the Gulf War)” and “wiring harnesses for jets and tanks.” In 1997, according to Prison Legal News, Boeing subcontractor MicroJet had prisoners cutting airplane components, paying $7 an hour for work that paid union wages of $30 on the outside.

prison labor3

Fidelity Investments (Fidelity). This “financial investment” corporation is involved in holding the retirement and 401(k) accounts of millions of Americans. Many of the largest companies in our country offer Fidelity Investments as the sole source of retirement investing for their employees.

Fidelity was previously identified as a funder of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in an earlir Insourcing blog. ALEC is deeply invested in supporting Corrections Corporation of American (CCA) and Geo Group (Geo) – that are both corporate members of ALEC. ALEC has willingly accepted responsibility for enactment of laws authorizing and increasing the use of inmates in manufacturing of products as well as the housing of those inmates by private corporations such as CCA and Geo.

Unfortunately if your retirement savings, 401(K) or other investments are held by Fidelity, chances are some of your money is invested by Fidelity in either the use of prison labor or in other operations related to the prison industrial complex (PIC).

McDonald’s too, although they are not “directly” using inmate labor in their food service operations, they are dependent upon the use of inmate labor to reduce costs associated with those operations. The way they do this is by contracting to purchase their uniforms and some of the plastic utensils provided to customers from a company using inmate labor to make those uniforms and utensils. The uniforms are made by Oregon Inmates. Wendy’s has also been identified as relying upon prison labor to reduce their cost of operations – and they fund ALEC.

Two other U.S. companies relying upon prison labor for products sold in their stores are K-Mart and J.C. Penny. Both sell Jeans made by inmates in Tennessee prisons. The same prison in Tennessee provides labor for Eddie Bauer’s wooden rocking horses.


What about services such as Insurance? Banking? Utilities – gas, oil, electricity? Prescription drugs? Are all of these services or commodities tied to prison labor and the PIC? Unfortunately, yes. Many insurance companies are tied to ALEC…as are corporations involving utilities provided to you in your city or town. To name jut a few brand names you’ll recognize that are invested in prison labor or PIC through ALEC are:


BANKS: American General Financial Group, American Express Company, Bank of America, Community Financial Services Corporation, Credit Card Coalition, Credit Union National Association, Inc., Fidelity Inestments, Harris Trust & Savings Bank, Household International, LaSalle National Bank, J.P. Morgan & Company, Non-Bank Funds Transmitters Group

ENERGY PRODUCERS/OIL: American Petroleum Institute, Amoco Corporation, ARCO, BP America, Inc., Caltex Petroleum, Chevron Corporation, ExxonMobil Corporation, Mobil Oil Corporation, Phillips Petroleum Company.

ENERGY PRODUCERS/UTILITIES: American Electric Power Association, American Gas Association, Center for Energy and Economic Development, Commonwealth Edison Company, Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc., Edison Electric Institute, Independent Power Producers of New York, Koch Industries, Inc., Mid-American Energy Company, Natural Gas Supply Association, PG&E Corporation/PG&E National Energy Group, U.S. Generating Company.

INSURANCE: Alliance of American Insurers, Allstate Insurance Company, American Council of Life Insurance, American Insurance Association, Blue Cross and Blue Shield Corporation, Coalition for Asbestos Justice, (This organization was formed in October 2000 to explore new judicial approaches to asbestos litigation.” Its members include ACE-USA, Chubb & Son, CNA service mark companies, Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company, Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc., Kemper Insurance Companies, Liberty Mutual Insurance Group, and St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company. Counsel to the coalition is Victor E. Schwartz of the law firm of Crowell & Moring in Washington, D.C., a longtime ALEC ally.)
Fortis Health, GEICO, Golden Rule Insurance Company, Guarantee Trust Life Insurance, MEGA Life and Health Insurance Company, National Association of Independent Insurers, Nationwide Insurance/National Financial, State Farm Insurance Companies, Wausau Insurance Companies, Zurich Insurance.

PHARMACEUTICALS: Abbott Laboratories, Aventis Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Bayer Corporation, Eli Lilly & Company, GlaxoSmithKline, Glaxo Wellcome, Inc., Hoffman-LaRoche, Inc., Merck & Company, Inc., Pfizer, Inc., Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of
America (PhRMA), Pharmacia Corporation, Rhone-Poulenc Rorer, Inc., Schering-Plough Corporation, Smith, Kline & French, WYETH, a division of American Home Products Corporation.

MANUFACTURING:American Plastics Council, Archer Daniels Midland Corporation, AutoZone, Inc. (aftermarket automotive parts), Cargill, Inc., Caterpillar, Inc., Chlorine Chemistry Council, Deere & Company, Fruit of the Loom, Grocery Manufacturers of America, Inland Steel Industries, Inc., International Game Technology, International Paper, Johnson & Johnson, Keystone Automotive Industries, Motorola, Inc., Procter & Gamble, Sara Lee Corporation.

TELECOMMUNICATIONS: AT&T, Ameritech, BellSouth Telecommunications, Inc., GTE Corporation, MCI, National Cable and Telecommunications Association, SBC Communications, Inc., Sprint, UST Public Affairs, Inc., Verizon Communications, Inc.

TRANSPORTATION: Air Transport Association of America, American Trucking Association, The Boeing Company, United Airlines, United Parcel Service (UPS).

OTHER U.S. COMPANIES: Amway Corporation, Cabot Sedgewick, Cendant Corporation, Corrections Corporation of America, Dresser Industries, Federated Department Stores, International Gold Corporation, Mary Kay Cosmetics, Microsoft Corporation, Newmont Mining Corporation, Quaker Oats, Sears, Roebuck & Company, Service Corporation International, Taxpayers Network, Inc., Turner Construction, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

ORGANIZATIONS/ASSOCIATIONS: Adolph Coors Foundation, Ameritech Foundation, Bell & Howell Foundation, Carthage Foundation, Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, ELW Foundation, Grocery Manufacturers of America, Heartland Institute of Chicago, The Heritage Foundation, Iowans for Tax Relief, Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee, National Pork Producers Association, National Rifle Association, Olin Foundation, Roe Foundation, Scaiffe Foundation, Shell Oil Company Foundation, Smith Richardson Foundation, Steel Recycling Institute, Tax Education Support Organization, Texas Educational Foundation, UPS Foundation.

As the foregoing illustrates, many U.S. companies and corporations not only fund ALEC’s activities regarding prison labor and PIC, they have foundations that also contribute handsomely to ALEC. Many are represented upon ALEC”s Private Enterprise Board.

Info from:



36 thoughts on “Prison Labor: Exposed

  1. This would explain where some of the factory jobs have gone. If you want to be a real solution buy using the label fair trade. Double check the companies you purchase from and buy from local retailers. Best of all learn how to make things for yourself. This is a better solution then prisoners sitting around doing nothing. This teaches new skills and learning develops the mind into being non violent. I read about Prisoners growing food from gardens and I see nothing wrong with that. Prisons take up a lot of space might as well utilize the land. Growing food is a great business to get into after a sentence is over. Not all of it is good not all of it is bad. Actual slavery involves forced labor without payment. This is forced labor but there is payment. In the history books slaves often went very hungry and worked extremely long hours with regular beatings. This is not the case in Prison. They do receive reading material, meals, a warm place to sleep, and medical care.


  2. Pingback: Prisons, Slavery, Prison Products, and Me — and You? | Exopermaculture
  3. Love seeing this. I cover this subject in my final book in Little’s Toolbox, Endless Letter. Not a subject currently being viewed in the harsh light of day. Not yet anyway.


  4. Reblogged this on Sarvodaya and commented:
    I expect nothing less from an increasingly privatized and profit-making industry. Indeed, we shouldn’t even be speaking of a prison industry in the first place.


  5. Think outside tha box folkz. Now tha government iz basically doing what day lobour companies are doing. Tha company getz say 12.50 per hour and then they pay tha worker 7.50 per hour that iz how they make money. And u can best believe that tha government iz doing tha same thing except when it comez to prisonerz they are nothing more than slavez and are treated az such. Ck amerika’z history and slavery.


  6. I am just disgusted thoroughly with this country. It is slave labor and slavery was abolished! This is wrong on every level and whether they are prisoners or not does not make a difference. Now they are not human beings anymore because they committed a crime (most of them are nonviolent offenders that have caused no harm to anyone but themselves) Goodbye Starbucks, it is has been nice, If anyone continues to support these companies after having this information then you are supporting slavery.


  7. Jails throughout the US are becoming “privatized” businesses. A fantastic idea to some, but to many being railroaded and locked up for minor offenses, held in jail to await a trial this practice needs to be scrutinized for exactly what it is, slavery. Businesses profiting off of this ought to be boycotted and legislation enlisted to end this before it becomes more out of hand. The statistics say that 1 out of 3 American men will be incarcerated at some point in their life and other statistics I find extremely disturbing .


  8. According to , it costs 26K per year per inmate to house prisoners in the US. That’s 1.5 times what someone can earn while working (the highest possible) minimum wage, so based on that, I think it’s fair to say that if prison inmates work, a sizable portion of their income should go to paying for that cost. That does still raise questions of being forced to work for a living that they don’t pick, but, well, the idea of prison is that one serves time for a crime committed.
    BUT, as others have pointed out, it’s absolutely unconscionable that companies are able to use prison labor to increase profits- those companies should still have to pay minimum wage or above, even if that money goes into running the prison instead.


  9. Iam really surprised by the comments here- no one is saying prisoners should NOT work. Of course learning a trade and gaining skills is useful….but all of you are overlooking the BIG ISSUE here. That issue is these companies are NOT contracting prison labor out of the goodness of their hearts. its about the almighty dollar and profit. C’mon people…think outside the box and see what is really going on here!!


  10. I think it is a worthy program, let them work… they can’t have the money til they get out anyway…and it is a deterrant to get out with enough and find a job… better chance they can stay out of prison that way. We get twice that wage out here… I would rather they work then sit on their behinds.


  11. People want companies to bring stuff back to America, but given the cost savings of overseas this is the only way to make it work. Prisoners learn valuable skills or a trade for less because they are not paying anyone to teach them. They are also paying back FOR CRIMES THEY COMMITTED and I am a Felon on probation dealing with this. Make them work, bring back oversea outsourced jobs.


  12. People don’t actually think inmates should get regular pay for that, do they? How much will that cost the taxpayers? Figure in the costs to house, secure, feed, medically and mentally treat, clothe, etc, for all the inmates, and you have why those jobs aren’t paying what the non-criminal folks are making. We can barely afford the costs as they are. Those services they are performing (and the corporations buying) help fund the expenses of running those institutions, and many inmates are happy they get to earn something – especially since they don’t have to pay for their expenses like the rest of us out here.


  13. I have friends that have been unemployed for over 2 years. I show them this and they say “hell yeah, make em work!” They don’t see it as taking their jobs away. I have heard it said that America is losing the War On Drugs. Perhaps the War On Drugs is being fought for an entirely different reason. My question is how do we stop this? We can’t boycott everyone.


  14. Prison business is really booming, more so now I believe. Will you be doing an update anytime soon?? Many of us fully believe prison labor is yet another form of slave labor….what are your thoughts?


  15. Thanks so much for this informative expose – and for using my work to broaden attention to this issue. Today thousands of workers have lost jobs to prison labor and thousands more are in jeopardy due to prison industry operations. Congress recently authorized the federal Prison Industries (UNICOR) to expand operations under the Pie Program to open their facilities to private companies and use inmate labor for manufacturing for the private sector. Articles such as this go a long way in informing the public and stopping this terrible attack upon American workers and competing small businesses.


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