New US Prison Strike Takes us to the Dark Heart of Capitalism

One year ago the largest prison labour strike in US history took place. More than 24,000 prisoners across 29 prisons in 12 states protested against exploitation and inhumane conditions. It was timed to mark the anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising(1) of 46 years ago over prisoners' demands for better living conditions and political rights. Attica prisoners rioted and took control of the prison, taking 42 staff hostage. When the uprising was over, at least 43 people were dead, including ten prison staff, and 33 inmates.

One year on, another major prison strike is now spreading across the US and Canada which has entered into its second week. The strike began on August 21 and is set to last a total of 19 days. Naturally, it has been subjected to a media blackout by the mainstream media in the US; and reliable information about the progress of the strike is difficult to come by.

Prison reform advocacy groups liaising with strike organisers, have reported that protests had been confirmed in three states, with further unconfirmed reports emerging from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina as well as Washington State and up to Nova Scotia in Canada.

One of the intentions of the prisoners in the current dispute is to bring to public attention the spate of deaths in custody, which in some states has reached epidemic proportions. In Mississippi, 10 inmates(2) have died in their cells in the past three weeks alone, with no firm indication of the cause of their deaths.

In addition to concern over unexplained deaths of prison inmates, the strikers, led by a network of incarcerated activists who call themselves Jailhouse Lawyers Speak(3), have put out a set of 10 demands(4) to reform the US’s penal system, including more investment in rehabilitation services and better medical treatment for mentally-ill prisoners. High up on the list is an end to forced or underpaid labour that the protesters call a form of modern slavery.

Among the main tactics that are being deployed in the strike are a refusal to work, a boycott of purchases at prison commissaries, sit-ins and hunger strikes.

Filling the Prisons

In 2016 there were 2.29 million people in US prisons which is equivalent to 716 per 100 000 of the population. This is one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world. (In England and Wales the equivalent number is 144 per 100 000 of the population.) The vast majority of prisoners in the US are working class, and a disproportionate number of them are African-Americans and Hispanics. In states like Virginia and Oklahoma one in every 15 African American men(5) is put in prison. This is no accident since these groups predominantly come from some of the most deprived parts of towns and cities in the US. It is also no accident that the US bourgeoisie has been deliberately targeting these groups by passing draconian sentences on them in order to fill up the prisons. This policy accelerated in 1994 with the introduction of the “three-strikes law.”(6) These laws require a person guilty of committing both a severe violent felony and two other previous convictions to serve a mandatory life sentence in prison. In California, these convictions can even be minor and a prisoner is sentenced for life.

In this way, the US has been able to readily fill up its prisons with cheap labour and keep them filled. For example, from 1982 to 2000, California's prison population increased 500%. To accommodate this population growth, the state of California built 23 new prisons at a cost of $280 million to $350 million apiece.(7) California is by no means unique in showing such a phenomenal growth in prisons and prison populations. While California’s prisons are public and are financed by the Public Works Department and operated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; many other states encourage the building of private prisons. New Mexico incarcerates over 40% of its prison population in private facilities. Private prisons in the US incarcerated 128,063 people in 2016, representing 8.5% of the total state and federal prison population. Since 2000, the number of prisoners in private prisons has increased 47%.(8)

The United States Congress, influenced by enormous corporate lobbying, enacted the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Programme(9) in 1979, which permitted US companies to use prison labour. Coupled with the drastic increase in the prison population during this period, and particularly after 1994, profits for participating companies and revenue for the government and its private contractors soared. The Federal Bureau of Prisons now runs a programme called Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR)(10) that pays inmates under one dollar an hour. The programme generated $500m in sales in 2016 with very little of that cash being passed down to prison workers. California's prison labour programme produced some $232m in sales in 2017. Prison labour in the US is referred to as insourcing. Under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), employers receive a tax credit of $2,400 for every work-release inmate they employ as a reward for hiring “risky target groups.”

Your Favourite Brands

Prison labour is a billion-dollar industry, and the corporate beneficiaries of this slave labour include some of the largest corporations and most widely known brands. There are literally hundreds of corporations and firms that exploit prison labour. According to the Left Business Observer, the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, war supplies and other equipment.

Prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove assembly; 46% of body armour; 36% of home appliances; 30% of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21% of office furniture. Aeroplane parts, medical supplies and much more: prisoners are even raising guide dogs for blind people. While prison workers are generating huge amounts of surplus value, they only receive between 90 cents to $4 a day depending on the prison factory they are incarcerated in. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour which means prison labour is paid between 1/15th and 1/65th of the minimum wage. Below is a review of just some of the biggest US corporations that take advantage of this:

UNICOR manages 83 factories and more than 12,000 prison labourers who earn as little as 23 cents an hour working at call centres, manufacturing items such as military body armour. In 2013, federal inmates made $100m worth of military uniforms. UNICOR has also provided prison labour in the past to produce Patriot missile parts for defence contractors Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, and parts for others such as Boeing and General Dynamics.

Since 2011, Whole Foods has benefited from prison labour. This company, acquired by Amazon in 2016, purchases food from Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy and Quixotic Farming, two private vendors that use cheap prison labour to raise fish, produce milk and herd goats.

Walmart, one of the biggest retailers in the US uses prison inmates for manufacturing purposes. The company “hires” inmates to clean products of UPC bar codes so that products can be resold. The company has purchased produce from farms, where women prisoners face bad working conditions, inadequate medical care and very low pay. And Starbucks uses prison labour to cut costs as well. Starbucks’ subcontractor Signature Packaging Solutions hired Washington state prisoners to package holiday coffees.

McDonald’s uses prison labour to produce frozen foods and process beef for patties. Workers flipping burgers and frying French fries for minimum wage at McDonald's restaurants wear uniforms that were manufactured by prison labourers. Prisoners also process bread, milk and chicken products for McDonald’s. McDonald’s rival Wendy’s has also been identified as relying on prison labour to reduce its cost of operations.

Sprint, the telecoms company uses prison Inmates to provide telecommunication services by using them in call centres and Verizon, another telecoms company, does the same thing. While American Airlines and the car rental company Avis use inmates to take reservations.

Victoria’s Secret uses prison labour to cut production costs. In South Carolina, female inmates were used to sew products. Prison workers reportedly have also been used to replace “made in” tags with “Made in USA” tags! While, Kmart and J.C. Penney both sell jeans made by inmates in Tennessee prisons.

Some proportion of pension and other investments owned by the US public are invested by Fidelity Investments in prison labour or in other operations related to the prison industrial complex. The investment firm funds the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has created laws authorizing and increasing the use of prison inmates in manufacturing.

Making America Great Again

One way of trying to “make America great again” has been to ensure wages are suppressed in the US to the point where production becomes profitable again for the US bourgeoisie. Median real wage growth in the US was stagnating before the global financial crisis but has gone down even more since then, so that average wages in the US are lower than they were ten years ago. Prison labour has been an important source of very cheap labour and a means of suppressing wages. Prisoners are not only cheap labour, they are also easier to control. Companies are free to avoid providing benefits like health insurance or sick pay. They don’t need to worry about demands for paid leave, wage rises or family issues. In principle use of prison labour is not very different from Stalin’s gulags. Of course, this cannot be admitted because the US pretends it is the great defender of human rights, American values and so on. The Federal Prisons Industry Inc. actually advertises its services as “bringing jobs back to America” with long lists of services the prisoners can perform which can feed into other US industries. They do not say they are bringing the jobs back for US prisoners and so reducing wages of “free” workers.(11)

It comes as no surprise that “making America great again” also involves the use of foreign prison labour in countries where conditions are even worse than in the US prisons. China uses prison labour to make commodities a lot of which are directly exported to the US or form parts of products exported to the US. According to research by the Financial Times, China, which has a prison population of 2.3 million, virtually the same as the US, is using prison labour to offset the reduced profitability of its manufactures caused by rising wages. This is more or less what the Federal Prisons Industry is arguing for its services in the US. Agricultural products such as garlic, consumption products such as handbags and assembly of wiring for industrial products are examples of the type of work carried out by Chinese prisoners. Although the US tries to disguise the fact that the work of prison labour is imported into the US this often cannot be concealed. A woman in Arizona, for example, found a note, written in Chinese, hidden in a handbag she bought from Walmart saying:

Prisoners in the Yingshan Prison in Guangxi are working 14 hours every day. Whoever does not finish his work will be beaten…being a prisoner in China is worse than being a dog in the US

The prisoner obviously realised his work was going to the US but clearly has no idea that US prisoners are in a similar condition. Another prisoner who had been in Tonghua prison in Jilin province told the FT:

We often needed to work from five in the morning to nine at night so the prison is able to make more money.

A spokesman for China Labour Watch Mr Li states that in China:

Prisons are run like companies, with their own sales teams.(12)

This is exactly how US prisons are being run as shown by the Federal Prisons Industries website mentioned above.

But what lies behind the increased exploitation of the US and world labour force is the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Increasing the rate of exploitation, reductions in working benefits, reducing pensions, as well as simple wage cuts are all ways to offset the tendency of the rate of profit to fall in an attempt to make production profitable again. Of course the phenomenon of falling profit rates is not just a US one and the capitalist crisis is hitting the US’ rivals equally hard. The financial crash in 2008 was an indirect product of the fall in the rate of profit because firms have been reducing investment in production, because it is simply not profitable enough, and have been investing in speculation instead. And ten years since the last financial crash the global capitalist system now has ten times the debt it had when the system last collapsed to the tune of some $250 trillion!

The Trump administration clearly thinks continuing the exploitation of prison slave labour is the way to go. It has decided to reverse the Obama-era plan to phase out private prisons and enact new law-and-order policies to increase arrests and keep the prisons filled. This is an acknowledgement that in order to try to maintain profits the working class must be exploited even more ruthlessly. It will also increase opportunities for the US government’s corporate donors and lobbyists to profit from their many investments in mass incarceration.

In recent years there have been leftist campaigns to reform the prison system and end prison labour. But this is similar to other reformist campaigns such as calls to restore social housing. It is simply never going to happen under a capitalism that is now in its fifth decade of open crisis. Despite the assurances of left politicians like Bernie Sanders in the US and Corbyn in the UK that capitalism can be reformed, the system simply cannot afford to make any concessions. Sanders’ and Corbyn’s election promises will never be kept. There will be no free education in the US, just as there will be no scrapping of student debt in the UK, to take just a couple of examples.

Capitalism is in an advanced stage of its crisis. Short of a massive devaluation and destruction of capital, which has come about in the past through imperialist world war, the only other course open to it is ruthless exploitation of the working class. This means real cuts in wages, increases in the rate of exploitation, reductions in pension provision, cuts in social benefits, housing and healthcare, etc.

The only way the US and world working class can find a way out of their daily exploitation and, at the same time get rid of prison factories, is to put an end to wage labour, commodity production and the law of value. We can replace this rotten system, which cares only about profits with a world of “freely associated producers”. We need to recognise that capitalism is long past its sell by date. Let’s get rid of it and scrap the wages system at the same time!


29 August 2018

(1) For a previous comment on this see










(11) See Federal Prisons Industries website

(12) Financial Times 31/08/2018

Monday, September 3, 2018


Excellent reporting. The war on drugs provided a way to fill the prisons with mostly minority cheap labour.

This slavery is an important piece in the jigsaw of how late capitalism is managing to keep going at the expense of the majority.

Recently the US stock market fuelled by easy low interest borrowing passed the milestone of longest bullrun in stock market history (time without a 20% or greater downturn) . Since March 9, 2009, the S&P 500 has risen by 323%, Nasdaq has risen 611% and the Dow Jones is up around 300%. this translates into a massive (18 trillion dollar) financial bonanza for the upper strata, as now only the richest 10% of Americans own 84% of all stocks. Then there are Trump's tax cuts for the high earners. Since the tax cuts passed, companies have been using buybacks to return record amounts of cash to shareholders — more than $700 billion in the first two quarters. And there is more to come on that front;

"Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo has another interview with President Trump dropping on Sunday - but in a tweet sent Friday afternoon, she revealed that the president told her he's working on "Phase 2" of his tax-cut plan.

"Phase Two" - which Trump first hinted at shortly after passing "Phase One" back in December - will include another cut to the corporate rate, bringing it down to the 20%-21% area, according to the president.

Trump added that the second tax overhaul will "probably be in October, maybe a little sooner" - meaning that Republicans will try to push it through before the midterms."

Wages are down and as a recent illustration of this tendency

"President Donald Trump told lawmakers on Thursday he wants to scrap a pay raise for civilian federal workers, saying the nation's budget couldn't support it.

In a letter to House and Senate leaders, Trump described the pay increase as "inappropriate."

"We must maintain efforts to put our Nation on a fiscally sustainable course, and Federal agency budgets cannot sustain such increases," the President wrote.

An across-the-board 2.1% pay increase for federal workers was slated to take effect in January. In addition, a yearly adjustment of paychecks based on the region of the country where a worker is posted -- the "locality pay increase" -- was due to take effect. Trump said both increases should no longer happen.

"I have determined that for 2019, both across the board pay increases and locality pay increases will be set at zero," he wrote.

And the debt goes up and up, more debt to pay debt, so much debt that will never be paid off.

The whole house of cards grows ever more fragile as it undermines the living standards of the majority, including the victims of the new plantation, prison labour, and syphons the wealth into the pockets of the elite. The question is whether this unsustainable process will result in social collapse, climate catastrophe, proliferation of military confrontations and even generalised imperialist war, or will the working class be able to reject the siren songs of the reformist left and the nationalist right and build the revolutionary alternative in the USA and everywhere as the same basic process, whatever the variables, of pauperisation of the majority and feeding the elite continues to gain momentum.

Thanks for all that Stevein. Very useful. If employment is as high as they say the labour market should be tight and wages should be going up. The opposite is happening. The employment statistics not only lie but don't give a true picture of the precariousness of everyone's job (since even those in regular work fear they will end up in the precariat). Only when fear turns to loathing will people stop clinging to reformist straws in the hope that things will get better somehow, some time.

The employment statistics not only lie but don't give a true picture.... "Americans may not be too surprised to learn that the 5.6 percent unemployment rate the U.S. Department of Labor is touting is entirely misleading. According to Gallup, the real unemployment rate is currently 12.6 percent." from And while we are here, may as well think about the UK employment fake as the US figures...

The headline unemployment figures are bad enough, but the true scale of joblessness is even worse. Over six million people are either out of work or under-employed. Tackling this crisis should be the government's number one priority

The ONS Labour Force Survey (LFS) currently places the total UK unemployed at 2.671 million from October to December last year, although at the time of the TUC release it was measured at 2.685 million for September to November 2011.

The TUC release itself outlines the details behind the claims. They claim that, while the UK simply measures 'unemployment' or the number of individuals claiming Jobseeker's Allowance (the 'Claimant Count'), the US compiles a 'U6' measure of unemployment which includes 'discouraged', 'marginally attached' and 'under-employed' workers.

By applying these additional criteria to the UK measure, the TUC find the figure of 6.337 million as the U6 unemployment rate for the UK."

Some of these sources are a little dated, but serve to illustrate the reality that the wonderful figures triumphantly announced by the bought and sold media are sugar coated turds.

USA - Unemployment, poor jobs, prison, debt for the majority, fabulous wealth for the elite, and the intermediate strata ever shrinking...

#1 78 million Americans are participating in the “gig economy” because full-time jobs just don’t pay enough to make ends meet these days.

#2 In 2011, the average home price was 3.56 times the average yearly salary in the United States. But by the time 2017 was finished, the average home price was 4.73 times the average yearly salary in the United States.

#3 In 1980, the average American worker’s debt was 1.96 times larger than his or her monthly salary. Today, that number has ballooned to 5.00.

#4 In the United States today, 66 percent of all jobs pay less than 20 dollars an hour.

#5 102 million working age Americans do not have a job right now. That number is higher than it was at any point during the last recession.

#6 Earnings for low-skill jobs have stayed very flat for the last 40 years.

#7 Americans have been spending more money than they make for 28 months in a row.

#8 In the United States today, the average young adult with student loan debt has a negative net worth.

#9 At this point, the average American household is nearly $140,000 in debt.

#10 Poverty rates in U.S. suburbs “have increased by 50 percent since 1990”.

#11 Almost 51 million U.S. households “can’t afford basics like rent and food”.

#12 The bottom 40 percent of all U.S. households bring home just 11.4 percent of all income.

#13 According to the Federal Reserve, 4 out of 10 Americans do not have enough money to cover an unexpected $400 expense without borrowing the money or selling something they own.

#14 22 percent of all Americans cannot pay all of their bills in a typical month.

All good stuff Stevein. Thanks.