Prisoner Labor: A High-Growth Industry
November 20, 2003 8:42 PM   Subscribe

Looking for a job? Well, one of the hot temp agencies in the nation is FPI, Inc. Recruting from an active base of some 80,000 people across the nation, and enjoying exemption from competitive bidding (although reform is on the way), FPI produces garments and textile goods. In fact, it's the largest supplier of clothing and textiles for the U.S. government. Net sales for fiscal year 2001 were $583.5 million and, despite an economic shortfall, they rose to $678.7 million in 2002. What accounts for such an unlikely success? Well, the secret can be found in FPI's labor base. FPI only employs prisoners, paying them between $.23 and $1.15 an hour. Of course, with so many resumes to choose from, factory expansion and rising sales figures and profitability (PDF), who knows just how high PDI's lustre will soar?
posted by ed (11 comments total)
had my eye on this phenomenon for a while. it's fucking repugnant.
posted by quonsar at 11:00 PM on November 20, 2003

This is a great post which deserves far more commentary than it's getting. So:

Whoo Hoo! What a fucking brilliant strategy! The US counters the advantage China derives - by producing export goods by slave, prison labor - how?

Putting pressure on China to restrict the repugnant practice? putting those 2 million prisoners rotting in US jails to work to produce export goods for near-slave labor wages.

We could save a lot of money, in the process, by cutting back on their meals too. And if they keel over dead from starvation in the process, no biggie. We need to crack down on crime - we'll pass some more laws to ensure a fresh supply of new inmates. We can derive additional benefit by rendering down the bodies of the fallen inmates for use as dog food, soap, and fertilizer.

After all, we have to remain economically competitive.

/sarcastic, vitriol drenched hyperbole
posted by troutfishing at 8:06 AM on November 21, 2003

By the way, top manufacturing of textiles in the government includes all of the Kevlar helmets and fatigues for the Iraq thing.
posted by ed at 11:09 AM on November 21, 2003

ed - that makes my hyperbolic comparison to Nazi slave-labor industrial production seem a little more apt.

It's a difference in degree -and not in kind- in my opinion.
posted by troutfishing at 11:20 AM on November 21, 2003

Well, isn't there another side to this? I mean, if they didn't have prisoners making this stuff, they'd have to hire some of the umpteen thousand law-abiding jobless we've got sitting around.

I mean, competing against cheap foreign labor (that gets to live in a cheap foreign marketplace where a few hundred or a couple thousand a year can support a whole family) is bad enough, but how are job-seekers to compete against prisoners? They simply can't, since *their* room & board isn't taken care of by taxpayers.
posted by beth at 3:50 PM on November 21, 2003

Maine Prison Industries - are license plates (yep, really), wooden toys and furniture, and "apparel necessary for inmate wear" the same thing? I'm honestly not sure. I do know that the nice man who reupholstered my mother's sofa learned to do so at the Maine Correctional Center, and he says that had he not learned this trade, his life might be very different.

While I certainly see abuses in the links that ed posted, I find it hard to draw the conclusion that the issue is black and white.
posted by anastasiav at 4:46 PM on November 21, 2003

anastasiav raises a valid point that I hadn't considered...what about those programs where people are learning a trade that could prevent recitivism? But, while I support those programs...I think that's a whole different kettle of fish.

Nobody working in a textile mill is learning a usable skill. There are virtually no textile mills left in the United States. The only way to really stay employed in the textile industry is to stay incarcerated...cause the rest of them are closing their doors.

What I don't understand is why prisoners would be exempt from federal madates about minimum wages. To quote SouthPark "This here is a wookie...It don't make sense." They're still American citizens...why would the Labor laws not apply to them?

There's a lot about this whole thing I don't understand...why are prisoners taking jobs outside of the prison? If the textile mills exist within prisons, wouldn't the profit therefore be public property? It just doen't add up...
posted by dejah420 at 9:01 PM on November 21, 2003

dejah420: Valid points, and, despite the FPP's smarminess, points I'd hoped would be argued and discussed in this thread (apparently, without interest to most MeFites). On one hand, if a prisoner learns a valuable skill, a case could be made that this constitutes rehabiliation (much like anastasiav's reupholsterer) . On another hand, if the prisoner is having most of his wages taken away, and is not being paid a fair wage, a case can be made that this is exploitation or indeed slavery. And where do we draw the line between prison workers and utter servitude?

For the record, FPI is a corporation owned and operated by the United States government. But since FPI is a corporation kept largely under the radar of public information, where does it fit within the construct of the wonted criticism? Go to prison and you give up your right to vote. But, in the case of FPI, you also give up your right to minimum wage. The emphasis, of course, is on mass production at the cheapest price. Given the increasing prisoner count, and the fact that so much of government-issued clothing is reliant upon FPI, these things should be something to considered when contemplating globalization.
posted by ed at 10:41 PM on November 21, 2003

ed ( re "where do we draw the line between prison workers and utter servitude?" ) - Simple. That depends on whether or not the prisoners are learning a skill which can support them as a valid trade when they emerge from prison. ( anastasiav's point )

Textile assembly completely fails this test.

I think the question of how much they are paid - or whether they are paid at all - is less important than the caliber of the training they receive to do the in-prison work.

They should, however, also be paid.

dejah420 ( "What I don't understand is why prisoners would be exempt from federal madates about minimum wages." ) - well, prisoners in the US quite often, and in numerous ways, are treated as subhuman. This is no different. That doesn't address your question except to observe that the issue is part of a broader cultural pattern of beliefs about how those convicted of crimes in the US should forfeit certain human rights which are otherwise taken for granted.
posted by troutfishing at 8:08 AM on November 22, 2003

Textile assembly completely fails this test.

I wouldn't swear to that, even. Here in Maine, at least, I can think of about six large companies (formerly seven, but Hathaway shirt is now gone) who would employ people who have just such as skill. Operating an industrial sewing machine is no easy task, and I'm sure that (provided the workplace follows other US employment guidelines - no sure bet considering the minimum wage thing) working in such a setting teaches at least some inmates other valuable skills that will increase their chances of getting some kind of job on the outside.

Truthfully, there are far more jobs for textile assembly, at least here, than there are for guys who can reupholster your sofa.

Which is not, again, to say that I think that FPI is a stellar organization. But I agree with this "I think the question of how much they are paid - or whether they are paid at all - is less important than the caliber of the training they receive to do the in-prison work. -- working, even doing piecework, for someone who has never held down a steady job, is an education. If the facilities can make it a useful education and keep their own costs down (see making the clothes the inmates wear, for example), then I still contend that each program would need to be evaluated on a case by case basis.
posted by anastasiav at 10:13 PM on November 23, 2003

anastasiav - OK. I guess if Maine becomes poor enough, textile manufacturers will actually move back!
posted by troutfishing at 1:39 PM on November 24, 2003

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