“Made in the USA” can mean several things. To some, it means supporting American industries and the American economy. To others, it means that the product was not made under unethical conditions overseas. It can be a marketing strategy. It can also mean “Made in Prison.”
I recently read an essay written by a woman incarcerated in California titled “Reclaiming the Red, White, and Blue.” It was a reflection on citizenship, patriotism, and freedom—complicated enough subjects for most incarcerated people, but further complicated for Beverly due to her job in prison. “Like Betsy Ross, I sew American flags,” Beverly begins, “but I do my work for 55 cents an hour in an assembly line in the Central California Women’s Facility, one of the largest Women’s prisons in the world.” These flags are labeled “Made in the USA,” and are sold in the free world to be hung everywhere from classrooms to government buildings. “We, as Americans, pledge allegiance to a flag I sew,” Beverly writes, “dedicating ourselves to ‘one nation, under god, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.'”
Beverly is not the only incarcerated person who sews American flags. In Maryland, for example, recently passed legislation requires that all American flags flown at state agencies be manufactured within American borders. This, apparently, means that flags are now manufactured in prison: “As of Oct. 1, 2009, all flags in the Maryland State House must be made in the ‘Land of the Free’—a certain boon to one of the state’s proud and profitable prison industries,” one Fox News article begins. American flags flown at state agencies in Maryland are now manufactured in a women’s prison in the state.
Flags are not the only things manufactured in prisons. Victoria’s Secret, JCPenney, Starbucks, Walmart, and Kmart all use prison labor to manufacture goods. People in prison create beef patties for McDonald’s and Wendy’s, and Whole Foods purchases fish and cheese from farms that use cheap prison labor. Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T all use prison labor in their call centers. These companies contract prison labor through corporations like UNICOR (aka Federal Prison Industries), a corporation that hires people in prison mostly for manufacturing jobs. UNICOR reported $472 million in net sales last year.
As I write this, many of the 2.2 million incarcerated people in this country are working for cents or dollars a day. Incarcerated people in state and federal prisons earn between 20 cents and $1.15 per hour. But approximately 80% of pay is withheld for “restitution,” and as a result, the average salary for an incarcerated person is 18 cents per hour. People in prison in Alabama, Georgia, and Texas work for no pay at all. Most incarcerated people work daily upkeep jobs in the prisons they are incarcerated in—janitorial work, kitchen duty, filing papers, electric and building maintenance, and more. But roughly 60,000 incarcerated people work for corporations like UNICOR.
The first time I visited the UNICOR website, I was greeted with a photo montage with captions like “Second Chances,” “The Lives We Touch,” “80 Years of New Beginnings,” and “Made in America.” UNICOR does not only facilitate prison labor for other companies—they also use prison labor to manufacture goods that they sell directly. Go onto UNICOR’s website and you, too, can purchase body armor, security cameras, military helmets, parachutes, apparel, plastic cutlery, garbage bins, road signs, furniture, license plates, eyeglasses, and much more, all manufactured by people in prison.
UNICOR may have reported $472 million in net sales last year, but their public face is based on the premise that they are rebuilding lives and reforming people in prison by giving them marketable skills that will be useful upon release. How is working on an assembly line a life skill that opens doors? We know that the alternative for cheap labor in prisons is usually cheap labor overseas. With this in mind, how do these skills provide job opportunities upon reentry when similar jobs in the free world are few and far between? Most of all, in an America where many people, formerly incarcerated or not, are struggling to survive off of minimum wage jobs, how can we pretend that the opportunity to work a minimum wage job creates meaningful opportunity? Companies like Starbucks and McDonald’s do not contract prison labor because they want to provide people in prison with “second chances”: they contract prison labor because it is cheap.
After a little bit more digging on the UNICOR website, I found a report of the history of UNICOR, titled “Factories with Fences: 75 Years of Changing Lives.” Among other things, the report tracks the rise of prison labor in America. As I scrolled through the pages, something stopped me: two photos, clearly quite old, of a chain gang made up entirely by black men. The text accompanying the photos explained that they were taken after the civil war, when private companies ran many prisons for easy employment and “petty crimes, public drunkenness, and other misdemeanors would often result to sentencing in a road gang.” The report was describing convict leasing, a practice that came to be after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, when people, many of whom were former slaves, were arrested for petty crimes, forced into prison labor, and effectively re-enslaved. It was a practice that negated the abolishment of slavery and allowed private companies to profit off of it.
UNICOR was not condoning convict leasing, but they included it in the report as a sign of the way times have changed for the better. But how much is this truly the case? Private companies still run many prisons, and private corporations like UNICOR profit off of cheap prison labor. In the days of convict leasing, most work was performed outside on farms, railroads, and construction sites—jobs that, according to UNICOR, did not serve to properly reform incarcerated people. Today, many incarcerated people pave roads and farm just the same, and the rest work on assembly lines manufacturing goods. 60% of the US prison population is made up of people of color (compared to 30% of the US population), and 40% of the prison population is African-American. All of this amounts to the reality that this country is still profiting off of cheap labor by African-Americans and other people of color. Many people say that this country is still profiting off of enslaving black people.
Most everyone knows that the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery in the United States. But what most people do not know is that the Thirteenth Amendment has an exception. The text of the Thirteenth Amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Many prison-reform and abolition activists argue that the Thirteenth Amendment never stopped slavery—it only gave it a new form, allowed by that one clause: “except as a punishment for a crime.”
On September 9th, incarcerated people across the country banded together in a nationwide prison strike against prison labor conditions, what strike organizers call “prison slavery.” According to strike organizers, as reported by The Marshall Project, more than 24,000 incarcerated people in at least twelve states did not report to work that day. The strike continued through the rest of September. To these people, convict leasing has only taken a new form. They feel that they are slaves of the state, just like those who worked on chain gangs after the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, and those who worked on plantations before it.
This is our America: a country where millions of people work in factories with fences and schoolchildren pledge allegiance to a flag that was made in the least free place of all. How do I feel that the cup my friend is drinking her Starbucks latte out of the bra that I am wearing as I write this may have been made by a person in prison? I am angry, I am frustrated, and I am disillusioned. But is that enough?
America has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Over 80,000 people on any given day are being kept in solitary confinement—a practice that the United Nations has deemed torture. 2,905 people are on Death Row. At least 40,000 people are in private prisons. And the prison system is a bastion for cheap labor. What do we do with this information? With the knowledge that many of the things we come into contact with every day, from furniture to clothing to garbage cans, may have been made in prison?
It is time to face the reality that our country is studded with factories surrounded by fences and that millions of people are steeped in the same unethical labor conditions that we are concerned about overseas. We need to face the reality that when we call our cell phone company, the person on the other end of the line may be wearing a khaki jumpsuit. When we buy a cup of coffee, or blue jeans, or groceries, the people responsible for the work that went into those things may be people we have relegated from our society. When we buy something labeled “Made in the USA,” that does not always mean it was made in the Land of the Free.
At the end of her essay, Beverly says it best: “Betsy Ross, who was born on Jan. 1, 1752, sewed a flag that represented a vision of an equal and just society…To honor this flag…we must make America a country where all people can thrive.”