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...as Western clothing brands have become increasingly sensitive to the conditions in their supply chains, Cambodia has set itself up as a “sweatshop-free” alternative to garment giants like China and Bangladesh.
But all this could be about to change. Human rights groups say the country’s hard-won reputation is on the line following the passage of a new law that legalizes the use of prison labor by private companies — including garment contractors.
As more and more programs for the poor are eliminated in America due to budget cuts, the only one left standing is the most expensive one of them all: prisons. Increasingly a privatized industry, prisons are also a growth industry in America, with a new prison opening every fifteen days over the last decade. Just in 2003, statistics from the Bureau of Justice recorded the building of prisons in America as costing $60 billion.
24 June 2011
Yesterday, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) released a report chronicling the political strategies of private prison companies "working to make money through harsh policies and longer sentences." The report's authors note that while the total number of people in prison increased less than 16 percent, the number of people held in private federal and state facilities increased by 120 and 33 percent, correspondingly. Government spending on corrections has soared since 1997 by 72 percent, up to $74 billion in 2007. And the private prison industry has raked in tremendous profits. Last year the two largest private prison companies — Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group — made over $2.9 billion in revenue.
JPI claims the private industry hasn't merely responded to the nation's incarceration woes, it has actively sought to create the market conditions (ie more prisoners) necessary to expand its business.
According to JPI, the private prison industry uses three strategies to influence public policy: lobbying, direct campaign contributions, and networking. The three main companies have contributed $835,514 to federal candidates and over $6 million to state politicians. They have also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on direct lobbying efforts. CCA has spent over $900,000 on federal lobbying and GEO spent anywhere from $120,000 to $199,992 in Florida alone during a short three-month span this year. Meanwhile, "the relationship between government officials and private prison companies has been part of the fabric of the industry from the start," notes the report. The cofounder of CCA himself used to be the chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party.
The impact that the private prison industry has had is hard to deny. In Arizona, 30 of the 36 legislators who co-sponsored the state's controversial immigration law that would undoubtedly put more immigrants behind bars received campaign contributions from private prison lobbyists or companies. Private prison businesses been involved in lobbying efforts related to a bill in Florida that would require privatizing all of the prisons in South Florida and have been heavily involved in appropriations bills on the federal level.
Tracy Velázquez, executive director of JPI recommends that we "take a hard look at what the cost of this influence is, both to taxpayers and to the community as a whole, in terms of the policies being lobbied for and the outcomes for people put in private prisons."
March 8, 2011 (full of links/citations)
This spring, the United Arab Emirates is expected to close a deal for $7 billion dollars’ worth of American arms. Nearly half of the cash will be spent on Patriot missiles, which cost as much as $5.9 million apiece.
But what makes those eye-popping sums even more shocking is that some of the workers manufacturing parts for those Patriot missiles are prisoners, earning as little as 23 cents an hour. (Credit Justin Rohrlich with the catch.)
The work is done by Unicor, previously known as Federal Prison Industries. It’s a government-owned corporation, established during the Depression, that employs about 20,000 inmates in 70 prisons to make everything from clothing to office furniture to solar panels to military electronics.
One of the company’s high-tech specialties: Patriot missile parts. “UNICOR/FPI supplies numerous electronic components and services for guided missiles, including the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) missile,” Unicor’s website explains. “We assemble and distribute the Intermediate Frequency Processor (IFP) for the PAC-3s seeker. The IFP receives and filters radio-frequency signals that guide the missile toward its target.”
The missiles are then marketed worldwide — sometimes by Washington’s top officials. Last year, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pitched the Patriots to the Turkish government last year, a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks reveals: “SecDef stressed that ‘nothing can compete with the PAC-3 when it comes to capabilities.’”
Patriot assemblers Raytheon and Lockheed Martin aren’t the only defense contractors relying on prison help. As Rohrlich notes, Unicor “inmates also make cable assemblies for the McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F-15, the General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin F-16, Bell/Textron’s Cobra helicopter, as well as electro-optical equipment for the BAE Systems Bradley Fighting Vehicle’s laser rangefinder.”
Unicor used to make helmets for the military, as well. But that work was suspended when 44,000 helmets were recalled for shoddy quality.
Government agencies — with the exception of the Defense Department and the CIA — are required to buy goods from Unicor, according to a Congressional Research Service report (.pdf). And no wonder: the labor costs are bordering on zero. “Inmates earn from $0.23 per hour up to a maximum of $1.15 per hour, depending on their proficiency and educational level, among other things,” the report notes.
Last year, Unicor grossed $772 million, according to its most recent financial report (.pdf). Traditionally, inmate salaries make up about five percent of that total.
Unicor insists that the deal is a good one for inmates — and for the government. The manufacturing work offers a chance for job training, which “improves the likelihood that inmates will remain crime-free upon their release,” the company says in its report. (Some reports suggest that Unicor prisoners are as much as 24% less likely to return to crime.)
The work also keeps the inmates in check, Unicor insists. “In the face of an escalating inmate population and an increasing percentage of inmates with histories of violence, FPI’s programs have helped ease tension and avert volatile situations, thereby protecting lives and federal property,” the company says. “Prisons without meaningful activities for inmates are dangerous prisons, and dangerous prisons are expensive prisons.”