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Inmate labour: a means of rehabilitating prisoners or a way of exploiting vulnerable labour?

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Essential information about prison labour


    Territorial Prison. Cañon City, Colorado, USA. 2010.. Territorial Prison. Cañon City, Colorado, USA. 2010.

    Centre de détention de Montmédy, France. October 2000. Centre de détention de Montmédy, Meuse, France. October 2000.

    Territorial Prison. Cañon City, Colorado, USA. 2010. Territorial Prison. Cañon City, Colorado, USA. 2010.

    Centre de détention de Montmédy, France. October 2000. Centre de détention de Montmédy, Meuse, France. October 2000.

    Territorial Prison. Cañon City, Colorado, USA. 2010. Territorial Prison. Cañon City, Colorado, USA. 2010.

    Centre de détention de Montmédy, France. October 2000. Centre de détention de Montmédy, Meuse, France. October 2000.

    Fremont Correctional Facility. Cañon City, Colorado, USA. 2010. Fremont Correctional Facility. Cañon City, Colorado, USA. 2010.

    Photographs © Philippe Brault

    Over the last thirty years, the state of Colorado has made an industry out of inmate labour. Its subsidiary, Colorado Correctional Industries, announced profits of $16.5 million for 2006. French inmates work on contracts that put short-term contracts on the outside in the shade.


    Like the Colorado prisoners shown in Prison Valley, inmates in French prisons can be given tasks related to the general running of the facility they are imprisoned in under what are called central services. Or asked to work for private companies operating inside the prison. French labour laws do not apply here. No minimum wage, no sick pay, no protection against unfair dismissal. And so on. The only applicable laws are those to do with health and safety. In their book Le travail en prison (Prison Labour) [Éditions Autrement, January 2010], Gonzague Rambaud and Nathalie Rohmer ask: Where else can staff be legally paid 3 euros per hour? In Romania? In China? There’s no need to outsource. All you need to do is look for prison workshops where inmates work for subcontractors of large French companies (L’Oréal, Bouygues, EADS, Yves Rocher, BIC, etc.) (…) Given the tasks they perform (packing sweets, grading onions, putting straw bottoms in chairs, bottling perfumes, sewing, etc.), it is legitimate to question the benefits of prison work for rehabilitating prisoners into the job market afterwards. The two journalists also point to an advertising spot aimed at local businesses vaunting the merits of a prison in eastern France: Labour paid by output, 12 months a year, no absenteeism, no industrial disputes…

    United States

    In Colorado, inmate labour is organized by a state enterprise called Colorado Correctional Industries (CCI), which is a fully owned subsidiary of the Department of Corrections. It is a good example of the wider industry.

    There were two reasons the prison authorities created CCI in 1977. First of all, they wanted to make a profit, but above all they wanted to keep costs down, especially catering and laundry (sheets, uniforms, etc.).

    The first factory in the strict sense of the term was built in 1980. And Colorado Correctional Industries made the most of this opportunity to launch their own brand – Juniper Valley Products. CCI’s business benefits from some protection as state institutions have to give them preferential treatment when ordering. State agencies, local councils, counties and associations are among its clients. Since then CCI has also signed many deals with the private sector.

    This rationalisation of inmate labour is in fact part of a long local tradition. Cañon City’s first prison opened a shoemaking workshop in June 1874, adding sewing and the license plates seen in our film ‘Prison Valley’ later on. It took until 1990 for CCI’s factories to be recognised as complying with the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program introduced by the US Congress in 1979. A presentation leaflet for the Colorado Correctional Industries from 2001 explains their role: training, supervision and tests designed to support prisoners’ good behaviour. The guiding principle is to teach inmates a trade and above all a sense of a job well done for when they leave prison.

    Today, depending on the year and the source, between 1,200 and 1,500 prisoners work in CCI factories in 16 penitentiaries dotted around Colorado. That’s between 10 and 12% of the state’s entire prison population. CCI had turnover of $12 million in 1990. It has skyrocketed since then. The most recent known figure was $39 million in 2001. CCI announced a net profit of $16.5 million for 2006 and the institution states that inmate labour saves six million dollars per year (in operating costs) for Colorado taxpayers.

    CCI’s main areas of business are:

    • Manufacturing: air filters, flags, license plates, mattresses, leather and metal goods, office furniture, plastic bags, armchairs, cells, signposts, etc.
    • Services: catering in canteens, construction and maintenance services, prison maintenance, highway sweeping, printing, recycling, web design, transport, etc.
    • Agriculture: farm produce, fish faming, honey, flowers, vineyards, breaking in wild horses, dog training, etc.

    Some of the dogs trained by the county’s prisoners have been taken on by… the New York Police Department for the war on drugs. As for the Wild Mustangs (a herd of 2,200 horses), they are caught by helicopter on the plains of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, California and Nevada. They are then broken in by prisoners and 75% of them end up being used by US police patrolling the US-Mexican border.

    Coloardo Correctional Industries have their headquarters in Colorado Springs (Colorado). Their showroom, with a display of the latest prison-made products, is in Denver.

    Now for the prisoners’ side of the story. The ones we met in the license plate workshop located in the oldest prison in Cañon City told us they earned 50 dollars a month, potentially double that with bonuses. In the basement of this workshop, physically and mentally handicapped prisoners produce plates, which they slide into individual envelopes. The factory churns out two million license plates per year.

    On the other side of town, the Fremont Correctional Facility isn’t just the largest prison in the state of Colorado in terms of the number of prisoners (1,661); it’s also the biggest supplier of prison labour. 507 work there on a regular basis, mainly in the carpentry workshop. Some of them earn up to $80 dollars a month including bonuses. All have received training and all of them are volunteers. The most prized positions are breaking in the horses because it’s in the open air. And because it’s one of the best paid jobs – 2 dollars a day for a part-time job. At the moment, 55 prisoners work on the huge ranch below the East Cañon City Complex. All of them have been convicted of minor theft or small-time drug dealing and sentenced to between 6 months and 2 years. Their coach, who’s employed by the Bureau of Land Management, told us: You teach the prisoners to be patient. We teach them the basic skills of a trade, of work. If they don’t get their head down, they’re out. Just like in the outside world. If they pull on the horse too hard, it gets excited. Just like in real life. If you take it cool, you’ll be OK, otherwise… The horses teach them that.

    According to various different people, there’s a long waiting list to work for Colorado Correctional Industries. The slightest prank, the smallest misdemeanour and you drop to the bottom of the list.


    Find all the statistics about prisons and comparative statistics for the United States, France and Europe in the film Prison Valley.

    Posted by David Dufresne Prison Valley Team
    Apr 6th 2010 (edited Apr 21st 2010)
    To report corrections and clarifications, contact Prison Valley Team
    A new kind of... work: «Inmates worked at prison employees' homes»: http://www.9news.com/news/article.aspx?storyid=138290&catid=339
    It makes sense to use prison labor to cover the costs to taxpayers to run the prison facility. It's when the prison companies start making a profit off of incarcerated labor that things get iffy.

    I don't think that we as a country are really benefiting from outsourcing our jobs.
    It's good for the prisoners to work. The rest of us work and pay mortgages, bills, etc. They have housing and food provided for them.
    Last I heard in the state of Colorado it takes on average $30,000 a year to keep someone incarcerated. It is surprising to me that imates would get paid for work at all. Inmates then can use this money in the prison canteen, the buy many of the comforts of life, heck they can even buy a television. If they are getting a paycheck and making a profit for the state, then I say "thank you" to them for giving something back while doing their time. These inmates are getting work experience, heck a lot better than breaking rocks in the prison yard. The info presented in this documentary is very one sided, almost propaganda..
    The truth is the truth, so it is the truth, right? That is, if this documentary is telling the truth, and nothing but the truth, even if it is done through their camera's eyes, not that of the State of Colorado, it is a fresh opinion of the real "truth", no matter how hard that it is for you to believe is the real truth. So...,You can't handle the truth! LOL!
    My opinion? It's a privilege to get work in a prison, no matter ho much they are getting paid...its prison, and its something, better than nothing, and there are allot of those inmates doing nothing, indeed! Goody for those who got the work!
    Work is good if it covers the costs of operating the prison - instead of tax payers\' money- and give prisoners dignity and a way to keep themselves busy. But when prisons become businesses, it can also lead to abuses. It encourages more severe/longer sentences and more incarcerations.. It\'s a very dangerous line to cross...
    What isn't considered is the use of inmate labor's impact upon non-prisoner jobs in the private sector. One of the reasons for our escalating unemployment nationwide is the loss of private sector jobs to prison inmates. Last year in Texas they had to change the state laws governing the federal Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) to stop the job losses of Texas employees to prison manufacturing. Before that other Texas citizens were losing jobs to manufacturers who were closing private sector operations moving them behind bars. Inmate labor is cheaper, no benefit packages, paid vacations, unemployment insurance premiums to pay, facility leases (from the prison authorities) for as little as a dollar a year and no medical or health insurance. In addition, these manufacturers found that there were no sick days, maternity leaves or missed work by inmates.

    The US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) has responsibility for overseeing and operating the PIE Certification Program. Part of their duty is to ensure that all of the program's mandatory requirements are being met by the prison industry participants. They have "outsourced" all of their responsibilities for oversight and program investigations and reviews to the National Correctional Industries Association (NCIA). The NCIA is an "Association" made up entirely of the administrators, CEOs, CFOs and other high ranking employees of the various state prison industries. In effect the federal government is allowing the prison industries to oversee themselves. Because of this, there is no real oversight and the level playing field that is supposed to exist under this important program, has been tossed to the wayside in favor of huge profits from the use of inmate labor by private corporations operating under authority of PIECP.

    This is a national concern due to the increasing unemployment in the private sector job markets. For an in-depth look at prison industry, the PIECP program and the numerous and varied violations that are taking place by those industries, please visit www.piecp-violations.com.
    Understandable, Mr. Sloan, when it takes away from the private sector. There is another side, though. The goal of our criminal justice system is currently rehabilitation. If inmates are taught how to contribute to society, they are less likely to be a burden when they are released. If they are taught the value of a steady job, the benefits of a steady job, they are more likely to obtain and to retain a job once released. Thus, once back in society, they are going to contribute to society rather than take from society (which is what landed them serving time initially).
    As someone with a different outlook on this subject I would like to say that most of the "prison employment opportunities" offered by the state of colorado to inmates are not of the rehabilitation type due to the fact most of the" rehabilitation" opportunities are not open to ex cons when released. The CCI in colorado is a business model designed on repeat and or long term " employment contracts" passed down by corrupted state officials. In closing it is my opinion that these inmates continue to take work and tax dollars from the american tax payer. We will need that type of a work force to re populate the country after all the better than thou type are drafted to fight in the B/S wars this country starts. Felons have no right,nor responsibility, to defend those who persecute them.
    Actually I don't know how exactly the system is working in USA, but I think the documentary gives a straight lokk upon it. In my country, Italy, we face two problems related to emprisonment: the majority of prisoners are immigrants or "low criminals", so prisons are exploding because of te high number of inmates. The second one is prison labour: lots of prisons, especially the biggest ones (like "Rebibbia" in Rome) are proposing prisoners to work for companies inside the prison. They are making call centers and basic technologies laboratories inside. It is true that, in a sense, they gie prisoners the possibility to work, to start a path of "rehabilitation", but these workers are payd less than the minima, maybe 3 or 4 euros per hour. They are used as working reserve for companies, and this is the point, if work=dignity, they shoul be payd the same tat people outside. On the other hand, the Ministry of Interior Affairs ant the Ministry of Justice decided tu cut off expenses for scholarships and university inside prisons. Do we really think that rehabilitation pases only through labour?
    Thank you for this documentary. In the US most people do not have a clue what the truth is because there is so much propaganda. Corporations are making money trading human beings. They got harsh laws passed along with the correction officer unions. Even the state run prisons are under their influence because they buy their supplies from them. They also farm out their inmates to companies who want cheap labor. Inmates generally have horrible health care, very unhealthy food, and abuse from prison guards.
    I think if I were in prison, I would want work for the sake of sanity. And I would want the opportunity to get better work after proving myself. Thus it would be like life outside and a valuable mindset to maintain.

    I love this documentary btw. What an amazing thing to make and then offer freely to a web audience.
    It does seem highly contradictory that a INS holding facility, which incarcerates illegal aliens for, perhaps, three years as a penalty for entering the country illegally, before deporting them, will happily use those illegals in $.012/hour jobs making road signs and license plates - which are then SOLD internally, at incredible mark-up, to other federal agencies. The cost of an inmate being in prison - commissary items, hygiene items, even healthcare (at $2 per visit) is hardly covered by those pathetically-paid jobs.

    I am sure that an inmate would welcome the opportunity to work - it must make the time pass more quickly. But to have a federal agency being such blatant hypocrites, employing and exploiting illegals, is just a slap in the face.
    I think one should be careful when not paying inmates properly for their work, when handing out a wage that is so low that it becomes nothing but symbolic you approach something dangerously close to slavery even if it is seemingly volontary. Inprisonment and the removal of freedom should be the actual punishment, removing other rights that are present for every other citizen does not contribute to the rehabilitation and should thus be granted even to hardend criminals. Doing work and not getting properly payed will not serve as very good proof that their ARE alternatives to crime and this should, in my humble opinion, be the ultimate goal of correctional facilities.
    I worked at the recycling plant when i was housed at Skyline. We had a monopoly on recycling in Canon City. Businesses would normally have to pay to get their cardboard and other recyclicable trash picked up...so what did CCi do? They went to these businesses and told them we would pick it up for free. So how can CCi afford to do that? Because of inmate labor! Whoever said that the private sector is losing jobs to inmates is absolutely correct! There is so much nepotism involved in the prison industry, particularly in Canon City. I did nearly 12 of my 15 years in Canon City so I know. I worked for CCi in several departments. Dairy, Farm, Recycling, Heavy Equipment, and the Greenhouse, and I can tell you from personal experience that not only do they steel jobs from the private sector but they are not all minor drug offenders or theft convictions doing 6 months to 2 years. That statistic sounds like it came straight from the staffs mouth. There are men there sentenced to 50 years and have been in for a long time and are 8 years to their release date...and yes they were convicted of a violent crime, in some cases murder. The only ones that cannot get "gate passes" are sex offenders. You see, staff will not let media talk to inmates because the inmates know what the staff is trying to hide from the public. The inmates know about the scams the staff try to do to get more money. The inmates usually fall victim to staff when they know too much. They are the staffs "scapegoats". This is the reality of the prison industrial complex. I feel fortunate that I am no longer a part of that machine and that I have a place to finally tell people my story and the story of hundreds of other inmates.

    And here is another thing, if they were so concerned about teaching us a trade than why is it that they have no programs designed to help inmates get a job when they are released? Every application I have put in requires me to say I am a convicted felon. If my debt to society is paid from my prison sentence than why should it matter anymore? How come noone advocates for a change in the system that eternally disenfranchises convicted felons regardless of the fact that they paid their debts?
    When prisons are privatized, and they are no longer the property or under the control of the surrounding society, and become the property of a private corporation .... who becomes the owner of the prisoner labor? And how is this any different from ordinary slavery and private ownership of slaves?

    Interesting documentary. The delivery is beyond irritating, though. Is there somewhere to simply watch the movie from start to finish?

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