I was talking to someone yesterday, a state government worker somewhere in the United States (I’ll be vague for confidentiality’s sake), and she mentioned that prisoners had recently taken over the cleaning duties at her office. A sheriff had come in, warning the department sternly of the dangers of interacting the prisoners or of leaving personal equipment around at their desk. If they’re so dangerous, my friend wondered, why have them doing the jobs in the first place?
Turns out, it’s a growing trend. The New York Times today reports that with deficit hawks attacking state budgets left right and centre, many states are rapidly expanding their penal workforces into new industries.
The Times unwittingly perhaps reports the goal of such ventures:
“The days of just breaking rocks with sledgehammers” are over, said Michael P. Jacobson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice, a research group in New York. “At the grossest financial level, it’s just savings. You can cut the government worker, save the salary and still maintain the service, and you’re providing a skill for when they leave.” (italics added)
Cutting the numbers of government workers has long been a goal in particular of the right wing. Just as in Wisconsin, where Governor Walker’s personally created budget “crisis” was used to justify cuts to workers’ rights, governments across the country are cynically deploying the language of emergency in order to create long-lasting systemic changes to the labour system. One thing the Times doesn’t mention in all this talk of win-win situations is how much–if anything –prisoners will be paid for these jobs, especially in “right to work” states that have low minimum wages even for regular citizens.
Naomi Klein has famously written about what she calls the “shock doctrine,” in which a crisis (such as Hurricane Katrina) is used by neo-liberal capitalists to implement new systems, and install a new set of social acceptable norms . Consider the movement described by the Times in Florida:
In Florida, where the budget was cut by $4.6 billion this year, analysts say inmate farming could save $2.4 million a year. That is relatively small potatoes, but enough for the new governor, Rick Scott, to call for an expansion of prison farming. The state already uses 550 inmates to grow 4.8 million pounds of produce a year, and the governor has pledged $2.5 million to have more inmates grow their own food.
Though it contributes essentially nothing to the budget gap, the language of crisis is nevertheless employed to justify implementing a new system of employment–essentially a laboratory to trial a new class of workers.
Such innovations undoubtedly come as part of a broader attack on unions in the public sector, a bi-partisan move from Republican governors like Walker in Wisconsin and Kasich in Ohio and Democrats like Cuomo in New York. In 2009, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that for the first time, public worker union membership constituted the majority of union members in the United States. 37.4 percent of government employees belonged to unions in 2009, 36.2 in 2010. In 2010, the number of union-represented wage and salary workers overall dropped by 612,000 to 14.7 million. Bit by by bit, the union movement is chipped away at.
Unlike government workers, prisoners generally don’t have unions to collectively bargain for better pay or working conditions. The possibility of a worker’s strike too is much lower, with the December prisoner strike in Georgia a rare exception (in Georgia, it should be noted, state law forbids paying prisoners except for one small program). Government workers’ jobs disappear to be replaced with low-cost prisoners, in all likelihood permanently.
With privatised prisons on the rise–just last week Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal proposed selling off three more prisons–the public-private partnership is beginning to look like publicly subsidised private oligarchy with captive worker populations. This is not precisely an attack on “big government,” it is attack on the right to organise. In the midst of escalating unemployment, this does not create jobs, it destroys them.
And there will be little to no outcry. The public has, as a rule, very little sympathy for prisoners, which is the kind of climate which gives rise to tough-on-crime posturing among politicians on both sides of the aisle, support for the death penalty and the continued re-election of notorious human rights violator as sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County in Arizona.
The “danger” posed by prisoners is used to justify their poor wages, living and working conditions and reduce the number of government. Yet at the same time, the increased amount of prisoner labour paradoxically brings them closer to the general public to whom they allegedly pose such a danger.
And there we have the answer to my friend’s question.