THE PRISON LABOR QUESTION
The rulers of our society rely on the various fronts in the struggle to end exploitation to alienate themselves. We're made to believe that Workers, Environmentalists, Immigrants, Prisoners, The Disabled, etc. are in a competition to get a piece of the rulers stolen pie. Workers today are under attack unlike any time before in the modern Capitalist system, and we prisoners are directly affected. There's a mutually constitutive element between the struggles for Criminal Justice Reform, Prisoners Rights, and Labor struggles. To understand this connection between all the struggles, labor & prison struggles in particular, we must analyze the history of Prison Labor. By studying the historical development of Prison Labor we may begin to ascertain the purpose of it; How it developed; and Where it currently stands? I'm currently housed in Augusta Correctional Center in Craigsville, Virginia. Therefore, my historical analysis will be of the prison labor conditions in Virginia. While my current analysis will be of Augusta's labor program.
From the beginning all States wanted their prisons to be self sufficient, and this was no different in Virginia. Virginia opened it's first prison, The Penitentiary House, in 1800. That same year the Penitentiary House opened it's first prison shops. The first years of the Penitentiary also coincided with the development of the state armory, and so prisoners made such military items as cannon shots, holsters, stabbards, cartridge boxes, and gunner belts. Within the first 10 years a Penitentiary Store opened in Richmond where an independent agent sold products manufactured at the Penitentiary. Among the items sold at the store were cut nails, axes, hatchets, hammers, mats, boots, shoes and much more. Prisoners weren't given one cent for their labor.
Prison shops and the Penitentiary Store remained the primary method of commerce for the next Fifty years. Prisoners even made uniforms for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Then as soon as the war ended colored convicts began being contracted out to Railroad, Canal, and Quarry companies. Prisoners were also contracted out to counties to build roads throughout the state. Meanwhile, white convicts continued to make products in the Penitentiary shops to be sold in the Penitentiary Store. All of that changed however, in 1880 when the Penitentiary began leasing its shops to Private companies.
For Three decades Virginia's black prisoners experienced the most horrid conditions while contracted out to private companies. In 1881 the death rate at Richmond & Allegheny Railroad Company alone was 11%. A decade earlier 26 prisoners died on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Labor Camp. Conditions were so brutal that in 1893 Virginia was compelled to end it's contract system. Two years Virginia focused it's Prison Labor outside of the prison on Farming and Road Construction. The "Whiters- Lassiter 'Good Roads' law," enacted in 1906 by the Virginia General Assembly, established the State Highway Commission to regulate road planning and construction. This law gave authorization for convict Road Camps to be operated cooperatively by the Penitentiary and the State Highway Commission. As a result a large portion of roads built in rural areas throughout Virginia was done by Prisoners.
In 1918 the state purchased a farm on the opposite side of the James River in Powhatan County Virginia. Three and a half decades later the state purchased additional land on the south side of the James River in Powhatan County making the final total there 2,600 acres, all of which was farmed by prisoners. The farm system, Road camps, and Prison shops weren't the only institutions demanding Prison Labor. Despite heavy opposition from the National Lime Manufactures Association, legislation was passed in 1912 that authorized the use of Two Lime Grinding Plants. One of which was in operational use until 1972. Prisoners working at the Lime Plant quarried rock, operated machinery, crushed and pulverized rock, and loaded it into trucks and box cars. All of this was done under the auspices of the Governor's office, The Commission of Agriculture, and the Penitentiary Superintendent.
1921 was a transformative year for prisoners labor relations in Virginia. That year the state decided to stop contracting out it's industries, and established what was coined "State- Use" industries. These industries were to be operated by the state itself rather than depending on contractors. The new Industrial Board said it intended to equip and operate a state use printing shop, woodworking & furniture shop, clothing shop, shoe repair shops, and a metal shop. This was the impetus to the Industrial Department of Welfare and Institutions in 1933. A year later this new agency began operating from the Virginia State Penitentiary. After several name changes and further expansion of it's reach and industries the mission of their organization continues today under their name Virginia Correctional Enterprise (V.C.E.). Prison Labor Today- an analysis of ACC's prison labor market:
Virginia's Prison Labor market here at ACC is divided into Two segments: Public and Private Labor. Public Labor describes jobs that service the prisoners at the Prison the Laborer is housed. These jobs are considered Public because all of the wages come from the VADOC budget which comes from the States general fund. These jobs are divided by skill level (fn1). The three skill levels prisoners are classified as:
*Level I "Unskilled"- Offenders at this level do not make independent decisions on a regular basis. Unskilled offenders perform general labor or assist other workers by performing a variety of duties such as furnishing other workers materials, tools, supplies, and cleaning work areas, machines and equipment. (fn2)
*Level II "Semi- skilled"- Offenders at this skill level must exercise some independent decision making capability. Semi skilled workers learn through oral and/or written instructions of a recognized trade or craft. (fn3)
*Level III. "Skilled"- This skill level requires an offender to make independent decisions. These offenders have completed a specific training program in learning a trade or craft. Additionally, level III workers are capable of managing work projects, to include providing recommendations to improve efficiency and work procedures. (fn4)
Each skill level has a different pay rate. Unskilled labor is given a .27 cent hourly wage, Semi skilled labor is given a .35 cent hourly wage, and Skilled labor is given a .45 cents hourly wage. All public labor hours are capped at 30 hours a week, and prisoners are paid monthly. In one fiscal year there are typically 9 four week pay periods and 3 five week pay periods that constitute a month. Thus, Unskilled labor is paid $32.40 during a four week pay period and $40.50 during a five week pay period amounting to a $431 annual income. Semi skilled labor is paid $42.00 during a four week pay period and $ $52.50 during a five week pay period amounting to a $535.50 annual income. Skilled labor is paid $54.00 during a four week pay period and $67.50 during a five week pay period amounting to a $688 dollar annual income.
Private labor describes jobs that produce products for prisons throughout VADOC, State agencies, and Private Companies. Here at Augusta V.C.E. employs all of the Private Labor (fn5). Here V.C.E. operates two shops, a Tailor Shop and a Shoe Shop. The Tailor shop produces Prison Jumpsuits, Corrections Officer uniforms, Uniforms for outside agencies (e.g. Virginia Military Institute), other non profit entities, and repairs for all of those products. When operating at Full capacity the Tailor Shop employs 74 positions. The Shoe Shop here makes and repairs boots for prisoners and Corrections Officers. It costs V.C.E. $30 to make one pair of boots and $15 to repair them. When operating at capacity the Shoe Shop employs 64 positions. All VCE Prison employees make between .55 cents and .88 cents. Their work hours are typically Monday through Friday from 7am to 3pm. (fn6)
If you mean out the pay rate each employee in both shops makes it comes to .68 cents an hour. During a regular 40 hour work week prisoners make $27.20. This comes out to$108.80 during a four week pay period and $136.00 during a five week pay period. At these rates prisoners are expected to make approximately $1387.20 per capita annually. Rounding VCE's annual cost for prison labor here at ACC to $191,433.60. (fn7)
There are 24 housing units (pods) divided evenly between 6 buildings here at ACC. Twenty of the pods are "double bunked"and 4 are "single bunked." Every pod has 32 cells. This means that there are 64 prisoners houses in double bunked pods and 32 prisoners in single bunked pods. So when ACC is at full occupancy it houses 1408 prisoners. I am currently in a pod that's double bunked.Of the 64 prisoners in my pod only 30 of them have jobs. This means that roughly 53% of the people housed in my pod are unemployed. It must also be noted that none of the workers in my pod are employed by VCE. VCE employs about 10% of ACC's prison population while VADOC employs between 40 and 45 percent on any given day. Therefore, we are able to deduce that ACC' real unemployment rate is between 45 and 50 percent on any given day. Thus there are between 634 and 704 prisoners unemployed at ACC on any given day. Both VADOC and VCE touts there work programs as beneficial to Prisoner rehabilitation and readiness to enter the labor force when released. Yet there's been steady reduction in VADOC & VCE employment across the state over the past decade in an effort to