BASICS Issue #22 (Sep/Oct 2010)
by M. Lau
As a source of cheap labour, prisons are a blessing for corporations. Under the Welfare to Work legislation in the U.S., BP has been earning a tax credit of $2,400 for every prisoner they have hired to help clean up the ecological disaster it created in the Gulf. Without being required to supply health benefits or workers’ compensation, BP has been able to put prisoners to work in a most toxic setting for up to twelve hours a day, six days a week. BP has also been able to force prisoners to sign documents that prohibit them from discussing work conditions.
Prison labour is a growing industry in the United States. Since the 1980s, the prison population in the U.S. has quadrupled. Why did the inmate population grow so drastically? It wasn’t because of a rise of violent crime. Instead, it was due to public policy changes, particularly, the rise of “tough-on-crime” mandatory sentencing laws. Today, the U.S. has the highest prison population in the world.
“Tough-on-crime” policies create a massive pool of essentially slave labourers for corporate profit. In fact, the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution – which most people believe to have officially abolished slavery – allows for it “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. Prison labour has proven to be highly lucrative for big corporations in past decades in the U.S., and more and more the practice is being implemented in Canada.
Deena Rymhs, who conducted a study on Canadian prisoners, has pointed out that one only needs to look at how corporations view prison labour to realize what is going on. Orosz Outdoors, one of Correctional Services of Canada (CORCAN)’s corporate partners, praised the CORCAN program as “an excellent return on investment.” As Rymhs rightly points out, if corporations “regard such an industry as an investment, stakeholders would want to ensure the continuance of that industry.”
Since coming into power, the Harper government has implemented many tough-on-crime reforms. It is expected that within the next five years, there will be an influx of up to 4,000 male prisoners across Canadian prisons. In early August, Stockwell Day announced that the government would raise the amount that Canada currently spends on its jails from $4.4 billion per year to an estimated $9.5 billion.
Why such an increase on prison spending when the government is looking to curb the deficit and cut spending? For instance, the New Brunswick government has been pressing Ottawa to consider expanding its Renous prison to help deal with the larger prison population expected from Harper’s “tough-on-crime” legislation.
According to a Statistics Canada study, the reported ‘crime’ rate in 2009 is 17% lower than it was a decade earlier. But statistics aren’t enough to convince a government that represents corporate interests in search of cheaper, more exploitable labour.