Tens of thousands of US inmates are paid from pennies to minimum wage—minus fines and victim compensation—for everything from grunt work to firefighting to specialized labor. Here’s a sampling of what they make, and for whom.
Eating in: Each month, California inmates process more than 680,000 pounds of beef, 400,000 pounds of chicken products, 450,000 gallons of milk, 280,000 loaves of bread, and 2.9 million eggs (from 160,000 inmate-raised hens). Starbucks subcontractor Signature Packaging Solutions has hired Washington prisoners to package holiday coffees (as well as Nintendo Game Boys). Confronted by a reporter in 2001, a Starbucks rep called the setup “entirely consistent with our mission statement.”
Around the Big House: Texas inmates produce brooms and brushes, bedding and mattresses, toilets, sinks, showers, and bullwhips. Bullwhips?
Windows dressing: In the mid-1990s, Washington prisoners shrink-wrapped software and up to 20,000 Microsoft mouses for subcontractor Exmark (other reported clients: Costco and JanSport). “We don’t see this as a negative,” a Microsoft spokesman said at the time. Dell used federal prisoners for PC recycling in 2003, but stopped after a watchdog group warned that it might expose inmates to toxins.
Back to school: Texas and California inmates make dorm furniture and lockers, diploma covers, binders, logbooks, library book carts, locker room benches, and juice boxes.
Patriotic duties: Federal Prison Industries, a.k.a. Unicor, says that in addition to soldiers’ uniforms, bedding, shoes, helmets, and flak vests, inmates have “produced missile cables (including those used on the Patriot missiles during the Gulf War)” and “wiring harnesses for jets and tanks.” In 1997, according to Prison Legal News, Boeing subcontractor MicroJet had prisoners cutting airplane components, paying $7 an hour for work that paid union wages of $30 on the outside.
The law won: In Texas, prisoners make officers’ duty belts, handcuff cases, and prison-cell accessories. California convicts make gun containers, creepers (to peek under vehicles), and human-silhouette targets.
A stitch in time: California inmates sew their own garb. In the 1990s, subcontractor Third Generation hired 35 female South Carolina inmates to sew lingerie and leisure wear for Victoria’s Secret and JCPenney. In 1997, a California prison put two men in solitary for telling journalists they were ordered to replace “Made in Honduras” labels on garments with “Made in the usa.”
Open wide: At California’s prison dental laboratory, inmates produce a complete prosthesis selection, including custom trays, try-ins, bite blocks, and dentures.
Constructive criticism: Prisoners in for burglary, battery, drug and gun charges, and escape helped build a Wal-Mart distribution center in Wisconsin in 2005, until community uproar halted the program. (Company policy says, “Forced or prison labor will not be tolerated by Wal-Mart.”)
On call: Its inmate call centers are the “best kept secret in outsourcing,” Unicor boasts. In 1994, a contractor for gop congressional hopeful Jack Metcalf hired Washington state prisoners to call and remind voters he was pro-death penalty. Metcalf, who prevailed, said he never knew.