Arizona makes millions selling imprisoned and unpaid laborers to companies

Investigative reporters Joseph Darius Jaafari, Jimmy Jenkins, Justin Price, and Geoff Hing just completed a research project and a series of articles for The Arizona Republic that take a very deep and disturbing dive into the world of prison labor in Arizona. The title of the first of the series sums up their main findings: "Arizona changed how it sells prisoners to companies. The state raked in millions, but workers were neglected." 

AZ Central describes the project:

After 15 months of gathering and analyzing more than 11,000 documents and building a computer program that downloaded tens of thousands of public profiles about prisoners that the Arizona Department of Corrections refused to provide, reporters at The Arizona Republic and KJZZ News found that prison labor—during the past 10 years—has become ubiquitous across the state.

Prison work, for example, is in places that many people would never have realized: Prisoners make the custom woodwork at hip bowling alleys; they construct trusses, cabinets, wall frames at well-known private home developments and luxury apartment buildings; they work inside kennels for pet adoption shelters; they build confessionals in churches; they act as janitors and groundskeepers at schools—but are told to keep out of sight of staff and students so no one knows they're there. 

The first report in the series explains that while private companies and the state benefit, workers are often exploited and, if they are injured, don't have much power to do anything about it.

ACI [Arizona Correctional Industries] has made millions—except during COVID when profits plunged—and private companies have benefited. They can access a captive labor force, which is required by law to work and doesn't have the same rights as civilian workers. Prisoners can't make official reports to the state about poor working conditions. They don't get financial assistance if injured on the job, and if they try to opt out, they are punished . . . 

Many jobs offered by private companies are dangerous. The Republic and KJZZ documented at least 45 incidents in which prisoners were injured working during Radecki's tenure. That's by no means a complete list, and it's not clear whether it represents an increase compared to Radecki's predecessor because the Department of Corrections would not provide medical grievances filed by prisoners, claiming privacy rights. Prisoners don't have the same rights as other workers. In most instances, they are unable to even submit complaints with the state safety department if they are in danger. Meanwhile, the Department of Corrections says that all work is voluntary, but it punishes prisoners for failing to show up or for quitting ACI jobs.

And this is not just happening in Arizona. Across the United States, corporations are benefiting mightily from cheap, exploitative prison labor. The title of this Guardian article, which provides information about another new report about prison labor recently released by the American Civil Liberties Union in collaboration with the Global Human Rights Clinic of the University of Chicago Law School, says it all:

"US prison workers produce $11bn worth of goods and services a year for pittance: New report by American Civil Liberties Union says incarcerated laborers are either poorly compensated or not at all."

The Guardian further explains: 

Nearly two-thirds of all prisoners in the US, which imprisons more of its population than any other country in the world, have jobs in state and federal prisons. That figure amounts to roughly 800,000 people, researchers estimated in the report, which is based on extensive public records requests, questionnaires and interviews with incarcerated workers. 

ACLU researchers say the findings outlined in Wednesday's report raise concerns about the systemic exploitation of prisoners, who are compelled to work sometimes difficult and dangerous jobs without basic labor protections and little or no training while making close to nothing.

More than 80% of incarcerated laborers do general prison maintenance, including cleaning, cooking, repair work, laundry and other essential services. For paid non-industry jobs, workers make an average of 13 cents to 52 cents an hour, according to the report. Seven states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas—pay nothing for the vast majority of prison work.

Page 41 of the ACLU report lists just a few of the many corporations that benefit from cheap prison labor: 

Private companies benefit from prison labor by purchasing goods and services through correctional industries for a lower cost than they would pay in the private market. Colorado Correctional Industries, for example, sold goods and services to around 100 private companies, which generated more than $6.2 million in revenue for the state correctional industries program in 2020. Utah Correctional Industries sold goods and services to almost a thousand private companies, including such major corporations as 3M Company, Allstate Insurance Company, American Apparel, American Express, Apple Inc., AT&T Mobility, Costco, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, FedEx, Frito Lay Inc., Fujifilm North America, Hertz Corporation, Hewlett-Packard, Hickory Farms, Infiniti Motor Company, Little Caesars Enterprises, Lowe's, KFC, OfficeMax, Pepsi-Co, Procter & Gamble, Sara Lee Corporation, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Xerox Corporation.

You can read the entire ACLU report, entitled Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers, here. It was produced in collaboration with the Global Human Rights Clinic of the University of Chicago Law School.

The full series on Arizona prison labor is behind a paywall, but clever people can get around that. Ahem. But, the series is so good, it's worth your money, too. You can find links to the series in this article