Looks Like Maybe, We Should Organize Inmates

By Bendygirl (Cross Posted on Uniongal)

DELL, notorious for using labor all over the world (exploitation shipped from country to country) has contracted with UNICOR to recycle their computers (only after they came under fire from environmental advocates for dumping toxic waste).

CBS News posted a story on this (but since it’s from AP, I won’t be linking to those rat bastards at AP). The most important aspect of this piece is that UNICOR pays their inmates who do recycling as much as $1.26 per hour. Okay, they also pay as little as about a quarter of a dollar, but, whatever.

Years ago, 60 minutes did this amazing piece on how UNICOR (Federal Prison Industries) doesn’t have to worry about trademarks and patents and has actually put textile mills in the states out of business.

So, this got me thinking about why UNICOR’s future challenges tend to be an explosion in the prison population. Why have prison populations exploded and why should I care?

Well, you see, we all should care, because, there's a correllation between unemployment and crime.

In a 1987 study of Growth in incarceration among African Americans showed a direct correlation with growth in unemployment among African Americans. In another study, for the Journal of Human Resources, author Ming–Jen Lin correlates a drop in UNION workers with unemployment and an INCREASE in rates of burglary and robbery. From the paper's abstract:

We find a one-percentage-point increase in unemployment would increase property crime by 1.8 percent under the OLS method, but that the elasticity goes up to 4 percent under 2SLS. The larger 2SLS effect has significant policy implications because it explains 30 percent of the property crime change during the 1990s.


Freakin-A. Not only do unionized workers get a "union-premium," but there's a correlation to the drop in unionzation with a rise in crime (coupled with a rise in unemployment).

So, when I saw the latest post on Unbossed (thanks again Shirah) about inmates and UNICOR, it didn’t really surprise me that UNICOR has complaints against it from inmates seeking help with the recycling program’s toxic exposures of inmates. From UNBOSSED (in its entirety):

They're just criminals - so why should we care about how they are treated in The Big House?
In fact, if we can get "Onshore outsourcing at offshore prices" by using prison labor, what's the problem?

As I said in 2007,

It's hard to imagine a creepier government web page than that of the National Security Agency - do not skip intro. Although the NSA kid's page comes close.
This is sock you in the face creepy. But a far creepier federal agency webpage is that of Unicor. What? Never heard of Unicor?

And don't we just know that the bureau of prisons program through UNICOR is just Poisoning Prisoners for Profit and that Life in Prison is a Riot

Well, now the latest, in the sorry saga. Here is the July 16, 2008 letter from NIOSH on this subject:

On November 27, 2007, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) received your request for technical assistance in your health and safety investigation of the Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR) electronics recycling program at Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) institutions in Elkton, Ohio; Texarkana, Texas; and Atwater, California. You asked us to assist the United States Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General (USDOJ, OIG) in assessing the existing medical surveillance program for inmates and staff exposed to lead and cadmium during electronics recycling, and to make recommendations for future surveillance.

In addition, you asked us to assess past exposures to lead and cadmium, and to investigate the potential for take home exposure. This interim letter summarizes our findings and provides recommendations to improve the safety and health of the inmates and staff at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Elkton, Ohio. These findings will be included in a final report that will contain findings from the evaluations at all three institutions identified in your request.


As it turns out, monitoring results for past exposures are not available because they just weren't done for the most part or, if performed, they were so badly performed that they are of little use.

Electronics recycling at FCI Elkton appears to have been performed from 1997 until May 2003 without adequate engineering controls, respiratory protection, medical surveillance, or industrial hygiene monitoring. Because of the lack of both biological monitoring and industrial hygiene data, we cannot determine the extent of exposure to lead and cadmium that occurred during that time frame, but descriptions of work tasks from staff and inmates indicate that exposures during that time frame were likely higher than current exposures. The current GBO is a significant improvement, but can be further enhanced to limit exposure to those performing glass breaking, as well as limiting the migration of lead and cadmium from the room into other areas. While some take-home contamination does occur, surface wipe sampling and biological monitoring suggest that take-home contamination does not pose a health threat at this time. Take-home contamination can be further reduced by changes to the GBO, work practices, and improved personal hygiene as recommended below.

We cannot determine the extent of exposure to lead that occurred in the chip recovery process because of the lack of data. Descriptions of work tasks from staff, and a BLL of 5 μg/dL in an inmate 4 months after the process ended indicate that exposure to lead during this process did occur. We found no evidence that actions were taken to prevent exposure to lead at the outset in the chip recovery process and found that no medical surveillance was performed until after the process ended.

Medical surveillance that has been carried out among inmates and staff has not complied with OSHA standards. No medical exams (including physical examinations) are done on inmates; staff receive inconsistent examinations and biological monitoring by their personal physicians; biological monitoring for lead is not done at established standard intervals; and results are not communicated to the inmates.

Inappropriate biological monitoring tests have been done. Records of medical surveillance are not maintained by the employer for the appropriate length of time.


The report makes many recommendations for improvement. I personaly like this one as the most likely to ameliorate the situation:

7. Appoint a union safety and health representative. This individual should be a regular participant on the joint labor-management safety committee that meets quarterly. Since inmates do not have a mechanism for representation on this committee, ensure that they are informed of its proceedings and that they have a way to voice their concerns about and ideas for improving workplace safety and health.

Yep. If you want help getting your workplace conditions improved, get union representations. Not so easy for the prisoners, of course, but maybe they can piggy back on the prison workers' union representation.

After all, contamination for one is probably contamination for all.


But Shirah has only provided the most recent blog posting on UNICOR and their roll in the US. Before Shirah’s most recent posts, there was this one from Ian Urbina, America’s Prison Factories. Where Ian notes that:

Over the years, FPI has grown exponentially, now ranking as the government's thirty-ninth largest contractor -- in no small part due to the quantity and diversity of apparel items it manufactures for the Department of Defense. The company has churned out more than 150,000 Kevlar helmets in the past 24 months, more than $12 million worth. Aside from the battle-dress shirts sewn at Greenville, the company is also a major supplier of men's military undershirts, $1.6 million of which it sold to the Pentagon in 2002. In that year, FPI made close to $3 million fashioning underwear and nightwear for the troops. Inmates also stitch together the vestments donned by military pastors and the gowns cloaking battlefield surgeons. If an item of clothing is torn in combat, it will likely be sent to the prison shop in Edgefield, South Carolina, where it is mended at a cost of $5 per shirt and or pair of trousers. In 2002, 700 prisoners based at FPI laundry facilities located in Florida, Texas and Alabama washed and pressed $3 million worth of military apparel.

Snip

...Out of the 1.3 million pairs of these trousers bought by the Defense Department last year, all but 300,000 were produced by FPI, which means that at least three out of four active-duty soldiers in the region wear pants made by the inmates of the FPI factories in Atlanta and in Beaumont and Feagoville, Texas. These sorts of numbers have earned FPI critics from a range of perspectives. FPI competitors, such as Propper International, point out that they use free labor to make the exact same trousers for the government at $2.39 cheaper per pair. Organized labor questions why the government should buy from a company which depends solely on inmate workers, while paying sub-minimum wages (from 25 cents to $1.15 per hour), skirting workplace safety standards and enjoying exemption from the payroll and Social Security taxes levied on other employers.


Which then brought me over to the UNICOR site where there are no pictures of inmates in prison garb or looking as if they're behind bars or even guards, it's pretty eerie. But I found this statement from their site more eerie and way more creepy:

The Future Challenge
The challenge for FPI is to remain financially self-sufficient while providing enough work for an increasing number of inmates. The Federal inmate population has tripled over the last 10 years, and it is projected to continue growing for the foreseeable future. In order for the Bureau of Prisons to successfully manage the increased number of inmates, FPI will have to create jobs for these additional inmates.

FPI's influence on the successful management of Federal prisons is no secret; it has been a matter of public policy for over six decades. Policymakers have long recognized that increasing the number of incarcerated individuals means increasing the number of prisons and, in turn, increasing the size of FPI in order to improve both the management of the prisons and an inmate's chances of success upon release. As we begin the next decade, continued support of Federal Prison Industries will pay important dividends for the country.


Creepy, huh?

Thanks Shirah for making me think about this.

Since I was already thinking, I decided to put the pieces together for me. I looked at the numerous reports linking crime rates, incarceration and unemployment and thought about how it is possible that it’s okay for UNICOR to pay inmates all of $1 (ish) an hour (if even that much) to produce things that American manufactures had been producing and STILL produce. I'm just not sure why this is acceptable anymore.

To me, it’s almost as if the US Government is in the business of creating inmates to work for almost nothing, driving American manufacturing into the ground and thereby, creating new inmates.

Of course, my understanding of this issue, isn’t science, I just like to read. And sometimes, things strike me. This issue, doesn’t just strike me, it makes me sick.

Honestly, this just really sucks.

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