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Prison labor seems like a win-win to many, but a closer look reveals a race to the bottom for skilled workers.

It is a little known fact of the attack on Libya that some of the components of the cruise missiles being launched into the country mayl have been made by prisoners in the United States. According to its website, UNICOR, which is the organization that represents Federal Prison Industries, "supplies numerous electronic components and service for guided missiles, including the Patriot Advanced Capability Missile (PAC-3)".

In addition to constructing electronic components for missiles, prison labor in the United States is used to make electronic cables for defense items like "the McDonnell Douglas/Boeing (BA) F-15, the General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin F-16, Bell/Textron's (TXT) Cobra helicopter, as well as electro-optical equipment for the BAE Systems".

Traditionally these types of defense jobs would have gone to highly paid, unionized workers. However the prison workers building parts for these missiles earn a starting wage of 23 cents an hour and can only make a maximum of $1.15 an hour. Nearly 1 in 100 adults are in jail in the United States and are exempt from our minimum wage laws, creating a sizable captive workforce that could undercut outside wage standards.

"It's no different than when our government allowed a United Steelworkers-represented factory of several hundred good jobs in Indiana called Magnequench to shut down," United Steelworkers Public Affairs Director Gary Hubbard told AlterNet. "This was the last high-tech magnetics production plant in the U.S. that made guidance components for missiles and smart bombs. The factory was sold to a Chinese state enterprise that moved all the machinery to China. And now we depend on prison labor to build our defense products?"

As the governments look to cut costs and trim deficits, they are giving more and more contracts for skilled work to prisons, whose workers often make 1/15th of the wages they would earn in the private sector. Whereas in the past prisoners made license plates and desks for state offices, they are now being trained for skilled work doing everything from assembling cable components for guided missiles to underwater repair welding. Even the much heralded green jobs aren't immune to being outsourced to prison -- the solar panels being used to provide electricity for the State Department's office in Washington, D.C. are constructed with prison labor.

States are increasingly expanding the type of products they use prison labor for to help cover the cost of keeping a person in prison -- nearly $29,000 per year. States spend a whopping $60 billion dollars per year to maintain prisons, one of every 15 state dollars is spent on prisons, and corrections spending is the second fastest-growing expenditure in state budgets. Prisons are popular in small town America because they often mean bringing several hundred jobs to economically depressed communities. Thus many are in favor using incarcerated labor to pay for prisons because they work as a means of economic development.

According to the New York Times, "Using inmate labor has created unusual alliances: liberal humanitarian groups that advocate more education and exercise in prisons find themselves supporting proposals from conservative budget hawks to get inmates jobs, often outdoors, where they can learn new skills. Having a job in prison has been linked in studies to decreased violence, improved morale and lowered recidivism." Michael P. Jacobson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice, told the Times, "At the grossest financial level, it's just savings. You can cut the government worker, save the salary and still maintain the service, and you're providing a skill for when they leave."

Defense Contractors Using Prison Labor to Build High-Tech Weapons Systems
Prison labor seems like a win-win to many, but a closer look reveals a race to the bottom for skilled workers.

For many people, prison labor looks like an easy win-win. Workers get skills, the state is able to pay for more prisons as the prison population grows, and local towns are eager to get prisons for the jobs they bring. But is it really a win-win for all?

"At first, giving people in prison a job looks like a good idea. The prisoner gets the job skill and a few extra dollars, the state takes some payment to let it happen, and the industry gets the work done. But this is not a win-win situation" says prison expert and SEIU senior research analyst Eric Lotke. "It's actually a lose-lose. The person in prison is paid far less than a real wage negotiated by free people in a free market economy. So free-market wages are undercut, driving wages down in the real economy. Meanwhile, business gets an incentive to lock people up for convict labor and the state loses its financial incentive to improve its criminal justice policies."

In some cases, forced prison labor has resulted in inmates being brutalized rather than rehabilitated. Last year, Georgia inmates went on strike at six prisons for over a week. They complained that they were beaten if they refused to work prison jobs for little or sometimes no pay.

Prison experts like Lotke say that while such jobs can be valuable in a productive environment, there are different ways to do things. "You could pay workers union wages and incur it into an account for when they are released. This would give them an incentive to behave well while they are in prison and give them a financial base for when they get out of prison," he said.

Lotke's union, SEIU, which represents many government service workers whose jobs are threatened by slave wage prison labor, is looking at ways to invest in programs that will help create jobs. SEIU is working with state governments to dedicate resources away from prisons and into government services that keep people out of prison like education, after school programs and other services that create good jobs in underdeveloped communities.

"The prison industry is extraordinarily destabilizing because small towns want the jobs that prisons create. However, Its all backwards - a small town could get a highway or a university or a grant for a factory - any of these things could create jobs," says Lotke. "We could be investing in good jobs, creating the conditions where poor youth don't turn to crime out of economic frustration. Instead we replicate the problem by throwing all this money at the prison system. When people realize what a waste of money, economic opportunity, and how ineffective it is to have so many people locked up, that is when we finally solve the criminal justice and jobs problem in this country".

The effort by SEIU to move resources away from prisons is a bold one, as prison guard unions have traditionally lobbied heavily to expand the number of correctional facilities in places like California. But as public sector union workers lose their jobs and other services are cut to keep prisons open, more unions are realizing they have to do something or their jobs are going to be lost in a race to the bottom with America's cheapest labor - incarcerated labor.