Agitating From The Inside
An interview with Paul Wright,
editor of Prison Legal News
by Tara Herivel, Free Press contributor
aul Wright is the co-editor of Prison Legal News (PLN), an independent monthly magazine written primarily by prisoners. The longest-lived magazine of its kind, PLN focuses on a variety of prison issues, from prison labor, to political prisoners here and abroad, to criminal justice trends across the country. As one of a handful of prisoner-produced publications, PLN provides the prisoner's perspective on the American experiment with mass incarceration.
The following interview was conducted at the Washington State Reformatory at Monroe where Paul Wright is serving a twenty-five year sentence for first-degree murder.
HERIVEL: A recent FBI crime survey indicated that crime is generally going down across the country, yet the incarceration rate is going up. What is the purpose of the increasing numbers of prisoners?
WRIGHT: In the U.S. there are 1.6 million people locked up in this country. And then you have to factor in another 2 million or so in the armed forces. Most of the people in prison or the armed forces would otherwise be in the work force. We're in our prime working years. If those numbers were added to the national economy the U.S. unemployment rate would rival that of Western Europe, which is double-digit unemployment. The difference is that in countries like France, Germany, Holland or even England, they've opted for a system of rule that's basically a welfare state. There you have large unemployment rates, big unemployment payments and a social welfare net, whereas in this country, we've opted for more of a police state role. Instead of a safety welfare net, we have single-digit unemployment rate, but we've got 2 million people in the armed forces and almost as many in prison or jail.
With prison growth as it is, do you think we'll soon see economies once dependent on the local paper mill replaced by the prison industry? Where is the current prison boom going?
We're already seeing the California prison systems consuming up to 12 to 15 percent of the state's budget, where before they consumed less than 2 percent. Here in Washington the DOC [Department of Corrections] is on its way to becoming a billion-dollar state agency, whereas only 20 years ago they consumed only a small portion of that. In that sense, there are very real limits to how much growth can be achieved. On the other hand, we've also got the model of defense spending where they managed to put trillions of dollars into that sinkhole. But financial reality is going to intrude once it starts breaking the states' budgets.
One way to justify the costly creation of prisons is by the use and promotion of prison labor. How does Washington compare with other states in its use of prison labor?
Washington is in the forefront. In fact, in a Wall Street Journal editorial Edwin Meese cited Washington as being one of the leaders. This goes back to the question of where [the prison boom] is going. I 'm not the only one who realizes that you can't spend billions of dollars locking people up and not have them produce anything. It's a basic economic law that you need to produce value to keep getting value. If you're locking people up and just spending money to keep them locked up, that's gonna cost more money than if you're locking people up and exploiting their labor. This is where the private prison industry fits in, the purpose being to decrease how much it costs to keep each prisoner locked up. So far, Washington is in the forefront of that movement. But out of over 13,000 Washington state prisoners there are only some 300 employed in these free-venture industries.
The American public is generally supportive of the use of prison labor even though they may be losing their own jobs to prisoners who work for minimum wage, don't receive benefits, or take sick leave and vacation time. The zeal Americans possess for this trend seems located within the ethic of "paying one's dues," particularly with regard to prisoners.
This is an example of cutting off your nose to spite your face. The contradiction is the fact that corporations are very image conscious. They want to make money and exploit our labor, and they'll do that quite ruthlessly, in silence, without anyone knowing about it. But it's like cockroaches in the kitchen: as soon as you shine some light, they all go scurrying away.
Do you see any positive features of prison labor, like gaining viable job skills for the outside?
The U.S. garment industry has gone three places: it's gone overseas to sweatshops in Southeast Asia and Latin America, it's done by illegal immigrants here in the United States, and it's done in prisons. I don't think they would seriously tell you that Joe Blow got out of prison and now he's working as a seamster in downtown Seattle's International District. It's just not happening. The other contradiction you have here is when you have jobs that don't fall into the category of sweatshop labor, like the MicroJet jobs. MicroJet is a company that uses very cutting-edge and sophisticated technology. By bringing these jobs into the prisons they're depressing the economy for everyone else out of prison.
Along with the prison labor trend we're seeing an increased move to privatize the prison industry. What is the history of private prisons in this country?
One of the most interesting cases right now is Tennessee. In the 1870s, Tennessee had privatized its prison system under the lease system where they leased out prison labor to private companies. This lead to private companies using prison labor as scabs to break strikes by coal miners, as well as to do work in granite quarries. Back then the free world workers were quite indignant over prisoner scabs being used to put them out of a job. There were several strikes by the outside workers, and in several cases they burned down the prisons and let the prisoners go. And that happened several times in the 1870s and 1880s. In 1884, the disgruntled workers burned down the prisons for the second or third time, because they quite literally saw the direct impact that prison slave labor was having on their livelihoods. Today it's a little more abstract, or academic. And perhaps they were a little more militant back then.
It was a result of that outcry that the state of Tennessee took over its prison system again, and de-privatized it. That's why I find it so ironic that today the state of Tennessee is seriously considering privatizing its prison system yet again. History repeats itself: first as tragedy and then as farce.
How much support does the labor movement provide today concerning the use of prison labor ?
So far, not a lot. But I think that's changing. One of the key things is raising more awareness. The AFL-CIO recently passed a resolution against the use of prison slave labor, so we look at that as a positive step.
A few years ago in Ohio, Honda had set up an outfit to make car parts where prisoners were being paid about forty cents an hour. These were normally union jobs, where a person doing that same work on the outside would get paid fifteen or sixteen dollars an hour. Public outcry resulted in that being stopped.
In the October 1996 issue of Prison Legal News we ran a story that's a typical case about the body armor market. The body armor market is controlled by twelve or fifteen companies, and none of them have more than an 8 percent market share. Unicorps, using low-cost prison labor, decides it's going to get into the body armor market and take 25 percent of the market share. This is fairly enormous considering the fact that federal law enforcement agencies are the largest buyers of body armor. So it does have a significant impact.
The irony of guards wearing protective body armor made by prisoners is hard to ignore.
That goes beyond [irony], there's also the collaborationist aspect. I think it's important not to romanticize prisoners. Just because people may be objectively exploited or oppressed doesn't necessarily mean that they're acting in their own self-interests or showing much class consciousness about their own situation. For example, in this prison a private industry telemarketer hired prisoners to campaign on behalf of [Congressman] Jack Metcalf, yet he campaigned on a "get tough on crime" platform. So you've got prisoners who are going to be directly impacted by those policies, literally helping elect the hand that will beat them. You see this a lot. Up until the early eighties the prison systems in Texas and Arkansas had armed prisoners guarding the other prisoners. Needless to say, there were quite a number of abuses taking place.
Subscriptions to the magazine Prison Legal News, which Paul Wright edits, are $50/year for attorneys and organizations, and $20/year for individuals. Send check to Prison Legal News, 2400 NW 80th St, #148, Seattle 98117. PLN will send sample issues upon request. Paul Wright is also co-editor with Dan Pens of the book The Celling of America, which deals with the US prison industry. The book is available at the same address (specify "Book Department G") for $19.95 plus $3 shipping and handling.