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The Mote in Our Eyes

Courthouse News, March 26, 2021.


By Robert Kahn

Last week in this space I bashed Chinese strongman Xi Jinping for forcing millions of people into slave labor in Xinjiang and elsewhere. But the United States does it too.

Prison Legal News, the premier U.S. source for reporting from inside prisons, has published many articles about forced, nearly unpaid labor in U.S. prisons.

“It’s illegal to import convict-made goods into the United States, but the USA exports convict-made goods,” the editor of Prison Legal News told me in an email. “Every license plate in El Salvador is made by prisoners in Texas.”

That’s astounding: that the most densely populated, labor-intensive country in the Americas’ mainland, with a per capita income of $8,720 ($167.70 a week), would export jobs to the United States for our cheap labor.

So tell me, precisely what is the difference between Lord Xi’s war upon ethnic minorities, and his attempted extermination of Xinjiang, Muslim and Tibetan cultures, and our own lordly, centuries-long assaults and disproportionate imprisonment of Black people? 

“African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at more than five times the rate of whites, and at least ten times the rate in five states,” according to a report by The Sentencing Project. In five states — Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont and Wisconsin — the disparity is more than 10 to 1.

And though no U.S. state has a majority black population (Mississippi has the largest Black population by percentage, at 38.9%), twelve states’ prison populations are more than 50% Black: Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

Maryland, whose population is 32.2% Black, leads this tawdry parade, with a prison population that is 72% Black.

Gateway to the Confederacy, I guess.

And how, if at all, are our prisoners employed, to do what, and for how much money?

Well, according to Prison Legal News’s February issue: “When historic wildfires burned through Arizona in June 2020, two out of three of the firefighters who brought the blazes under control were state prisoners who were paid just pennies on the dollar to do the same job as well-paid professional firefighters working right next to them.”

Inmate firefighters were paid $1.50 an hour to fight the forest fires: time deducted for breaks. State-employed firefighters average a little over $22 an hour, though with hazard pay and overtime on the fireline, they surely made more than that — as they should.

“What those numbers say to me is they’re using inmate labor to close the budget gap,” state Rep. Kristin Engel told Prison Legal News.

In the same issue, Prison Legal News reported that Texas state prisoners in the past year have been paid $2 an hour to move Covid-19 corpses in El Paso.

When I worked as a paralegal for refugees in U.S. immigration prisons during Reagan’s wars against Central America, immigration prisoners were paid $1 a day to work: cleaning, painting, cooking, repairing the prison that held them. 

A dollar a day. They didn’t get the money in their hands, of course; it went on the books so they could buy a cookie or a Coke.

I remember one guy who told me: “No. I won’t work for a dollar a day. Twelve cents an hour? No. I’m a worker. My labor is worth more than a dollar a day.”

He had been a labor organizer in El Salvador, and fled after several of his colleagues were murdered and his life was threatened. And here he was in the United States, in prison, a union organizer, offered a job at $1 a day.

Arguments in our country’s “immigration debates” are endless, though they are not really arguments: just endless vituperation from the right and exasperation from the center. (There is no left wing in the United States.) 

Well, if President Biden really wants to reduce undocumented immigration from Central America, I suggest he start by encouraging El Salvador to tell its own workers — free or in prison — to make their own damn license plates, rather than subcontracting Texas prisoners to do it.

(Thirteen percent of Texas residents are black. Black people account for 33% of the people in Texas prisons.)

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