Decarcerate PA: Fighting the School-to-Prison-to-Exploited-Labor Pipeline

On October 12th, Decarcerate PA led a rally against the expansion of prisons in Montgomery County.  Protesters marched from the Occupy Philadelphia encampment to the Philadelphia offices of Hill International, which was recently contracted to construct new prisons in Montgomery County.

According to the Decarcerate Pennsylvania website:

The Graterfordexpansion will double the current size of the prison at a projected cost of $400 million. In addition to adding more beds, the proposed new prison will include a new 100 bed death row and a unit for women prisoners.  The two new Graterford prisons are part of a $685 million plan to expand prisons across the state.

In 2011, the Center for Research on Globalization reported that the 1.8 million people imprisoned in the United States represented “the highest per capita incarceration rate in the history of the world” – and those numbers haven’t gotten any smaller.  The United States, home to only five percent of the world’s population, houses twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population. Pennsylvania alone spends close to $2M per year – roughly 7% of the yearly state budget – on prisons – yet our elected officials insist that we just don’t have the money to fund public schools.

In its factsheet on the well-documented phenomenon of the school-to-prison pipeline, the ACLU writes:

For most students, the pipeline begins with inadequate resources in public schools. Overcrowded classrooms, a lack of qualified teachers, and insufficient funding for “extras” such as counselors, special education services, and even textbooks, lock students into second-rate educational environments. This failure to meet educational needs increases disengagement and dropouts, increasing the risk of later court­involvement.

If it’s that obvious, then why don’t we simply, as Decarcerate PA sloganizes, “Fund Schools Not Prisons”?  Why do we continue to prioritize the imprisonment and correction of overwhelmingly nonviolent drug offenders over the education of our children? 

At first glance, this policy doesn’t seem to be in anybody’s interest. But upon closer inspection, the rapid expansion of prisons does benefit some.

For instance, it can benefit politicians to have prisons in their jurisdictions. Prisoners are counted as being registered in the district where the prison is located, which inflates the official population of those districts, giving some rural areas more districts, and thus more votes and more power; this is known as prison-based gerrymandering. 

Primarily, though, the fast-growing prison system benefits corporations, who use the incarcerated as a source of cheap labor.

The 1.8 million people we’re paying to incarcerate? They are being exploited (often forced or otherwise coerced) to perform tasks for corporate profit including wrapping software for Microsoft, making lingerie for Victoria’s Secret and taking airline reservations over the phone during flight attendants’ strikes.  Inmates in Louisiana debone chickens for four cents an hour. In Oregon, they make electronic menu boards for McDonalds. In many cases, these inmates are threatened with solitary confinement if they refuse to work for corporate gain.  This partnership between prisons and private industry allows corporations to pay workers less than two dollars an hour, without having to outsource.

The rapid growth of the United States prison population benefits the corporations that can save money and increase their profit margins by “insourcing,” so to speak, low-paying manufacture jobs to inmates who don’t present such inconveniences as needing health insurance or the possibility of missing work for a family emergency. The same system harms not only the incarcerated individuals and their families and communities, but the non-incarcerated, low-skilled workers who need those jobs. It also robs the government of the tax revenue that would be generated if the unemployed workers whose jobs were given to prisoners – and the prisoners themselves, most of whom are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses – were able to work for a living wage and pay income taxes. By spending money on prisons instead of schools and infrastructure, the United States government is investing its resources in an area that promises little to no return, at the expense of creating jobs for workers who would pay back those costs in tax revenue.

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