The Prison Industrial Complex

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One of the key criticisms against strong anti-drug policy and hard time for drug offenses is that the cure is worse than the disease. Now, an
expose from MSNBC is adding more fuel to the fire. At issue is whether it is appropriate to use inmate labor as a profit making opportunity.

The article lays out how inmates (most non-violent drug offenders) are being used to staff call centers. The inmates take calls from customers for a variety of commercial enterprises, and the businesses pay the prison system for the service. Called, “the best kept secret in outsourcing,” the practice has been going along for some time, and the use of prisoners as low-cost labor dates back at least 75 years.

This particular instance is run through the Federal Prison Industries, but markets under a less revealing name – Unicor. According to MSNBC, Unicor is expected to take in $20 million for call center and other services in 2011. (The entire amount collected for Prison Industries is about $750 million.)

The program is supposed to help train prisoners in a useful skill and help rehabilitate them for life on the outside. The criticism is about what happens to the money. The prisoners themselves don’t make much for the work – as low as 50 cents an hour.

The text below is from the Unicor website:
The Best Kept Secret in Outsourcing
Whether you need outbound B2B or inbound call center support, UNICOR believes that we can be the ideal partner. We have the experience, we have the quality control, we have the cost-effective labor pool, and we have the facilities nationwide to offer a highly competitive alternative to offshore outsourcing.

Should the money generated be used for treatment? What about the ethics of undercutting the market with what amounts to indentured servitude?

Interestingly, callers are not informed they are talking to a prisoner.

With money desperately needed for drug treatment programs to prevent imprisonment, it would be nice if those already serving time could help pay for much needed services.

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