Corporations are getting rich using federal prisoners as captive labor pools.
Unless she’s dying or recovering from surgery, a patient at the Federal Medical Center-Carswell must work. The hospital out on the banks of Lake Worth is run by the Bureau of Prisons, and its patients are women who have been convicted of federal crimes. Bureau rules require all prisoners — even those in wheelchairs — to work at whatever jobs their infirmities will allow, from scrubbing floors to cleaning toilets.
Just across the street from the hospital complex is a camp for minimum-security women prisoners who are not ill. They get most of the hot, hard jobs — cleaning boilers, welding, mowing. The pay is a lousy 12 cents an hour with no raises. That’s why a job that many on the outside would take only as a last resort is the most coveted in the compound: Ernestine the telephone operator.
So when you call directory assistance using, say, Excel Telecommunications, chances are good your inquiry might be answered by a federal prisoner. At Carswell, a fifth of the prison workforce — most from the camp but a few from the hospital as well — get to sit in cubicles in an air-conditioned building, start at almost double the pay of the regular prison jobs, and, if they behave and don’t make mistakes, get regular raises until they reach the maximum pay of — hold onto your hat — $1.45 an hour. Of course, they have to work seven and a half years to reach that maximum. And since this center hasn’t been open long enough for anyone to make the maximum, the highest pay at Carswell is $1.15 an hour.
With toothpaste at $5.95 in the prison commissary, inmates who take those calls for Excel have to work between five and 25 hours to earn enough for one tube. But by comparison, they’re lucky: Women who work at other prison jobs have to sweat out 49 hours for the luxury of brushing their teeth.
The math on the other end is even simpler, if grander in scale: Excel, a $2.5 billion global company, comes out the clear winner. If the 19-year-old Irving-based long-distance carrier had to pay no more than minimum wage to non-prison U.S. workers to field calls from its worldwide network, it would cost the company $900 a month per worker, plus benefits and payments to Social Security. The 370 prison workers in Excel’s call center at Carswell make $180 a month at most, with no benefits.
But the Carswell prisoners are far from the only ones participating in this exercise in government-assisted capitalism.
How many people know that when they dial 411, the operator at the other end of the call is often a federal prisoner? Or that when they call to reserve a camping space at a national park, the person taking their personal information may be sitting in a cubicle in a maximum-security prison? Or that the body armor for the soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is being manufactured by federal inmates?
In what critics call slave labor and advocates call job training, more than 100 factories and service centers in federal prisons across the United States employ inmates in jobs such as those above and hundreds more, making everything from underwear to military gear to intricate electrical components, all under the umbrella of a near-billion-dollar corporation known as the Federal Prison Industries, Inc., trade name Unicor.