Skip navigation

PLN editor Paul Wright interviewed in Seattle, WA article

Real Change, Jan. 1, 2008.
PLN editor Paul Wright interviewed in Seattle, WA article - Real Change 2008

Real Change

Mass Incarceration in America

Paul Wright started a newspaper to uncover what the rest of the media cover up.

Interview by ROSETTE ROYALE, Staff Reporter

While serving 17 years in the Washington State Reformatory, Paul Wright started Prison Legal News, a publication dedicated to prisoners’ rights. Now, he’s co-edited a book, Prison Profiteers, that exposes those making money at the expense of the nation’s 2.3 million prisoners.

Remember back in 2000 when talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford was raked over the coals when it was revealed her clothing line was being made in sweatshops in Honduras and the United States? What might the reaction have been if the revelation, instead, had been that the clothes were produced in prisons? Would people have been shocked? Would they even have cared?

One person who would’ve cared, but probably wouldn’t have been surprised, is Paul Wright. As editor for the past 18 years of Prison Legal News, the nation’s only publication dedicated to prisoners’ rights, Wright has stewarded a journal that’s examined, among other issues, how prison labor has been used to package everything from our favorite coffee beans to making our sexiest pair of underwear. All over the country, Wright says that prisoners are a hidden form of sweatshop labor that’s being paid a pittance. If they’re even being paid at all. And the reason we don’t know it, he says, is because the companies who profit, along with the prisons, don’t want us to.

That may begin to change with last month’s release of Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration (New Press, $26.95), a collection of articles Wright and prison rights attorney Tara Herivel co-edited that document not only those whose bank accounts grow fat on a prison labor force, but those the prison industrial complex employs.

In town recently to talk to UW law students about prison labor in the state, Wright chatted with me about the production of women’s panties and Kevlar jackets in prison, the inspiration for Prison Legal News, the prison abolition movement, and the circumstances leading to his 17-year conviction of first-degree murder.

When we use the term prison labor, what exactly are we talking about?

I think a good starting point is the fact is that the United States never outlawed slavery: what it does is it limits slavery to people that have been convicted for crimes. Prisoners can be paid a nominal amount: they are here in Washington, but in a lot of states — Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, basically the heart of the Old Confederacy — prisoners work and are paid nothing for their labor.

When you say paid, how much is that pay?

Well, the prisoners that work here in Washington doing institutional jobs are on average paid 42 cents an hour, and the maximum amount they can make is $55 a month, and the state takes a chunk of that. Then there are Class 2 industries — license plates, furniture, stuff like that — and those prisoners make a maximum of $1.10 an hour. This is the type of work that generally most prisoners can do or have access to. Then, most recently, there are the Class 3 industries, where prisoners work for private industry, and they are nominally paid the minimum wage. The reason I say nominal is they may be paid the minimum wage, but the state takes percentages of it for their so-called incarceration, for various other fines, and legal obligations and such, so the result is that they get paid maybe $1.50 - $2 an hour. And the key thing here is that the businesses are only in prison because they are getting huge amounts of taxpayer subsidies from the state government.

So what companies profit from prison labor here?

In the past, the companies that have used prison slave labor include Starbucks, Nintendo, Boeing, Victoria’s Secret, Eddie Bauer, Planet Hollywood, Microsoft.

What does Victoria’s Secret get out of prison labor?

They’re having some of their items made by prison workers.

You mean women’s undergarments?

Yeah, they’re being made by sweatshop labor. And some of the companies — Microsoft, Starbucks, and Nintendo, for example — at one point, used prison slave labor at the Washington State Reformatory, and at Twin Rivers [Correctional Center], to package their goods.

Does that mean everyone in prison is involved in prison labor?

No. Washington is one of the states where the Supreme Court invalidated the practice in 2004, finding it violated the state constitution. Washington was one of the states with one of the highest numbers of workers working for private companies, but even then, that was only 300 prisoners out of, oh, 19,000 total, so it’s fairly insignificant. To put this into perspective: [there are] 2.3 million people locked up in prison and roughly 2,700 of them work for private companies.

If it’s statistically insignificant, is it something we should be worried about?

Yes, because one of the things you have to understand about prison labor is the fact there are certain elements to it. Former U.S. Supreme Court justice Warren Burger wrote a report in 1986 called [“Prison Industries: Turning Warehouses into] Factories with Fences,” and what he wanted to do was turn back the clock to the time before the Great Depression, when prisons were largely self-sufficient based on their labor, where prisons manufactured goods and sold them on the market, and basically the money that was used from that was enough for the operating cost of the prison. With the Depression, unions, business leaders, and others sought the enforcement of laws that prohibited the transport of interstate commerce of goods made by prison labor, and the argument then, and now, is that labor can’t compete with prison slave labor.

Most recently, you have prisoners who are working for prison industries that are unsafe, being exposed to heavy metals, toxic chemicals. This comes up in computer recycling. It’s being touted as pro-environment, but in reality, you’ve got prisoners with no training, no specialized medical equipment and industrial equipment, being exposed to very dangerous conditions, very dangerous substances. Basically, they’re a totally expendable work force.

The bigger issue in prison labor is the impact mass incarceration has on labor forces. In other words, the big story isn’t the 2,700 that are working for private companies: it’s the 2.3 million that aren’t working for anyone. If you factored in the number of people in prison not working into U.S. unemployment statistics, you would have jobless numbers that would rival those in Europe. In other words, we’d have double-digit unemployment.

So on one hand, you’ve got 2.3 million people who’ve been pulled from the labor market and aren’t working. On the other hand, mass imprisonment also functions as a massive jobs program, because you’ve got another 700,000 people that are working to keep them locked up. Then you have to ask yourself: OK, if those 700,000 people weren’t doing those jobs, what would they be doing? To put it into perspective: in the state of Michigan 20 years ago, one out of every 20 employees was an employee of the department of corrections. Now, one out of every four state employees is.

But the prisons are just the domestic aspect of it. You can also look at the foreign angle and look at the number of people in the military, and that’s one of those things that sets the United States apart from pretty much every other industrialized, capitalist country: the humongous size of our prison population and the humongous size of our armed forces. I think there’s a definite correlation there, in that the police and prisons are to the United States what NATO and the U.S. Air Force is for the rest of the world.

Well, does the military profit from prison labor?

Yes they do. In Prison Profiteers, there’s a chapter about how the federal prison industry makes about $800 million of war material every year, from things like Kevlar helmets to body armor to cluster bomb casings, tow missile cables, Humvee armor and uniforms, to bunk beds and wall lockers.

So undergarments and Kevlar, all these things are being made. How come we don’t know about it?

Well, one of the contradictions with prison slave labor is that, on one hand, the prisoners are demonized in the media. There are politicians, corporate media hacks, and others who have literally made a very good living off of bashing prisoners and their families. On the other hand, there are also a lot of industries that are pretty much thinking about the bottom line and maximizing profits, so it makes them employ prisoners to package Microsoft mice or lingerie or Starbucks coffee. But they don’t want anyone to know about it. So they’ll exploit the labor, make the money while they can, but if they’re exposed, that’s a public relations nightmare. [Prison Legal News] did an exposé about Nintendo using prisoners of Twin Rivers Unit to make packages for their video games, and Twin Rivers is the Washington state Department of Corrections Sex Offender Treatment Unit. I can only say: Maybe I’m the only person who found it ironic that children’s toys are being packaged by pedophiles?

Can prison labor be stopped?

Not really. The State Supreme Court invalidated Washington’s prison labor program, but this past November, Washington voters amended the constitution to allow the practice. So, if you ask people, “Should prisoners be put to use at hard labor?” they’ll go, “Oh, yeah, that sounds great.” But do you still want them doing that if it means you lose your job?

You started Prison Legal News while you were in prison. What was your inspiration?

Basically, the fact that prisoners have no voice, and the injustices in the country and the people that are impacted by it. Prisoners can’t rely on the corporate media to represent their interest or get the information that they need. Most corporate media coverage of prisoner issues is basically little more than press-release journalism. Journalists should ask for both sides of the story and ask both parties. But when it comes to criminal justice issues, it’s pretty much a one-sided story. So stuff like that got Prison Legal News started and, unfortunately, 18 years later, things haven’t gotten better.

Can you talk about how you wound up in prison (Washington State Reformatory)?

Well, I was robbing a drug dealer and he tried to shoot me and my shot killed him, and I got convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Did you plead guilty? Not guilty?

I plead not guilty. I plead self-defense. And obviously the jury didn’t buy it.

So what goes through your head when you hear “guilty?”

It wasn’t that unexpected, in the sense that I’m going through the pre-trial motions and stuff and I’m thinking: Wow, the judge isn’t even making a pretense of splitting things down the middle or being fair; everything is kind of going the prosecution’s way. Which I found out is sort of how things go in criminal cases. And I was thinking that surely this will be rectified on an appeal. Then I found that the appellate system doesn’t really do much, either.

Had you had any experience with the prison system before that?

No, except that I was on the other side of things: I was a military policeman at the time of my arrest.

Well, that’s one of life’s ironies.
Yes it is. That’s why some people get a little upset when I point out that there is not much difference between prison guards and police and the people they guard. Maybe a little more mental illness or more literacy, but aside from that, not much difference.

How is it in prison?

Ha! Basically it is a brutalizing, dehumanizing, alienating experience. And that’s kind of the point.

A while ago I interviewed Angela Davis [RC, Dec. 26, 2007 – Jan. 1, 2008] and she’s a proponent of abolishing prisons.

Yeah, and tear them down and replace them with what? She doesn’t have a very good answer, does she?

Well, her answer was more education— that we need to have more educational opportunities for people, and that that may be a way to help abolish prisons, by providing it beforehand, instead of during or after. Do you think abolishing prisons is a valid idea?

Before you propose abolition, you need to come up with an alternative. That said, I think first we need to analyze why prisons are used, and whether a different economic or political system would be of use. That’s why I think the prison abolition movement has failed to gain a lot of traction, because there has been a lack of analysis on their part as to the role the prison system plays.

So let’s start examining who’s in prison today in America. The profile of the average prisoner is someone who is partially illiterate and mentally ill and substance addicted. You can start making changes on who’s going into prison by other policy changes. One is the state of the public health system, specifically the public mental health system, in this country. Basically, mental illness has been criminalized, so that poor mentally ill people have pretty much been systematically shunted into the criminal justice system and imprisoned. One of the other things is the country’s policies on drugs, which are basically a war on poor drug users. There are very few wealthy people in prison for drug offenses, but if you are poor and use drugs, there is a pretty good chance that you are going to go to prison.

One of the things that is pretty well understood by people in the field is that there is a high incidence of drug abuse and substance addiction among people who are mentally ill: the two kind of go hand in hand. If you start figuring in that the U.S. has 2.3 million people locked up, very, very conservative estimates are at least 400,000 of those people are mentally ill. And then you’ve got anywhere between 80 and 85 percent of that 2.3 million people have substance abuse addiction. So, how many people are we looking at that are in prison who should be in prisons?

So, is prison abolition realistic? Well, you change your priorities of who’s getting locked up, it’s not only realistic, it is very possible. But, most people, I don’t think, have any intention or inclination of even diminishing the prevalence of mass imprisonment in this country. We’re going forward, full speed ahead.

Is there anything people on the outside can do to help people inside?

Well, most people on the outside have no idea what’s going on inside, and the government spends a lot of time and resources keeping it that way. There’s no accountability [in prisons] if people are killed or brutalized or whatever. And unfortunately, America has a bipartisan criminal justice policy and no one is advocating any change in the status quo. One of the things I keep hoping is that, as more and more people are locked up, more people who aren’t locked up are going to feel a direct impact of the criminal system and hopefully that will start the impetus for a type of change. Unfortunately, most of the people who are being locked up are all poor people, and their friends and relatives tend to also be poor people who don’t have much political say in this country.

And that’s the whole thing about the criminal justice system: On whose back is it falling? It’s almost exclusively falling on the backs of poor people.