Unions Becoming Concerned About Prison Labor

Look for that Prison Label

-- Julie Light

The assembly lines at CMT Blues look like those at most any other U.S. garment factory. Workers hunch over industrial sewing machines intently stitching T-shirts. Unlike most garment workers, however, all of these are male. There is an even bigger difference: Armed guards patrol the shop floor.

CMT Blues is housed at the Maximum Security Richard J. Donovan State Correctional Facility outside San Diego. It is part of California's Joint Venture Program that links companies to state prisons. Seventy workers sew T-shirts for Mecca, Seattle Cotton Works, Lee jeans, No Fear,Trinidad Tees, and other U.S. companies. The highly prized jobs ay minimum wage. Less than half goes into the inmates' pockets. The rest is siphoned off to reimburse the state for the cost of incarceration, a victim restitution fund, the inmates' families, and mandatory savings accounts. The California Department of Corrections and CMT Blues owner Pierre Sleiman say they are providing inmates with job skills, work ethic, and income.

But two inmates who worked for CMT Blues say Sleiman and the Department of Corrections are operating a sweatshop behind bars. What's more, the inmates say that prison officials retaliated against them when they blew the whistle on what they claim was corruption at the plant. The prisoners claim they were forced to replace "Made in Honduras" labels with "Made in U.S.A." tags in an effort to defraud consumers. And they say they were not paid minimum wage, paid on time, or paid for their first month of work, as required by law.

They are suing CMT Blues, the garment labels that subcontracted the T-shirt manufacturer, Donovan's warden, other prison officials, and the California Department of Corrections for labor law violations, civil rights violations, and fraud. The suit, filed on August 23, 1999, in Los Angeles, has been moved to San Diego County, and the plaintiffs' attorneys expect to go to trial within a year.

The CMT Blues case is a window onto the "prison industrial complex." That term refers to the increasingly close relationship between private corporations and what were once exclusively public correctional institutions. It encompasses not only prison labor, but the host of firms profiting from private prisons, prison construction, and services like health care and transportation. In today's America, incarceration has become a booming business.

Charles Ervin and Shearwood Fleming, convicted murderers, each spent forty-five days in solitary confinement after Donovan prison authorities accused them of talking to the news media about an alleged label-switching scheme.

Sleiman denies any label-switching went on at the plant. "I'm not going to do bogus stuff inside a state prison," he says angrily.

The California Department of Corrections, along with Donovan prison officials, U.S. Customs, and the state Department of Labor, cleared CMT Blues of any charges after a ten-month internal investigation.

Noreen Blonien, a spokesperson for the Joint Venture Program, says the labor code violations were due to a payroll error after a minimum wage hike. "One cycle didn't catch the state minimum wage increase. We caught it at the end of the month," she explains, adding that workers were paid back wages.

The Corrections Department will not comment on a pending lawsuit, nor will Sleiman's attorney.

Sleiman, who leased the 28,000-square-foot factory at Donovan prison in 1996, gets a 10 percent California tax break for operating behind bars. He does not have to pay overtime, workers' compensation, vacation, or sick leave to his inmate employees. He says that operating at Donovan gives him a "competitive edge." It also allows him to sew a "Made in U.S.A." label in his clothes.

"Our clients are very particular. [The garment] has to be made in the U.S.," he says.

In April 1997, Fleming and Ervin were fired from CMT Blues, where they had worked since the plant opened seven months earlier. "They couldn't cut it, so they were released from the program," charges Sleiman, who says the prisoners filed suit to get back at him. But their lawsuit says they were terminated "in retaliation for their exercise of free speech and efforts to seek redress for violations of the labor code."

The suit also alleges that two months before firing Ervin and Fleming, Sleiman threatened to retaliate against the inmates if they went public with the label-switching scandal. "Defendant Sleiman's threats directly burdened or chilled Plaintiff's First Amendment rights and served no legitimate penological interest," the complaint notes.

Two months after they were fired, and just two weeks after a local SanDiego television station aired a report on the alleged label-switching scam, Fleming and Ervin were handcuffed and dragged into the associate arden's office. Prison officials charged that the two were part of a "conspiracy to mastermind a sabotage effort to discredit and possibly put out of business a joint Venture Project," according to the complaint.

Ervin and Fleming spent more than six weeks locked down in solitary confinement, but prison authorities found insufficient evidence to support the conspiracy charges, their lawyers say. They contend that another prison employee-not their client-called reporters about the alleged abuses at CMT Blues.

"They thought that if they established a sweatshop within the walls of a prison, no one would care," charges Joseph Pertel, one of the attorneys.

Despite having the conspiracy charges dropped, Ervin and Fleming were involuntarily transferred to more restrictive state prisons where they have no access to vocational programs and are farther from their families.

"They punished the wrong people," says Della Bahan, another attorney for the inmates.

The issue of prison labor resonates beyond prison walls. UNITE, the garment workers' union, has signed on as a plaintiff in Ervin and Fleming's suit against the clothing manufacturer and the California Department of Corrections. UNITE is concerned that the alleged labor code violations inside a state prison would further lower industry standards on wages and labor code enforcement throughout California.

"We joined the lawsuit to highlight how far the garment industry will go to make a profit," explains Cristina Vasquez, vice president of UNITE.

Only 5,000 of California's 270,000 garment workers are unionized. If they are lucky, they make minimum wage. Many immigrant sweatshop workers do not even earn the bare minimum. Vasquez says the kinds of labor code abuses alleged in the CMT Blues suit are commonplace in sweatshops throughout California.

"This is not the first time we've seen this, but the state doing it -- that's too much," she says.

CMT Blues is the largest contractor under the California Department of Corrections Joint Venture Program, which was instituted after California voters passed a ballot proposition in 1990. The first joint venture opened in July 1991. Now, sixteen companies employ 500 inmates throughout the state prison system doing everything from raising pigs and ornamental plants to manufacturing office furniture, stainless steel equipment, rubber products, and electronic components.

About 72,000 prisoners nationwide are employed in inmate work programs, according to a 1998 Corrections Industry Association report. Most work for federal companies such as UNICOR or state businesses such as the California Prison Industry Authority. About 2,500 work for private subcontractors in thirty-eight states, according to a 1998 report by Prison Industry Enhancement, a federal program. Although the numbers of prisoners employed by private corporations are minuscule compared to the 1.7 million U.S. prison population, these public/corporate partnerships in corrections raise serious concerns for human rights activists and labor activists.

Companies such as Boeing, Victoria's Secret, and Eddie Bauer have subcontracted with companies using low-cost prison labor to manufacture everything from aircraft components to lingerie and software packages. TWA contracts with the California Youth and Adult Correctional Agency to use prisoners to make airline reservations.

In Nevada, prisoners make waterbeds for Vinyl Products, Inc. Another company, Labor-to-Industry (formerly Lockhart Technologies), employs sixty Texas prisoners making electronic circuit boards.

The Washington Marketing Group employs prisoners as telemarketers.

South Carolina Cap and Gown, Inc., hires prisoners to make graduation gowns.

The Array Corporation contracts inmates at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution to make a line of jeans and work clothing known as Prison Blues. The company actually markets the clothes as made by prison labor. Prisoners manufacture 200,000 garments a year that are sold in thirty-two states, Europe, and Japan. They even have a web site, www.prisonblues.com. Operations were closed temporarily in 1996 while alleged violations of interstate commerce laws were investigated. But they reopened in October 1997.

In Oregon, a 1994 ballot measure requires 100 percent of state prisoners to be involved in work programs.

Texas prisoners have tried to organize against compulsory unpaid prison labor. The Texas Prison Labor Union, formed in 1995, demanded that inmates be paid minimum wage for work performed in the state prison system, be covered by state workers' compensation, and have access to arbitration of workplace grievances, according to an article in Prison Legal News.

The Texas Prison Labor Union charged that compulsory prison labor is slave labor. In fact, prison labor has its roots in slavery.

Following Reconstruction, former Confederate Democrats instituted "convict leasing." Inmates, mostly freed slaves convicted of minor crimes, were rented out to do everything from picking cotton to building railroads. In Mississippi, Parchman Farm, a huge prison resembling a slave plantation, later replaced convict leasing. It was not closed until 1972, when inmates brought suit in a federal court against the repressive conditions at Parchman

In 1997, the AFL-CIO Executive Council issued a statement opposing prison labor, which it says violates conventions of the International Labor Organization. The statement calls on "the federal government and the states to end any promotional programs to encourage employers to set up shop in federal or state prisons as an alternative to creating jobs and hiring workers in the general population."

UNITE objects to allowing private contractors like CMT Blues to profit from prison labor and to use inmates to compete with garment workers on the outside.

"How can you organize people in jail?" asks Vasquez. "They have no rights."

Julie Light is Managing Editor of the on-line magazine Corporate Watch. This article first appeared in the June, 2000, issue of The Progressive.

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