Amollo: On prison labor, United States is worse than China

Benson Amollo

On Wednesday, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping — also slated to succeed the country’s commander in chief next year — asked the U.S. government to respect “core interests” between the two countries. Without elaborating what the said interests would do, the Chinese leader visiting America sought to affirm China’s sovereignty in carefully selected words.

With the “core interests” passing as a complex bundle, we’re left with one thing to deduce from this. A few years ago and even just recently, the United States has been a lead advocate against what the “free” countries of the West like to presume as China’s iron fist on human rights, especially when it comes to labor laws.

Without much ado today, China would easily get away with accusing the United States of the same; maybe it is safely captured in Xi’s “core interests.” Why? Because whereas it was safe to look East for labor exploitation including those of persons incarcerated a few years ago, the United States hasn’t done any better.

According to the World Factbook of Criminal Justice Systems, America is home to 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Least to say, America makes up to 5 percent of the world’s total population. Perhaps these numbers are less appealing as to make the presidential debates list. Not even President Barack Obama seems bothered by the plight of prisoners, much less the anti-reformist nature of America’s justice system. But over the last few decades, presidential elections in America have been so at peace with the status quo.

Isn’t it surprising, anyway, that the land of the free is also the world’s leading prison state? You could give it to the “dictatorships” in Africa or the totalitarianism in the Middle East, but how would Americans excuse the fact that their’s is a country that proportionally locks up more of its citizens than any human organization on Earth?

But let’s talk about labor and productivity in this regard. The prisoners apparently are a commodity the system really needs in great supply. Free labor is the answer. And private companies are making a killing out of the captives’ unrewarded effort — thanks to a congressional decision in 1999 to make prison labor accessible by private corporations. Needless to add, the continued privatization of the prison system, as well as the surge in number of prisoners, has led to a lucrative venture for private businesses. In China, however, prisoners work for the government and for government benefit only.

So when politicians in this country parade themselves as “change agents,” who is the fool? A workforce without freedom cannot compete in any measure. If prisoners are going to take the jobs that free people could be doing, then there’s no point of crying wolf at how we took a backseat to China. This industrial demagoguery is nothing removed from slavery that was triumphantly “defeated” more than 150 years ago. The shrill echoes of slavery are hidden in the statistics, with African-Americans making up 40 percent of prisoners. We are still seeking ways to improve the economy of this group of people who only constitute a sorry 12 million of the nation’s entire population.

In 2000, there were only five private prisons in operation, yet there are more than 100 today — thanks to an aggressive privatization of the “prison-industrial complex.” Prisoners are coerced to all forms of work by intimidation. They don’t have the freedom to demand rights and would never think of a strike. They earn about 0.17 cents per hour. Meanwhile, the government pays private prisons $30,000 to $50,000 per inmate to cage them in overpopulated prisons.

And will you cry for me America, that while Europe has backpedaled on this practice, we manage to put away at least 20,000 prisoners permanently while at least 100,000 persons are held at any given day? Why is this not a central issue in the country’s politics when statistics indicate the neglect of prisoners’ health? An estimated 50 percent of California inmates are in dire need of treatment for largely mental-related illnesses.

But, hey, it’s business! Corrections Corporations of America is a player in the super PACs, with most money channeled to “tough on crime” candidates. So, we know. This is purely antithetical to rehabilitation. Looks like “tough on crime” isn’t paying (save for the corporations), and the push toward the punitive side of the corrective side is too lame to address crime.

The political tough talk on China, simply put, is stupid if Wall Street firms and investment banks will continue to pour billions into the prison industry for private benefit. Maybe politicians belong in the moon, as Ron Paul likes to put it.