African-Americans and Prisons: Prison Labor Vs Slave Labor

Thus far, one of the most valuable benefits of my participation in the Occupy Wall Street movement has been the opportunity to make the acquaintance of people from my community that I had not previously met and the conversations I’ve had with them.  There is a wealth of knowledge and experience that some of these people possess, and I feel as if my social justice IQ has spiked tremendously because of them over the last month.  For example, I met a woman who is an art curator specializing in showcasing the work of prisoners.

Some may ask why the art of a convicted felon is worth paying any attention to.  This curator’s passion for her profession lies in the fact that a disproportionate percentage of African-Americans, Native-Americans and Latino-Americans are imprisoned in comparison with the greater U.S. population.  While the statistics given regarding minority prison rates and what they conclude can vary, and should always be given in their proper context, no one can logically disagree with the fact that something must be done to reverse this trend of disparity.  Exhibiting the art of these prisoners, some of whom are even perhaps wrongly convicted, is her way of working on this problem.

Another conversation I had with a fellow protester raised my awareness to the growing concern of the ethical dilemma of privatizing the prison system.  Companies like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) operate correctional facilities and detention centers (some designed for immigrants) for profits of billions of dollars annually.  The question arises; is it ethical to profit from locking up human beings?  The issue becomes even more complicated when for profit businesses like Starbucks employ prisoners.

Let me just say that if businesses employ prisoners at a fair minimum wage for their work, I’m all for it, as long as they do not use employing prisoners as an excuse to not create jobs outside of penitentiaries and/or cut back on employee benefits to increase their profits.  However, paying prisoners .25 or .30 cents an hour for something someone could be doing on the outside for $10.00/hr and up seems exploitative and unethical.  And targeting poor minority neighborhoods in order to meet prison quotas and cover costs of private businesses is not only unethical; it should be illegal.

At the vary least, I’m of the opinion that we should all become more socially conscious of where and how we spend our dollars as consumers, and of what those businesses are doing with the money we give them.  I also do not believe it is in the best interest of our democracy for private prison businesses to spend millions of dollars lobbying (directly or indirectly) our government for stricter laws; they have too much to gain for increased incarceration rates.

© 2011

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