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The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor

The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor

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Published by: Rbg Street Scholar on Jul 10, 2012
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The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor 
 
Mike Elk and Bob Sloan
 Friday 5 August 2011
The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor
Friday 5 August 2011By: Mike Elk and Bob Sloan, The Nation | Report
Nation
series exposing the American Legislative Exchange Council, incollaboration with the Center for Media and Democracy. John Nichols introduces the series.
 The breaded chicken patty your child bites into at school may have been made by a workerearning twenty cents an hour, not in a faraway country, but by a member of an invisibleAmerican workforce: prisoners. At the Union Correctional Facility, a maximum security prisonin Florida, inmates from a nearby lower-security prison manufacture tons of processed beef,chicken and pork forPrison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises (PRIDE), a privately held non-profit corporation
that operates the state’s forty
-one work programs. Inaddition to processed food,
PRIDE’s website reveals an array of products for sale through
contracts with private companies, from eyeglasses to office furniture, to be shipped from adistribution center in Florida to businesses across the US. PRIDE boasts that its work programs
 
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The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor 
 
Mike Elk and Bob Sloan
 Friday 5 August 2011
are “designed to provide vocational training, to improve prison security, to reduce the cost of 
state governmen
t, and to promote the rehabilitation of the state inmates.”
 Although a wide variety of goods have long been produced by state and federal prisoners for theUS government
 — 
license plates are the classic example, with more recent contracts includingeverything from guided missile parts to the solar panels powering government buildings
 — 
prisonlabor for the private sector was legally barred for years, to avoid unfair competition with privatecompanies. But this has changed thanks to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC),its Prison Industries Act, and a little-known federal program known as PIE (the Prison IndustriesEnhancement Certification Program). While much has been written about prison labor in the pastseveral years, these forces, which have driven its expansion, remain largely unknown.
Somewhat more familiar is ALEC’s instrumental role in the explosion of the US prison
population in the past few decades. ALEC helped pioneer some of the toughest sentencing lawson the books today, like mandatory minimums for non-
violent drug offenders, “three strikes”laws, and “truth in sentencing” laws. In 1995 alone, ALEC’s 
Truth in Sentencing Act was signedinto law in twenty-five states. (Then State Rep. Scott Walker was an ALEC member when hesponsored Wisconsin's truth-in-sentencing laws and, according to PR Watch, used its statistics tomake the case fo
r the law.) More recently, ALEC has proposed innovative “solutions” to theovercrowding it helped create, such as privatizing the parole process through “the proven successof the private bail bond industry,” as it recommended in 2007. (The American Bail C
oalition is
an executive member of ALEC’s Public Safety and Elections Task Force.) ALEC has also
worked to pass state laws to create private for-profit prisons, a boon to two of its major corporatesponsors: Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group (formerly WackenhutCorrections), the largest private prison firms in the country. An 
summer revealed that ALEC arranged secret meetings between Arizona’s state legislators andCCA to draft what became SB 1070, Arizona’s notorious immigration law, to keep CCA prisons
flush with immigrant detainees. ALEC has proven expertly capable of devising endless ways to
help private corporations benefit from the country’s massive prison population.
 That mass incarceration would create a huge captive workforce was anticipated long before theUS prison population reached its peak 
 — 
and at a time when
the concept of “rehabilitation” was
still considered part of the mission of prisons. First created by Congress in 1979, the PIE
 program was designed “to encourage states and units of local government to establish
employment opportunities for prisoners tha
t approximate private sector work opportunities,”according to PRIDE’s website. The benefits to big corporations were clear—a “readily availableworkforce” for the private sector and “a cost
-effective way to occupy a portion of the ever-growing offender/in
mate population” for prison officials— 
yet from its founding until the mid-1990s, few states participated in the program.
 
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The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor 
 
Mike Elk and Bob Sloan
 Friday 5 August 2011
This started to change in 1993, when Texas State Representative and ALEC member Ray Allencrafted the Texas Prison Industries Act, which aimed to expand the PIE program. After it passed
in Texas, Allen advocated that it be duplicated across the country. In 1995, ALEC’s Prison
Industries Act was born.
This Prison Industries Act as printed in ALEC’s 1995 state legislation sourcebook, “prov
ides forthe employment of inmate labor in state correctional institutions and in the private manufacturing
of certain products under specific conditions.” These conditions, defined by the PIE program, aresupposed to include requirements that “inmates must be paid at the prevailing wage rate” andthat the “any room and board deductions…are reasonable and are used to defray the costs of inmate incarceration.” (Some states charge prisoners for room and board, ostensibly to offset the
cost of prisons for taxpayers. In Florida, for example, prisoners are paid minimum wage for PIE-certified labor, but 40 percent is taken out of their accounts for this purpose.)
The Prison Industries Act sought to change this, inventing the “private sector prison industry
expans
ion account,” to absorb such deductions, and stipulating that the money should be used to,among other things: “construct work facilities, recruit corporations to participate as private sector 
industries programs, and pay costs of the authority and department in implementing [these
 programs].” Thus, money that was taken from inmate wages to offset the costs of incarceration
would increasingly go to expanding prison industries. In 2000, Florida passed a law that mirroredthe Prison Industries Act and created the Prison Industries Trust Fund, its own version of theprivate sector prison industry expansion account, deliberately designed to help expand prisonlabor for private industries.The Prison Industries Act was also written to exploit a critical PIE loophole that seemed tosuggest that its rules did not apply to prisoner-made goods that were not shipped across statelines. It allowed a third-party company to set up a local address in a state that makes prisongoods, buy goods from a prison factory, sell those products locally or surreptitiously ship themacross state borders. It helped that by 1995 oversight of the PIE program had been effectively
squashed, transferred from the Department of Justice’s
Bureau of Justice Assistance to theNational Correctional Industries Association (NCIA), a private trade organization that happened
to be represented by Allen’s lobbying firm, Service House, Inc. In 2003, Allen became the
TexasHouse Chairman of the Corrections Committee and began peddling the Prison Industries Act andother legislation beneficial to CCA and Geo Group, like the Private Correctional Facilities Act. 
Soon thereafter he became Chairman of ALEC’s Criminal Justice (now Public Safety and
Elections) Task Force. He resigned from the state legislature in 2006 while under investigationfor his unethical lobbying practices. He was hired soon after as a lobbyist for Geo Group.
Today’s chair of ALEC’s Public Safety and Elections Task force is state Representative Jerry
Madden of Texas, where the Prison Industries Act originated eighteen years ago. According to a2010 report from NCIA, as of last summer there were "thirty jurisdictions with active [PIE]operations." These included such states as Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida,Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, andtwelve more. Four more states are now looking to get involved as well; Kentucky, Michigan and

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