Exploiting Prison Workers for Cheap Sheets

It took Johnny Perez over four years of making hundreds of bedsheets every day at a factory to reach the top pay tier: about 32 cents an hour, nearly double his starting wage. He was one of the highest-paid workers at Coxsackie Correctional Facility—a textile manufacturer run by the New York State prison system.

When he was released years later, Perez discovered that the sheets he had stitched for pennies an hour back in the late 2000s were being sold on the market for hundreds of times more. The bedding was part of a huge inventory of furniture, uniforms, and other products sold under the brand Corcraft, which markets prison-made goods to state agencies, schools, and other public institutions. A dozen Corcraft sheets currently goes for $73.

Perez, who was in his 20s when he worked in the upstate factory, thought about the market value of his daily production quota of about 360 sheets: “You do the math, and you’re like, I made these people millions of dollars,” he said. “Not only me. I was one of many who reached that quota. And when you peel back those layers, it really becomes insidious. You’re like, ‘Wow, well, wait a minute—this is really wrong.’”

Corcraft calls Perez’s job a form of rehabilitation. According to the company’s website: “We employ incarcerated individuals to produce goods while preparing them for release by teaching them work skills, work ethic, and responsibility.”

The notion that laboring for next-to-no pay is an educational, even therapeutic, experience for the incarcerated workers, is rooted in a concept enshrined in the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery except “as punishment for a crime.”

Perez, who now works as the director of the US prisons program at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said that although his job was technically voluntary, it was not really his choice.

“What makes it forced…is that if you quit, you’re punished,” he told me. “What makes it forced is that you can’t take a day off when you don’t want [to work]. What makes it forced is that if somebody dies, you’re not going to get no bereavement time, you’re going to get no sick time.… In prison, there’s no calling in [sick] for Covid, you’re going into solitary or you’re going to get a behavior report, etc. So, that’s what makes it forced, even though people still have to qualify to be able to get the job.”

According to the ACLU’s recent report on prison labor in the United States, “Captive Labor,” almost all adult prisons—nearly 99 percent of public prisons and 90 percent of private ones—run labor programs, employing more than 790,000 out of 1.2 million incarcerated individuals in the country. That figure excludes people working in jails, immigrant detention centers, and juvenile detention facilities.

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