Weird History

50 Large American Companies That Use Prison Labor 

Genevieve Carlton
Updated September 16, 2019 132.8k views 50 items

Every day in the United States, over a million people go to work and make as little as two cents an hour or sometimes nothing at all. They're forced to produce and get punished if they refuse. Today, private corporations are profiting off a new form of slavery: the private prison labor industry is growing at a rapid rate in America, and legislation exists to continually increase the sentencing of prisoners.

The corporations that employ prisoners will surprise you. The problem isn't limited to brands with bad reputations. Starbucks, Victoria's Secret, Whole Foods, and Nintendo have all used prison workers to increase corporate profits. And if you've complained about bad customer service, you might be surprised to learn that many call centers are staffed by inmates.

After the Civil War, the 13th Amendment banned slavery - except among inmates. "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” But with all the problems in the justice system, including mass incarceration, racial bias, and harsh laws that force mandatory minimums and three-strike rules, are America's prisoners really "duly convicted?" 

The United States makes up less than 5% of the world's population but has nearly 25% of all the prisoners in the world. And it gets even worse: the 340% increase in Americans behind bars was funded, in part, by corporations looking for cheap labor. Dozens of respected companies funded the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which passed the "Prison Industries Act" to expand inmate labor.

Today, even the federal government brags about the "business opportunities" at dozens of federal prison factories across the country. Companies and prisons are working together to force inmates to work for pennies a day just to increase corporate profits.

In the 1990s, Victoria's Secret used prison labor to sew clothes, inspiring a storyline in season three of Orange is the New Black, in which prisoners make 45 cents to sew a $90 piece of lingerie.

Until 2015, Whole Foods sold goat cheese and tilapia from companies that use prison labor - paying pennies on the dollar in wages. After pushback from consumers, the company stopped selling products that use inmate labor.

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Walmart says it won't sell products made with prison labor, but the company still contracts companies that use inmate labor to dispose of customer returns and excess inventory.

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In the 1990s, Microsoft hired Washington state prisoners to package software and mouses. At the time, a spokesman said, "We don't see this as a negative."

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