Weird History

50 Large American Companies That Use Prison Labor  

Genevieve Carlton
95.6k 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.

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Target is listed (or ranked) 9 on the list 50 Large American Companies That Use Prison Labor
Photo: JeepersMedia/flickr/CC-BY 2.0

In 2000, Target used suppliers that rely on prison labor. Earlier in the '90s, big companies like AT&T and Microsoft hired inmates, but most backed away after the arrangements were exposed. Some big companies such as Target, however, still use suppliers that employ prisoners.

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Unicor is listed (or ranked) 10 on the list 50 Large American Companies That Use Prison Labor
Photo:  Federal Bureau of Prisons/

Unicor is a government-owned company that produces helmets and military uniforms for the Department of Defense, employing over 20,000 inmates at wages as low as 23 cents an hour. The company also sells baseball caps to private customers.

Dell is listed (or ranked) 11 on the list 50 Large American Companies That Use Prison Labor
Photo: via Wikimedia

Computer maker Dell used federal inmates to recycle old PCs in 2003. They were forced to stop after a watchdog group pointed out that the prisoners might be exposed to toxins.

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Eddie Bauer is listed (or ranked) 12 on the list 50 Large American Companies That Use Prison Labor
Photo: Metaweb (FB)/GNU Free Documentation License

Eddie Bauer is among the many clothing companies that has used prison labor in the past to sew clothes.

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