Made Behind Bars

Last week, I ran into a friend who runs a factory in the Garment District of New York City. He told me a story worthy of sharing...

A major fast fashion company, with brand ambassadors including Kylie Jenner and Cardi B, approached my friend's factory to manufacture a pair of jeans - a style they previously produced in China. The increase in tariffs on Chinese-made goods is pushing many retailers to seek manufacturing elsewhere. When my friend quoted them $27 per piece, the company asked him to match what they were paying in China - $5 per piece, including fabric and labor. 

Sewing is skilled labor and not a minimum wage job in the US - anyone who's attempted to sew can attest to the skill and experience required. Many workers and machines are required to make one pair of jeans. Even with foreign labor, cheap fabric and significant discounts for high-quantity orders, $5 is inexplicably low, so my friend decided to do a little digging and track the jean back to the manufacturer.  

He was led back to a prison in China, where prisoners must work in order to eat. Prison labor in China is essentially slave labor - forced, unregulated and unpaid.

The growing captive workforce plays an invisible but major role in the global supply chain. Penal labor in itself doesn't violate the International Labour Organization. Even so, many fashion brands avoid it or deny it in their supply chains, as it can be impossible to verify the conditions. It can also be difficult for companies to differentiate prison labor from genuine factories because they often operate identically. Foreign factories may even accept manufacturing jobs and then subcontract them to prisons without disclosure, known as "ghost factories." 

In recent years, stories have emerged from customers finding handwritten notes inside their goods from Walmart, Kmart and Zara, with messages of unpaid labor and torture scrawled in Mandarin. Victoria's Secret's reputation for prison labor even inspired a storyline in "Orange is the New Black." (Update: we now know that Leslie Wexner, the billionaire behind Victoria's Secret and The Limited, also helped fund Jeffrey Epstein).

Human exploitation isn't limited to far away places - here in the USA, prison labor is alive and well, fueling some of our largest companies. After the civil war, the 13th amendment abolished slavery "except as punishment for a crime" - a loophole that was immediately exploited to rebuild the economy, resulting in mass arrests of African Americans and our nation's first prison boom. Today, we incarcerate 2.3 million people - people that our capitalist economy relies on. The prison industrial complex is nothing short of modern-day slavery. Companies and prisons are working together to force inmates to work for pennies a day, posing as job training just to increase corporate profits and incentivize mass incarceration. Exploitation is NOT workforce rehabilitation. 

One man, Kevin Rashid Johnson, is serving a life sentence in Virginia and was able to get his story to The Guardian:

"Because of my refusal to work, and the efforts I’ve made to organize strikes and publicize the horrors that go on behind bars, I have faced regular reprisals. In the past three decades I have endured every level of abuse they have to offer: I have been starved, beaten, dehydrated, put in freezing cold cells, attacked with attack dogs, rendered unconscious, chained to a wall for weeks. There’s nothing left to fear."

For any rebuttal resembling that prisoners must pay for their crimes and deserve to work for free - incarceration is deeply complicated and corrupted. Miscarriage of justice, recidivism, racism and poverty trap millions of people in the penal system worldwide and throughout generations. 97% of people currently incarcerated in the US never had a trial - if they did, the prison industrial complex system would fall apart. Watch Ava DuVernay's documentaries "When They See Us" and "13th" on Netflix for further enlightenment on the subject. 

It's not to say that all prison labor is slavery. If safeguarded, payed decent wages and allowed to unionize, voluntary work opportunities can be educational, integrative and a welcome expression of humanity for those incarcerated in developed countries. Conversations about blockchain for production attempt to address the problem with the intention of tracking and traceability, but we're still a few years out from an applied solution. In the meantime, it's best to avoid inexplicably low prices (contrary to our consumer training), boycott companies that profit off prison labor, and invest in brands which take a stance against human exploitation.

Simply put - if it's not fair trade labor, it's unfair labor.


Sign the petition to abolish prison labor in the USA here.



"I believe that pressure from people can create change."
- Ava DuVernay

1 comment

I left a comment about this on your Facebook post before I read your article. You pretty much said everything and I agree 100% with your conclusion.

Michelle February 08, 2021

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