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Zunguzungu
By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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“Happy Independence Day from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation!”

What do you see in this photo? What did the hapless social media editor who decided to put this photo on the California Corrections department’s facebook page see in it?

It’s been shared 489 times as of this moment — which is 489 more times than a CA Corrections facebook post is typically shared — and if you judge from the comments, it seems fair to guess that most people are sharing it with some variation on “WTF.” For example: “What the hell is wrong with you people? You celebrate “freedom” by posting a picture of prison labor?”Or “I find it hilarious that CACorrections apparently had no idea why this would be a bad message for independence day or how it would be perceived. Fuck you guys. You have no conscience and you’re going to hell.” It’s hard to tell what CA Corrections was trying to tell us with this photo; all they say is “Happy Independence Day from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation!” and then identify the photo as Photo: A female inmate works on an American flag while working in the Prison Industries Authority Fabrics program at the Central California Women’s Facility on Thursday, April 5, 2012 in Chowchilla, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle / SF.

I imagine the fact that she looks relatively well and healthy, and is not wearing the usual prison attire (what’s with the jewelry and watch?) allows the fact that American flags are being made by essentially forced labor to scan as normal. In  certain sense, it may even scan as a kind of opportunity for her, to “correct” herself through virtuous labor, and in doing so, cover up the fact that most prisons are simply warehouses for human suffering. Indeed, the photo originally comes from this story in the SF Chronicle, which has the same caption (except instead of “A female inmate,” they wrote “One inmate”) and puts the best possible spin on the program.

Many — indeed most — of the commenters are horrified. “The prison industrial slave complex is showing it’s muscles!” is a common sort of sentiment, and the words “slave” appears 18 times. Frederick Douglass’ famous Fourth of July oration “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? by Frederick Douglass” is linked twice.“Slave labor is the foundation of this country.. this picture hella reminded me of that,” for example, and “The real criminals are the ones profiting off of slave labor.” One commenter reproaches:

“I don’t know why everyone is getting all bent out of shape over this. America was built on the backs of slaves and the CA corrections is acknowledging that by sharing a photo of one of the many forms of slavery still prevalent in America.”

A few of the comments are economic. ”A lot of flags were made in China, til people realized the hypocracy and wouldn’t by them,” someone notes; another: “So I guess THIS is how we get “made in America” stickers on them? We can’t even pay a worker minimum wage to get a damn flag made?” Someone else proclaims: “Pretty fucked up. Pass laws making almost anyone a criminal so you can get cheap slave labor.” And another: “every job done behind bars (for a for profit enterprise, no less) is one less job available outside of prison. Our penal system is supposed to focus on rehabilitation, not maximizing private profits.”For support, one commenter links to a NY Times story, “Private Businesses Fight Federal Prisons for Contracts,” which opens thusly: “As chief financial officer of a military clothing manufacturer, Steven W. Eisen was accustomed to winning contracts to make garments for the Defense Department. But in December, Mr. Eisen received surprising news. His company, Tennier Industries, which is in a depressed corner of Tennessee, would not receive a new $45 million contract. Tennier lost the deal not to a private sector competitor, but to a corporation owned by the federal government, Federal Prison Industries. Federal Prison Industries, also known as Unicor, does not have to worry much about its overhead. It uses prisoners for labor, paying them 23 cents to $1.15 an hour. Although the company is not allowed to sell to the private sector, the law generally requires federal agencies to buy its products, even if they are not the cheapest.”

Some defend the system; One asks, “So what should those who are incarcerated do? Nothing? I was always taught that work is good for the mind and body.” Another commenter notes that “These systems are often voluntary” and links to a site describing the purpose and functioning of the CALPIA program:

“CALPIA’s job assignments are voluntary-offenders are not required to work; however, offenders are generally eager to participate, as waiting lists are common for many CALPIA assignments. The CALPIA work assignments can help offenders learn work skills and habits to become productive members of society.”

But most of the commenters reject this line of reasoning. One demands that:

“It’s just bizarre to me to call that “voluntary.” If I were to keep you in a cage, charge exorbitant prices for you to have phone conversations with your loved ones, and kept you in a constant state of fear of sexual assault, then offered you a chance to step out of your cage to make a flag, you might take it, but I wouldn’t call you a volunteer.”

While another notes the Amendment abolishing slavery:

The 13th amendment makes two exceptions to INVOLUNTARY servitude – people in the military and people in prison. What kinds of “work skills” does someone master making less than $2 an hour in a prison sweatshop (besides pride, of course). The site linked above gives the reasons for this program. #1 is taxpayer savings. Slavery is inexpensive.

If you’re interested, you can also enjoy these photos from CA Correction’s Flickr photostream, including, of course, “Bring Your Daughter to Work Day.”

 

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3 Responses to ““Happy Independence Day from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation!””

  1. Adam Hefty says:

    I found the original article on SFGate which was the source of this picture. Interesting that the general thrust of it is about the possible loss of relatively humane conditions in women’s prisons and the specter of overcrowding. http://www.sfgate.com/crime/article/California-women-s-prisons-trying-to-save-programs-3500777.php

  2. Cade DeBois says:

    Bingo:

    “It’s just bizarre to me to call that “voluntary.” If I were to keep you in a cage, charge exorbitant prices for you to have phone conversations with your loved ones, and kept you in a constant state of fear of sexual assault, then offered you a chance to step out of your cage to make a flag, you might take it, but I wouldn’t call you a volunteer.”

    Whenever we as a society stuff people into institutions against their will, inhumane and exploitative things curiously seem to happen to them, despite all the high-minded assurances that this is for their betterment or well-being. Smart Ass Cripple recently wrote a post on this phenomenon, where he explains the options that economically and socially vulnerable disabled people are given by developmental and occupational institutions that “train” such disabled persons, which are about as stimulating and edifying as making flags in a prison workhouse, and which are often defended as giving disabled people the “choice” to work and be productive, as oppose to withering away, forgotten by society:

    “I could conduct a survey where I offer cripples a choice between a) being locked in a meat freezer for three days wearing only a Speedo or b) a kick in the crotch. Four out of five cripples will say they prefer a kick in the crotch. Hell, five out of five cripples will say they prefer a kick in the crotch. So then I’m not only justified but I’m sanctified when I go around kicking cripples in the crotch. I’m honoring their choice.” (http://smartasscripple.blogspot.com/2012/06/four-out-of-five-cripples-prefer-kick.html)

    I’m sure the rationalizers of the world will go, “But, but, but we’re not talking about disabled people, but people who have been convicted of a crime!” Yeah, but why such people are only being given the option to choose between rotting away invisibly or being exploited invisibly falls entirely on us as a society, not whatever they did to get them into that place. If we as a society take responsibility to “develop”, “train” or “rehabilitate” them, for whatever reason, our responsibility to treat them humanely doesn’t change. A human being is still a human being, and our obligation to them must be rooted in that reality. That means giving them more humane options–options that reflect their being persons of dignity and potential, as opposed to giving them menial tasks with virtually no tangible or significant compensation (save for the “pride” that we all know springs forth from soul-crushing. mind-numbing toil) and for the profit and convenience of others with power over them. In other words: SLAVERY IS WRONG, PEOPLE.

  3. Dear TNI,

    You never cease to amaze me with what topics you choose to write on. Talking about the prison industrial complex and showing voices of resistance who know how fucked up the situation is is critical in our cultural climate. Thank you.

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