Corporate involvement in prison labor is limited compared with other sectors of the prison industry. While some industries, like the prison phone, food, and health systems, for example, are highly and sometimes entirely privatized, corporate involvement in prison labor is typically less direct and harder to research.
Most of the labor performed by incarcerated individuals in the U.S. is used to carry out the daily operations of the prisons that incarcerate them (i.e., to maintain the prison system itself), thereby lowering their cost to the public. A small fraction of people who work have jobs that produce goods or services, mostly for the state that incarcerates them, and less often for the private sector. Other companies may be involved in other ways.
Our research on corporate involvement in prison labor includes:
- Companies that use incarcerated workers to maintain and operate the prisons in which they are held. This includes, for example, private prison operators CoreCivic and GEO Group, as well as prison food service provider Aramark.
- Companies that use prison labor to produce products and services for state agencies. This includes, for example, products like Virco furniture and services like operating phone lines at call centers run by privately-owned company Televerde. This information can typically be gleaned from the online catalogs of state "correctional industry" agencies.
- Companies that directly operate prison labor programs, mostly through the federal Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP), and whose products end up in the private market. These are almost entirely privately-owned small and local businesses, but also companies like Shaw Industries, owned by publicly-traded Berkshire Hathaway.
- Companies that have prison labor in their supply chains by, for example, sourcing from PIECP programs. It is likely that every large U.S. retailer has prison labor in its supply chain, unless it takes measures to prevent this. Without corporate auditing and public disclosures, such as Costco's and Home Depot's, information can only surface anecdotally, as in the case of Walmart and TJX. In many cases, companies whose involvement in prison labor is exposed quickly end their involvement. That was the case, for example, with Whole Foods, Victoria's Secret, and a host of other major brands who still appear on online prison labor "blacklists."
- Companies that supply and equip prison labor programs. For example, 3M provides the materials for making license plates and other products in many state prison labor systems. We do not include all contractors of prison labor agencies, but only the ones that provide materials or equipment specifically used in prison labor programs.
- Companies that sponsor the National Correctional Industries Association (NCIA). We presume they have a stake in the prison labor industry through one of the above involvements, but sometimes we cannot find public information about the nature of their involvement.
For a general overview of state and federal prison labor programs, as well as a brief discussion of prison labor conditions, see here.