|Several decades ago, the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) significantly reduced the use of prisoner labor in factory industry due, at least in part, to manufacturers’ dissatisfaction with the MDOC’s unfair advantage through the use of what amounted to slave labor. Industries who would normally supply goods to the state had no ability to compete against an industry that used labor with wages lower than sweatshop factories in China. Many prisoners speculate that Michigan’s decision to discontinue its industrial factories that made goods for use by the state was actually motivated by the then-governor’s ownership (or his family’s ownership) in several competing industries. Whether or not this was a motivating factor in changing the state’s policy of using prisoner slave labor in industrial manufacturing is unclear. What is clear is that the state of Michigan has since adopted a policy of state-sponsored monopolies and oligopolies.
Oligopolies exist when the number of sellers or producers is limited (usually by the government) to a population of buyers. Justified by “security reasons,” in the last several decades Michigan has limited its prisoners to using a single source for purchasing store goods (currently Keefe), telephone services (currently Global TelLink), and email and music services (currently JPay). It has also limited prisoners’ access to only a few catalog vendors (currently Access/Keefe, Union Supply, and J L Markus) for personal electronics and select clothing. Michigan prisoners used to be able to order personal footlockers, personal coats, and shorts from private vendors, but now prisoners must purchase these only from Michigan State Industries (MSI)–a state-owned manufacturer using prisoner labor at sweatshop wages.
Recently, the MDOC issued a new policy restricting prisoner access to eyeglasses, requiring prisoners to now purchase their eyeglasses only from MSI or Prism Optical, a company connected to prison industries. It makes no logical sense to restrict prisoners from purchasing eyeglasses from reputable public vendors. It is unclear what the MDOC’s motivation is for this new state-sponsored oligopoly, other than increasing its own revenues through the use of prisoner labor.
Clearly, incarcerating its citizens is big business for the state of Michigan. It provides many jobs for corrections officers and administrative staff, while consuming more than $2 billion of the state’s budget. It is difficult to ask the state to break its dependence on the prison industrial complex, but is it moral for the state to maintain its legislative and judicial policies of lengthy sentences (currently more than 1/3 higher than surrounding Midwestern states) simply to continue its archaic and unfair practices? True prison reform includes legislative changes to excessively long prison sentences, policy changes to increase rehabilitative and constructive programming, and policy changes that don’t abuse power, such as the establishment and perpetuation of monopolies and oligopolies. These senseless policies frustrate the prison population; it ought to also anger the public that the state would limit prisoner access to open markets so only the state and its partners profit.
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Author: Bryan Noonan
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