See No Evil: Prison Labor Rampant in US, but Barely Registers on Media’s Radar Screen

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On July 1, 2021, The Washington Post ran an article about underpaid firefighters and the need for improved wildfire prevention across the United States. Interestingly, though, and as the Executive Director of Re:Store Justice, Adnan Khan, pointed out on Twitter, the story neglected to mention imprisoned firefighters, who are terribly paid and brutally exploited.

Fair Use.

This kind of blatant omission is not unique to The Washington Post. The New York Times noted the existence of prisoner firefighters, but only to argue that more are needed. 

There’s currently a shortage of prison labor due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 in federal and state penitentiaries. That has sickened prisoners in huge numbers and shrunk the pool of impressed labor more broadly. King 5, a Seattle TV station, recently reported on a statewide license plate shortage due to a dearth of prison laborers, a story that completely ignored how inmate workers are so brutally exploited. Such omissions, Khan emphasizes, effectively promote prison labor. 

During this summer’s Pacific Northwest heatwave, The Seattle Times ran at least a hundred stories on that topic. Several mentioned the effects on the elderly, on farm laborers, on flora and fauna, on pets and on firefighters — at least not-prisoner ones. One short article — all of 446 words — covered extreme heat in prisons. Otherwise, the dangers that the routine lack of air-conditioning poses to prisoners was glaringly absent from its coverage. 

The New York Times ran nine articles about the causes, effects and unique dangers of the heatwave. Not a single one mentioned the heatwave’s impact on prisoners.

The lack of temperature control in prisons is certainly no secret. Vox ran an entire report on it in 2019

Jails, detention centers, and state and federal prisons across the country are rarely temperature-controlled. In some states, the heat index can reach 150 degrees during the summer months. “In the last decade, at least 13 men have died of heat stroke while incarcerated in Texas,” says this article. Meanwhile, lows have been reported at 45 degrees.

The meager wages paid to prisoners is also well-documented. “The average of the minimum daily wages paid to incarcerated workers for non-industry prison jobs is now 86 cents,” writes Wendy Sawyer, research director at the Prison Policy Initiative. Wages vary with some states paying upwards of $2 an hour, while others pay nothing at all. But no matter where states fall on this spectrum, prison labor is fundamentally coerced and a form of modern slavery.

Journalists writing articles on prison labor and their editors surely know all of this. Yet, they continue to systematically ignore it when reporting on prison topics.

It’s possible that journalists simply don’t care. They clearly don’t consider prisoners to be worthy enough to merit mention — even though the US holds roughly 2 million people in prisons, jails and immigrant detention camps, about 25 percent of the world’s population of caged people.

Whatever the reasons for such omissions, the result is to endorse the Prison-Industrial Complex and the exploitation of detainees. It carries a message that retribution, not rehabilitation, is what justice looks like. It also suggests that prisoners are less than human and that they deserve to suffer for whatever crimes they have committed, no matter how much time they have served. It further conveys the message that the government needn’t protect or care for prisoners; the concept of public safety doesn’t apply to them because they are not “the public.”

For those who profit from prison labor, and for the journalists who ignore it, human cages and modern slavery are justified. When someone commits a crime, the unspoken narrative goes, they can be locked up, abused, exploited and neglected.

Whether these journalistic omissions are result from ignorance or malice is largely irrelevant, because the effect is the same. It endorses the incredibly cruel reality of prison life in the US and promotes the unfettered expansion of this country’s vast Prison-Industrial Complex.

“Americans can be completely unaware of the horrendous states of these prisons, usually because the media doesn’t have access to the prisons themselves, or when they do they often go unreported or underreported,” Rachel Kunzi wrote in 2019. “Citizens have a right to know that people are being abused mentally, emotionally and physically while serving their sentences…They are still human beings and have the Constitutional, and innate, right to be treated as such.”

Her article should be posted in every newsroom because quite evidently these obvious truths elude the vast majority of journalists writing about the Prison-Industrial Complex.

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Juliette LaMarr is a writer and disillusioned college graduate based in Seattle, Washington. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Law, Societies, and Justice from the University of Washington in 2021, and has published works in Prison Legal News.