Corporations are getting rich using federal prisoners as captive labor pools.
By Betty Brink | Unless she’s dying or recovering from surgery, a patient at the Federal Medical Center-Carswell must work. The hospital out on the banks of
Just across the street from the hospital complex is a camp for minimum-security women prisoners who are not ill. They get most of the hot, hard jobs – cleaning boilers, welding, mowing. The pay is a lousy 12 cents an hour with no raises. That’s why a job that many on the outside would take only as a last resort is the most coveted in the compound: Ernestine the telephone operator.
So when you call directory assistance using, say, Excel Telecommunications, chances are good your inquiry might be answered by a federal prisoner. At Carswell, a fifth of the prison workforce – most from the camp but a few from the hospital as well – get to sit in cubicles in an air-conditioned building, start at almost double the pay of the regular prison jobs, and, if they behave and don’t make mistakes, get regular raises until they reach the maximum pay of – hold onto your hat – $1.45 an hour. Of course, they have to work seven and a half years to reach that maximum. And since this center hasn’t been open long enough for anyone to make the maximum, the highest pay at Carswell is $1.15 an hour.
With toothpaste at $5.95 in the prison commissary, inmates who take those calls for Excel have to work between five and 25 hours to earn enough for one tube. But by comparison, they’re lucky: Women who work at other prison jobs have to sweat out 49 hours for the luxury of brushing their teeth.
The math on the other end is even simpler, if grander in scale: Excel, a $2.5 billion global company, comes out the clear winner. If the 19-year-old Irving-based long-distance carrier had to pay no more than minimum wage to non-prison
But the Carswell prisoners are far from the only ones participating in this exercise in government-assisted capitalism.
How many people know that when they dial 411, the operator at the other end of the call is often a federal prisoner? Or that when they call to reserve a camping space at a national park, the person taking their personal information may be sitting in a cubicle in a maximum-security prison? Or that the body armor for the soldiers fighting in
In what critics call slave labor and advocates call job training, more than 100 factories and service centers in federal prisons across the United States employ inmates in jobs such as those above and hundreds more, making everything from underwear to military gear to intricate electrical components, all under the umbrella of a near-billion-dollar corporation known as the Federal Prison Industries, Inc., trade name Unicor.
This little-known and wholly owned arm of the BOP has come under fire in recent years from environmentalists, prison reform groups, and congressional investigative committees for, among other things, exposing inmate workers to dangerous levels of lead and other toxins in its computer recycling centers. The company has also been investigated for profiting from sales of tens of thousands of excess Defense Department computers that were supposed to be given free to low-income schools around the country and, what may be worse, failing to remove sensitive data from the computers it resold. Unions and even the U. S. Chamber of Commerce are up in arms over its use of dirt-cheap prison labor to take jobs from the private sector.
The prison workers are just as unhappy. Unicor and the companies it contracts with “are making a killing off of us here,” one of the Carswell workers wrote recently to Fort Worth Weekly. “And then we leave prison and have nothing to fall back on. Just think how beneficial it would be if they paid at least minimum wage, paid into Social Security … so that we would have something when we leave, old and broken down.”
There’s another Carswell prisoner who may be in a better position than most to help shine a spotlight into this dark corner of the federal prison system. “This prison is making huge profits off of nothing more than slave labor and then marking up prices by as much as 50 percent in the commissary, making even more profit off of all us,” Karen Lucchesi Lewis said.
Lewis has been a lot of things in her 42 years. She has known fame as the daughter of legendary Texas Rangers baseball manager Frank Lucchesi. She has owned and managed a multi-million-dollar spa and wellness center. She has been an honored volunteer fund-raiser for charities in her hometown of Colleyville. And, as a sufferer from lupus, she has been a proponent of naturalized medicine. What she never dreamed of becoming was an advocate for women in prison – especially one advocating from inside the walls. But that is exactly what she is these days, turning a shattering life change into a “mission from God,” as she calls it.
For the last three years Lewis has been doing time at Carswell, after getting caught up in a money-laundering sting aimed at the man who at that time handled legal matters for her business and who got off with a light sentence after testifying against her. In court, her criminal lawyer presented a defense so weak that even the sentencing judge commented on it. Still, Federal Judge John McBryde sent her to prison for 78 months.
While her new attorney, her family, and supporters such as North Side businessman Mike Costanza are working to get her conviction overturned, Lewis is on another quest. She wants to expose the injustices that she said she has witnessed since she entered the Carswell compound in 2004 – everything from “terrible medical neglect to women being used as slave labor for the prison to make millions in profits.”
Regardless of whether one believes in her innocence, Lewis is a high-profile inmate who is unafraid to speak out about a culture of abuse at Carswell that has been reported by the Weekly in an ongoing series since 1999. Now, to the prison’s litany of well-documented medical horror stories, rape, and sexual misconduct cases, are added allegations that the inmates are being exploited by a government industry that few citizens have ever heard of – even though it has been around since 1934. Someone’s making millions off the labor of the women at Carswell and thousands like them across the country – but it sure isn’t the inmates.
During the depths of the Great Depression,
Prison industry advocates say the “factories with fences” train inmates for jobs on the outside. They say the work reduces recidivism and boredom and gives inmates a source of income to help pay their court fines, support families, or spend at the commissary. Critics, on the other hand, describe them as Dickensian places where laborers have no workplace protection, are routinely exposed to cancer-causing toxins, and are exempt from federal labor laws, which means they can be forced to accept wages lower than those in
For the last several years, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, labor unions, and prison reform groups such as FedCure have all pushed for legislation that would outlaw Unicor’s preferential treatment and require the corporation to pay minimum wage. Members of Congress from states whose manufacturing businesses have lost millions in government contracts to Unicor have taken up the cause, but to date the corporation has been able to fend off all such efforts.
By 2006 Unicor had come a long way from that initial $4 million. Last year, according to its annual report, the corporation held assets of $730 million in 108 factories and service centers at 79 prisons across the country. Its gross sales were $718 million with profits of $71.2 million. Those profits were produced by more than 21,000 inmate laborers who made, on average, $1,700 for a year’s work. The profits aren’t, as one might suspect, plowed back into the prison system to, say, improve healthcare services at Carswell or reduce the inflated prices for basic personal hygiene supplies at prison commissaries. Instead, it is plowed back into Unicor.
One its harshest critics is U. S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican who has been trying since at least 2000 to get legislation passed that would reform Unicor and force it to compete with private companies. He said that the requirement that federal agencies must buy from Unicor allows it to perpetuate itself without regard to whether that is the best option for agencies and for prisoners themselves.
One congressional aide, who asked for anonymity, said that Hoekstra has found no evidence that those who run the corporation are enriching themselves. But, he said, it’s a “giant Ponzi scheme,” that requires more and more millions to feed its ever-expanding enterprises.
In recent years, Unicor has added to its list of factory-made products what it calls “services”: computer recycling centers, industrial laundry services, printing shops, and call centers – all for sale to private, for-profit companies in spite of the law’s prohibiting language. BOP Director Harry Lappin, who is also head of Unicor, maneuvered around that little obstacle in the law, apparently successfully, when he testified before a congressional committee last year that the corporation’s new offerings are “a service, not a product” and that therefore the law does not apply. Unicor now advertises its call centers on its web page and in its catalogs as “domestic outsourcing at offshore prices.”
Three major national communications networks use the “domestic outsourcing” call center at Carswell for their directory assistance services, according to FPI program director Todd Baldau. Baldau refused to name the clients, citing “proprietary information.” However, two inmates who currently work at the center, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, said the companies are Excel Telecom, Cricket Communications, and Metro 411. Calls and e-mails to the three companies were not returned. Baldau would not say what the companies pay Unicor for inmate labor for their call centers, but the corporation’s 2006 annual report listed sales of $27.8 million from its 18 service centers, including Carswell, with profits of $2.5 million.
The policy that all prisoners in federal lockups must work, including the less critically ill patients in prison hospitals, is designed to keep prisoners occupied as much as anything, bureau spokesman Mike Truman said in an interview for an earlier story. “Life can get very boring in prison,” he said, and reducing boredom reduces the potential for trouble among inmates.
Working for Unicor “is a privilege for good inmates with a smidgen of education,” said a former Carswell prison employee who asked not to be named. “They are monitored heavily, are lectured frequently, and really do their jobs in fear of losing them if they mess up. … The work is easy, conditions are better [than any other jobs there], and the work is useful on their resumÃ©s once they get out. … That’s why jobs with Unicor are coveted.” The call center at Carswell has been open for more than five years. Women sit in a small, guarded, air-conditioned building near the center of the compound, taking directory assistance calls in eight-hour shifts, 24 hours a day.
Sweatier non-Unicor jobs basically cover maintenance work at the prison camp and hospital, including groundskeeping, floor-scrubbing, plumbing, welding, carpentry, and cleaning the boilers that provide hot water and heat for the compound. “They even work on the elevators,” said former inmate Dana Corum. “And that’s a full-time job because those dang elevators were always out.”
Prison officials also refused to discuss details of Unicor pay scales. But one of the inmates who provided the names of the Unicor client companies wrote to the Weekly that the pay starts at 23 cents an hour with incremental raises that top out at $1.15 an hour. She said that after 18 months on the job, the women get an additional 10 cents an hour for “longevity” and another 5 cents an hour for each 18 months after that up to 80 months. At that point, they will have “maxed out” at around $1.45 an hour. “There are a few ‘premium pay’ positions that rate an extra 25 cents an hour … for being extra important to the operations – or the most liked,” she wrote. It takes “political … shit to get these spots.”
The Spokane Area Journal of Business reported last year that regular call center jobs in this country start their workers at more than $11 an hour, plus benefits. Call center personnel in
And since the prison laborers receive no benefits: and no Social Security, the private companies that contract with the prisons save on those substantial costs as well. Average cost to an employer for health insurance for a family of four in 2007 is around $9,000 a year according to Towers Perrin, a global business financial management firm. And then there’s that 9.1 percent matching contribution to Social Security and Medicare for each employee.
Unlike Indian workers, American inmates don’t have to pay for all their living costs from those salaries – but Indian workers, on the other hand, don’t have to pay almost $2 for soap. Inmates are required to buy all personal items, and often meet some dietary needs, from the prison’s commissary.
Most can’t afford just the basic things that are necessary for their health and hygiene, said Lewis, who is one of the few who has a family able to put money into her prison account, to a maximum of $300 a month. A commissary price sheet lists a bar of bath soap at $1.65, deodorant at $2.80, and a box of regular tampons at $5.30. For diabetics, who must buy their own non-sugar products, a 50-count box of Equal packets costs $3.80. Many of the women at Carswell come from poor families. Some have been abandoned by their families, and only a few have loved ones who can send them money for such basic needs.
Corum, a diabetic, spent five years at Carswell, off and on. She was sent to
Even though the women work under strict guidelines, which forbid them to ask callers for personal information or tell them their calls have been routed to a prison, the jobs can be enjoyable and provide some relief from the rigidity of prison life, Corum said. “They had some fun, but the pay is still lousy,” she said, “and the whole thing is a racket that’s making money for the prison and unfairly competing with legitimate businesses.”
Unfair competition with private business is high on the Communications Workers of America’s list of concerns with the federal call centers because of the resulting loss of jobs for its members, said Candice Johnson, a spokeswoman for the national union. “Generally, outsourcing has been the big issue” with American communications workers, she said. “But if those [outsourcing] companies are now bringing back that work to the federal prisons, and still paying the same low wages, that is still an unfair advantage over the other companies that have stayed here and are trying to provide good-paying jobs and good service.” Johnson said the CWA believes the prison jobs do not provide the training that such work requires in order to give good customer service. “Good companies value good customer service,” she said. That was a big problem with the call center jobs that were sent overseas in the first place, she said: Foreign workers read from scripts, and if the customer’s problems didn’t fit the script, the employee was stumped and the customers ended up angry and frustrated. For that reason, she said, companies like AT&T and U. S. Airways are in the process of bringing their call centers back to this country. “People [in prison] need the opportunity to learn skills” but Unicor is not the answer, she said.
The system has its defenders outside the prison system. Journalist Harry Sheff, in an article for a web-based business magazine, wrote in July that “Unicor call centers don’t compete with American jobs – they only take on contracts that were about to be outsourced overseas.”
Other voices of protest are coming from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose director of legislative affairs told National Public Radio in September, “We do not believe Federal Prison Industries should continue its unfettered expansion into the commercial marketplace. … The business community is extremely concerned about this.” Future expansion by Unicor is possible because of the enormous increase in the prison population in recent years – an involuntary workforce numbering close to 200,000 now and increasing by about 2.5 percent annually.
Unicor now offers more than 140 products and services for sale to other government agencies, with more than half its output bought by the Department of Defense – by far its largest customer, especially since the beginning of the Iraq war. Like every other defense contractor, Unicor has benefitted from the war and dislikes competition. “While we expect the continuing war effort [to] provide another year of excellent work opportunities for our inmates, that situation will not last indefinitely,” Unicor directors wrote in the 2006 annual report. “We are positioning to a post-war environment.”
Another similarity between Unicor and other military contractors has been its propensity for corruption.
When she was at the Federal Correctional Institution Marianna in
Corum wasn’t exaggerating. In 2000, Rep. Hoekstra, chairman of the House subcommittee on education and the workforce, opened an investigation into the “racket” that Corum had witnessed, albeit a small part of it. The FPI “has been taking tens of thousands of items in excess federal government equipment, especially computer equipment, and using them to fuel an entry of unknown scope into the commercial marketplace,” he said at the opening of the subsequent hearing. In other words, they were selling used government equipment, improperly and in huge quantities.
According to Hoekstra’s office and transcripts of the hearings, Unicor acquired the computers through a process that allows federal agencies that are replacing equipment to pass along outdated but still operable items for use by other agencies. If other federal agencies don’t need the hand-me-downs, the equipment is supposed to be dispersed, free, to nonprofit groups, schools, or state governments. It is never supposed to be sold.
In this case the computers were destined to be sent to poor school districts under a presidential order of Bill Clinton. Somehow, FPI got to them first, hauled them out of the warehouses, and began a huge, illegal, garage sale, Hoekstra said. He noted that at the time the U.S. Department of Justice was conducting a criminal investigation of Unicor. “It is high time,” he said. “FPI has been out of control for years, exceeding its statutory authority and running wild through the marketplace without any Congressional … authority.”
Hoekstra’s evidence showed that during 1999 FPI took almost 60,000 excess items from the Defense Department alone, worth $481 million, and in 2000 added 83,000 more excess items with value estimated at just under $89 million. The company would have topped the $1 billion mark in illegal sales, the chairman said, if not for the “vigilance of a dedicated public servant” who blew the whistle. FPI’s defense was the “dubious claim” Hoekstra said, that it did not break the law governing its existence because selling the equipment was a service and not a product, the same justification echoed by Lappin last year when Congress questioned the call centers.
As a result of his own investigation, Hoekstra introduced legislation that would have reined the corporation in. It didn’t pass that year, but his spokesman said Hoekstra will keep reintroducing the bill for as long as it takes to get it passed.The most recent scandal involved Unicor’s recycling centers. A single personal computer contains a toxic cocktail of cancer-causing chemicals, including up to eight pounds of lead, according to a report by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. In 2002 SVTC found that prisoners at a maximum-security prison in
By 2005 the BOP had admitted that in at least three of its factories, prison workers had been exposed to higher than safe levels of toxic chemicals – but officials said the problem had been fixed. Not true, said the government’s Office of Special Counsel and called for an investigation by the Justice Department. The investigation is ongoing. In the meantime, Unicor clients such as Dell and the state of
Worker exposure to deadly lead, followed by denials and cover-ups, is not new in the prison agency. The Weekly reported on a similar incident that happened at Carswell in 1999, when three federal maintenance workers and a half-dozen female inmate workers were ordered to dismantle a lead-lined medical radiology room at the hospital. They were given no protective clothing or breathing equipment, even though they were working in a small room and had to crawl into some of the lead-lined cabinets and grind the lead out. Three of the civilian workers suffered such serious and irreparable lead poisoning that they can no longer work, and their doctors have said it will shorten their lives. Even their wives and children had high levels of lead in their blood.
Karen Lucchesi Lewis wishes that the same kind of pressure brought against Dell could be brought against the telephone companies under Unicor contract at Carswell. But she is realistic enough to know that it is unlikely to happen. Women in prison, she said, are forgotten by the public and the Congress – and that includes a woman who ran an $8 million business before her conviction.
Lewis has much more outside support than the average inmate. Nelson Thibodeaux, editor of a Colleyville online newspaper, Localnewsonly.com, has written extensively about her case.
But others from the Colleyville business community and women’s groups she once participated in have abandoned her. She was a major fund-raiser for many charities in Colleyville and North Texas including the Colleyville Woman’s Club, the Christ Haven Shelter for women, the
At Carswell, Lewis was at first put to work mowing the grounds. “They never considered the fact that someone with lupus is supposed to stay out of the sun,” she said. Later she was moved inside to help clean the boilers. She has not applied for work with Unicor, she said. Instead, she has established a health education and exercise class for the women. That takes up “all of my spare time,” she said. Her lupus is currently in remission, she said.
Lucchesi said that her memories of growing up as Frank and Kathy Lucchesi’s youngest child sustain her. “We had a very old-fashioned Italian upbringing,” she wrote in one letter. “I used to love to go to the games to watch Papa on the field and then eat late at night.” But her famous dad, who was manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, the Chicago Cubs, and the Texas Rangers, kept her away from the players he managed, she said. “I was never allowed to date them.” After Frank retired, the whole clan lived near one another in Colleyville.
All of that familial happiness came to a crashing end in 2004 when Karen was taken in handcuffs and leg-irons through the clanging prison gates of Carswell, bringing her to a cramped, four-person cell in the austere prison where she was destined to spend the next six and a half years.
“I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it was really happening,” she said. “I have never even had a traffic ticket.” But in October 2003, a traffic ticket was not the issue. Dirty money was. That month Lewis was found guilty by a federal jury in
Her long-time friend and business attorney Anand “Ani” Alloju had introduced her to a wealthy Mexican citizen and supposed drug dealer allegedly interested in investing in her business. Lewis said she was never told by Alloju that the man was a dealer. In fact, he was an undercover agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration working a sting operation aimed at Alloju. The lawyer, who had access to Lewis’ bank accounts, laundered the $20,000 through those accounts without her knowledge, she said, even forging her signature on some checks.
The DEA agent claimed she was a willing participant. On the stand, Alloju’s testimony about Lewis’ knowledge of the scheme was vague and contradictory. The jury believed the agent. And even though Alloju was the primary target of the sting and admitted in court that he had washed $200,000 in what he clearly understood was illegal drug money through various other phony accounts he set up, he was sentenced to two years and spent only 11 months in prison, getting out early after completing a drug rehab course. By pleading guilty and testifying against Lewis, Alloju got a reduced sentence and a pass for his psychiatrist wife Lisa Alloju, who, according to her husband, deposited the drug money in Lewis’ accounts. Lisa had just completed a probated sentence for drug possession and was never charged in the money-laundering case. The 41-year-old Alloju did not enjoy many days of freedom; he died of unknown causes a little more than a month after his release in 2005.
“Even if you don’t believe [Lewis] was railroaded – and I do – the trial was a farce,” said Costanza. “Then she gets three times the sentence that the slime-bag who set her up got. It makes no sense.” He and other supporters of Lewis think that the undercover agent went after her as a trophy. “A big name gets more print and more glory for the undercover guy,” Costanza said. “Karen wouldn’t be in prison if her name had been Smith.”
The pain her incarceration has caused her close-knit family seems to weigh heaviest on Lewis these days. “When a family member goes to prison, the whole family goes to prison,” she said. “Everyone’s life is put on hold.”
But she seems to have come to terms with her imprisonment. She’s campaigning to let the world know of the injustices she has witnessed there. The most recent, she wrote to the Weekly, was the death of Genevieve Ramirez, 64, who on Aug. 1 fell in her room and hit her head around 1 a.m. Lewis and several other inmates “couldn’t find or get medical help till after 3 a.m.,” she wrote. “She had a brain aneurysm. They took her to [an outside] hospital and she was put on life support for two days, then they pulled the plug.” The BOP has not returned calls requesting information on Ramirez’ death.
Weekly reporters, except in rare instances, have been banned since 1999 from entering the prison to interview women such as Lewis. But she is one of the many who have managed to be the eyes and ears for reporters in keeping tabs on what goes on there. It takes courage. Many who have done so say they have suffered retaliation – including Corum, who suffered such gross medical neglect that when she left two years ago, her kidneys were near failure and her heart was critically damaged. She has had multiple surgeries since she got out. Other women have been sent to solitary on trumped-up charges or transferred to other prisons where they could not get the medical help they needed.
Lewis said that, even when she gets out, she won’t give up on her efforts to help the women at Carswell. And others, including current and retired judges, are working to focus congressional attention on the conditions there.
Congressional attention apparently is what it will take to change anything in
And then there were the women prisoners who also worked in the lead-contaminated rooms at Carswell eight years ago. They, too, showed signs of higher than normal levels of lead in their blood. But they were scattered to other prisons, and the bureau refuses to release information on their whereabouts.