Maryland Correctional Enterprises (MCE) is the state’s own prison labor company. A semi-autonomous subdivision of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS), MCE commands a workforce of thousands of prisoners, paid just a few dollars per day.
According to a search of the ProQuest database (available with your Enoch Pratt Free Library card; County residents try here), The Baltimore Sun has run a total of nine articles covering MCE since it changed names in 2005. That’s about one article per year. One hundred percent of these articles show MCE in a neutral or positive light, reporting mostly on officials who worked as overseers of MCE and on good works done by prisoners, e.g. “From the Prisons Comes a Thanksgiving Feast“, written by Peter Hermann in November 2009.
“Myra Wooten’s Thanksgiving came from prison. Officers from state correctional institutions in Jessup and Baltimore delivered a large box packed with a week’s worth of food, including a frozen 13-pound turkey, to the East Baltimore resident.”
Later in the article:
“Even inmates get into the act: Those who work at the Maryland Correctional Enterprises Meal Plant in Hagerstown cooked more than 700 turkeys for the poor.”
The Sun has also described MCE as a useful stepping-stone for inmates, which will help them to find employment after they are released. (TV news outlets report on MCE with similar cheeriness.)
These reports do not provide the public with meaningful information about the scope of prison labor in Maryland. Futhermore, they gloss over serious questions about the practice of using prisoners as hypercheap labor. MCE workers make far less than minimum wage, earning between $1.50 and $5.10 for an entire day’s work.
The Sun, seemingly, goes out of its way to highlight the arguments in favor of prison labor, but fails completely to cover the other side of the story. Critics of the practice say that prison labor, akin to outright slavery, is unethical, abusive, and bad for the economy.
“State Use Industries”
Some of The Sun‘s stories about State Use Industires (MCE before 2005) are more interesting, even though they too are mostly fluffy. An article from 1999, “A captive workforce” (Del Quentin Wilber, September 9, 1999) is one of the only pieces discussing intentions within the Maryland prison system to hire out workers to private corporations:
Powell offers a glimpse into the future of prison labor, say Maryland officials, who are inviting more companies to tap the huge labor supply inside state prisons.
Already, prisoners in Hagerstown paint Powercon’s switch equipment and repair furniture for another company, Furniture Medic of Rockville, on an as-needed basis. At a Jessup prison, inmates inspect perfume bottles for a Baltimore glass-maker.
Buoyed by the success of that undertaking, which involves about 30 inmates, state prison officials are intensifying their corporate recruitment, moving prison labor beyond such traditional jobs as making license plates and furniture. Two more projects, involving hand-sewn dolls and wood flooring, should begin soon. And corrections officials say they will entertain corporate requests for almost any kind of help — from sign-painting to data entry.
In the past year, they have begun to market the program through brochures — with the slogan “A resource for the private sector” — and ads on the Division of Correction’s Web site. They also plan to hire a manager to lead the expansion, appealing to businesses that have trouble finding workers amid a tight labor market.
The article also acknowledges that prison labor goes far beyond State Use Industries:
The vast majority of Maryland’s 22,600 inmates perform some kind of work — they sweep floors, prepare food and clean roads, and earn from $1 to $2.25 a day.
About 1,300 of those inmates labor for State Use Industries, which produces dozens of items, ranging from office furniture to packed beef to American flags, but sells only to non-profit groups and government agencies. Those prisoners earn about $110 a month.
On page 2 of the online version, this article does get into criticism of prison labor, focusing mainly on criticism by unions. It also provides us with a crucial piece of information about prisons and media:
Prison officials say they have heard no criticism about the Hagerstown or Jessup efforts, and would reconsider any plans if local labor or businesses complained.
Still, they say, justifying the use of inmate labor to customers might not be worth the risk for some companies.
Carr-Lowrey, for example, threatened to pull out of the program if its role was publicized, fearing it might lose potential customers, prison officials say; and Siegel of Powercon sent The Sun a one-page letter explaining that he entered the program as a “last resort.”
Given the recent revelation that local public relations agents don’t have “problems” with the Baltimore Sun thwarting their desired messages, the sensitivity of prison labor for those institutions that benefit from it provides one explanation for why this story hasn’t seen the light of day in 15 years.
“Butchers behind bars put millions in state coffers”
The most recent Sun article to cite statistics about Maryland prison labor came in 2005: “Butchers behind bars put millions in state coffers” by Stephanie Desmon. Desmon reported that the Hagarstown prison alone grossed $5.4 million in sales, and transferred profits of $8 million to the state treasury over four years. Desmond also reported that inmates earned $1.50 per day of work. Referencing a manager named Gregory Haupt, Desmon wrote: “There have been no assaults since the plant opened in 1992, mostly because the jobs are coveted for good hours, good training and good money for prison (about $1.50 a day), Haupt said.”
Corruption at Spring Grove: A Storyline Derailed
The Sun did cover a scandal that developed in 2001–2002, with a series of articles about State Use Industries and construction at Spring Grove Hospital. The first report, “At Spring Grove Hospital, costly effort to save money: Rehabbing project soared without rules” (JoAnna Daemrich, June 1, 2001) described some fraud committed by SUI as part of a larger scenario of bad accounting and corruption. The focus was on unnecessary subcontracting and on wrongful use of prisoners’ labor.
Much of the money was passed out in no-bid contracts to private construction firms. State Use Industries, the corrections agency that was supposed to supply prison laborers, tacked on a 10 percent “administrative fee” before subcontracting the work.
Little inmate labor went into the four-year project itself. Some prisoners assigned to the hospital were sent instead to install tile at the home of their supervisor. He has been fired.
The next article, titled “Legislators question Spring Grove spending ; State officials apologize for `sloppy’ handling of renovation project” (Michael Dresser, October 17, 2001), contains little new information. An investigation confirmed the initial claim (“FBI probes no-bid pacts ; Investigators target State Use Industries, Spring Grove Hospital; Contracts of $6.7 million; Agency following up allegations of fraud made by Md. auditors,” David Nitkin, March 7, 2002 ). The storyline concludes with a single corrections officer, retired construction manager Leon McGee, pleading guilty to a single charge of extortion. See “Ex-corrections manager plans to plead guilty, lawyer says ; State official is accused of using position to extort $40,000 from 2 companies” (Gail Gibson, October 10, 2001) and “Ex-state corrections official pleads guilty to extortion ; Contractors paid him more than $40,000” (Greg Garland, November 1, 2002)
These were the last stories in The Sun that took a critical stance on MCE/SUI. Careful readers will notice that these articles harp on the accusation that SUI used subcontracters instead of inmates. They say “virtually no prisoners were employed” and “inmates did virtually no work,” etc., thereby normalizing the idea of prison labor. In other words, by criticizing a mis-use of the system, The Sun continues to provide implicit support for its primary operations. Completely positive stories about SUI were plentiful during this time also. (E.g., “Basement becomes a high-tech office for female inmates ; Training program offers hope, skills to seven participants” (Julie Bykowicz, October 14, 2001).)
Ehrlich & Schaefer: Why Pay More?
A remarkable story in 2005 (“$2.1 million plan to furnish House building tabled ; Ehrlich, Schaefer want legislators to give part of order to prison shop“, Andrew Green, August 11, 2003) describes William Donald Schaefer and Robert Ehrlich Jr. imploring the Maryland House of Delegates in Annapolis to use prison-built furniture.
Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. are blocking a plan to fill the House of Delegates’ new office building with $2,000 desks, $1,300 chairs and a $4,800 sofa, arguing that legislators should give at least part of the order to a prison labor shop.
Saying that they have State Use Industries furniture in their offices and find it of high quality, Schaefer and Ehrlich essentially tabled a proposal before the Board of Public Works yesterday in which the House sought to buy $2.1 million in furnishings from private sources.
Schaefer and Ehrlich got their way, sort of. (“Maryland prisoners will build some furniture for state House ; Bulk of the contract will go to Baltimore firm“, Jennifer Skalka, September 1, 2005)
Re-Branding: State Use Industries Becomes Maryland Correctional Enterprises
Again, since “State Use Industries” became “Maryland Correctional Enterprises” in 2005, Sun coverage has been minimal. In fact, the Sun did not report on this change or even mention it in future articles—leaving readers on their own to figure out that it’s the same agency. The name change was far from secret; nor was it meaningless. According to a press release issued at the time, the name change “clarifies that the self-supporting unit has many customers other than state government agencies.”
The name was changed with legislation in the Maryland General Assembly (SB136) which also changed the position of “General Manager” to “Chief Executive Officer” (CEO).
Again, The Sun has published nothing but fluff pieces on MCE since 2005.
They made no report in 2006 when HB 556 allowed MCE to hire out inmates to work in “agriculture or seafood processing”. As the fiscal note for the bill explains, agribusinesses had been allowed to hire foreign workers at $8.40/hour, the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR). But:
However, some farming employers have expressed dissatisfaction over the required $8.40/hour saying that it is too high. DPSCS believes that the agricultural community would be receptive to the use of inmate labor if the skill and timeframe of the individual farmer’s needs could be matched and the labor could be offered at a price below the AEWR.
So while The Sun reports endlessly about the political dispute over raising the minimum wage, they don’t tell you when laws are passed to ensure that businesses can lower wages because they use convicts as laborers.
They didn’t report on HB 744 (2008), a bill passed unanimously in both houses of the legislature and signed by Martin O’Malley, to begin training prison workers for construction jobs. Or on SB 145 (2008), which legalized purchase of MCE goods by individual state employees.
The Sun was missing in 2011 when MCE hosted a five-day convention for the National Correctional Industries Association (NCIA), “an international nonprofit professional association whose members represent all 50 state correctional industry agencies, Federal Prison Industries, foreign correctional industry agencies and city/county jail industry programs.”
A Peephole Into MCE? The “Annual Report”
MCE releases annual reports which provide abundant material for journalism and suggest possibilities for deeper inquiry. The 2013 Annual Report [pdf] and includes a wealth of statistics. (Also see Annual reports for 2012 and 2011. Note, the 2013 report is extremely difficult to find online; I had to guess the URL based on the 2011 report. These reports, posted in PDF format, are not readily linked from MCE’s website.)
In the “executive summary” of these reports, MCE identifies its “direct and secondary economic contribution (through salaries, wages, and purchases of private sector goods and services) to the State’s economy.” They estimate their value at around $100 million per year.
The “executive summary” also tells the “Total Value of Capital Projects”
MCE brags about the good media coverage it gets:
Indeed, the whole five-page “summary” is heavily focused on public relations, mostly highlighting projects that seem particularly interesting or socially valuable. These do not reflect (or “summarize”) the overall work of the agency.
On page 13 we find the list of “Top Customers” (accounts representing almost four times more than those listed in the summary):
We can learn from these report that MCE has about 170 non-prisoner employees. This staff is paid with money from the agency’s own sales. At any given time, they oversee about 2000 inmates, a figure which has risen since (at least) 2002. They deal with (“touch the lives of,” in their vocabulary) about 3000 workers over the course of year.
MCE’s most popular products are Upholstery, Meat, and Wood. It also runs a fairly large laundry service. By far its biggest operations are in Jessup.
Across the 50 states, “MCE has ranked in the top 10 in sales for the past 8 years,” says the 2013 report.
As per to the “Prison Industry Enhancement Program” (“PIE”), MCE can also act as a subcontractor for private business, says the report. Workers in this category, it says, must not be paid less than the Federal Minimum Wage, and have the right to Worker’s Compensation claims. According to the 2011 report, the PIE Program thus far only a few (fluctuating between 6 and 22) workers each year. The 2013 report contains a description of the PIE Program but no data.
As you can see below, MCE operates under the auspices of two “advisory boards,” chock-full of powerful people representing powerful organizations.
Here’s a map of MCE operations:
Here are some of MCE’s plans for the near future, as described in the 2011 report:
In total, MCE plans to add positions for between 480–520 laborers. These are all positions for commodity production that seem to fall within the agency’s current purview.
“Inmate Pay” comes near the end of the report. For some reason, the report only describes salaries “as of 7/1/08.” Apparently, pay can be set by the plant manager at a given facility. “Unskilled” labor is compensated with $1.25–$2.00 per day; a “skilled” worker earns $2.25–$2.50 per day. Some inmates, such as mail clerks and sanitation workers, can receive up to $5.10 per day. $5.10 is the maximum salary listed.
Per day pay is listed as slightly higher in a “Four Day Work Week” than in a “Five Day Work Week”; in fact, the weekly salary appears to be the same whether someone works five days a week or four. There’s no description of how many work hours go into a day. If an “unskilled” worker put in five eight-hour days per week, they would earn between $6.25 and $10.00 for the entire week. That’s one twenty-ninth (= 1/29 = 3.9%) of what someone makes working 40 hours for Maryland minimum wage ($290).
According to budget statements included at the very end of the 2013 fiscal report, MCE maintains total net assets worth more than $30 million. Of this amount, more than $15 million is listed as “cash.”
Keep that in mind the next time someone tells you there’s no extra money in the budget for schools. And remember, all of the above information is just what they tell us. Since they are not exposed to public scrutiny, who knows how much they can get away with concealing?
Maryland Correctional Enterprises seems to be entering a new phase of its operations, geared toward commercial expansion and proto-privitazation. Like the Baltimore City school system, it now has a “CEO” (instead of a General Manager). Like the US Postal Service, it has taken on greater autonomy as an agency. And bills passed by the Maryland General Assembly since MCE’s re-branding seem calculated to expand its range of services and customers. The membership of the two “advisory boards” indicates that the corporate and political rulers of Maryland see MCE as a significant part of the state’s future economy.
Many people in the USA are surprised to learn that slave labor was never abolished. The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution reads:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
This wording was intentional, replacing earlier proposals by Radical Republicans to abolish slavery completely. The “punishment for crime” loophole led the US directly into its “Black Codes” era, in which slavery was functionally maintained by arresting Black Americans for loitering and vagrancy, defined so broadly as to be nearly inescapable. Especially in Maryland, this period also saw the rise of coercive “apprenticeships” in which Black children were kidnapped and forced to work under the twin pretexts of parental neglect and job training.
Textbooks, corporate media, and popular culture tend to portray the history of the US as a trajectory of progress, constantly moving in the direction of “equality”, marked by landmark events such as the Civil War and the Civil Rights Era. Just walk into the central library downtown and you’ll see an enormous triptych featuring Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Dream”, and Barack Obama’s inauguration. In fact, however, we have not even succeeded in reversing the Dred Scott Decision or in abolishing slavery. In fact, in today’s “War on Drugs” era we are seeing a resurgence of slavery. It began with a new wave of disproportionate sentencing, racist policing, mass incarceration, and private prisons. And now in Maryland we can witness the prison industry shamelessly transforming itself to exploit labor on a larger and larger scale.
The growth of the prison industry is one of the most important social and economic changes taking place in Maryland today. In my opinion, it’s not ethical to exploit the labor of imprisoned people, particularly when so many are locked up for victimless non-crimes. You can make up your own mind—but you deserve the facts.
“Free labor is the cornerstone of U.S. economics.”