Roughly 1 out of every 5 prison inmates on Earth is in the United States. What you can take away from that statistic is this: America has a problem with mass incarceration. This isn’t news to most of us. We know people are being thrown in prison for low-level and nonviolent offenses. But imprisonment has become a lucrative industry. And when the police aren’t too busy liberating our property to fund their departments, many are finding ways to fill prison quotas.
Yes, we have prison quotas. We actually have a set number of people we have to keep in prison in certain places. If that doesn’t make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you might be in the minority. You should also know a lot of those inmates end up creating products we all use every day — and often, for very little pay.
As surprising as it might be, many prisons have job-training programs that put them to work. This has many positives, of course, as it helps prepare people for life after they complete their sentences. But it can also be a bit unsettling knowing Americans are locked up, working for sweatshop-like wages, and people are getting rich because of it.
UNICOR, or Federal Prison Industries, is one such case. It’s owned and operated by the U.S. government and is one example of how prison inmates can be put to work producing a number of products, which are sold for profit. Again, it’s not all nefarious. But the realization that your chair, desk, or frozen chicken breast were once in the hands of prisoners earning as little as $0.23 per hour can be jarring.
Here are some of the products you use every day that might have been built or produced by jailed Americans.
A whole assortment of clothing is made by prison inmates across the country. From blue jeans to trucker hats, there’s a good chance something you’re wearing was made by UNICOR or through a job-training program. These programs also do a lot of embroidery and screen-printing, so if you’re wearing a graphic T-shirt, there’s a chance it might have been produced through UNICOR.
Yes, uniforms are technically clothing. But they’re a kind of specialized type of clothing — more of a work accessory, than anything. And American prison inmates produce a lot of them, including uniforms for the military. In some states, prisoners also create uniform accessories (belts, etc.) for law enforcement. But as mentioned, screen-printing and embroidery also make prison labor a viable choice for businesses looking to create custom uniforms.
You can furnish your home or office with chairs, desks, lamps, and tables inmates made. This is one of UNICOR’s biggest sellers, with a specialization in office furniture. “UNICOR Office Furniture Group provides an extensive range of high-quality, cost-effective office furniture and services to federal agencies, while simultaneously providing valuable work experience and training for federal inmates,” according to the UNICOR website.
You’ll spend roughly a third of your life sleeping. That means you should buy a comfortable, durable mattress. And it just so happens that prisoners also produce those. In many places, inmates actually make their own mattresses. In Kentucky, one program has been so successful that there are plans to start producing mattresses for places, such as homeless shelters. One report said two inmates working for eight hours with a single sewing machine can produce as many as 20 mattresses.
5. Product packaging
A quick glance around your home or office will reveal an awful lot of packaging. Seriously, there’s packaging everywhere, though we tend to filter it out after a while. And some of that packaging inmates made. Some Starbucks cups, for example, have been made in prisons. Even big tech companies, such as Microsoft, have dipped into the prison labor market.
You might not own any signage, but you sure as hell use signs almost every day. Whether it be a stop sign or a sign informing you how far the next rest stop is, there’s a chance they were made in prisons. According to a report from MarketWatch, one North Carolina-based company that produces signage while using inmate labor rakes in more than $95 million in annual sales.
Naughty is as naughty does. How would you feel knowing your lingerie (or the lingerie belonging to your loved one) was sewn by a prisoner? It doesn’t appear to be an industry-wide thing. But in the past, companies, such as Victoria’s Secret, have hired prisoners to create products. This was also something shown in the Netflix show Orange Is The New Black.
8. Car parts
Who knows where all of the components and parts in your car come from? Most of us assume they’re created in countries, such as Mexico or China; shipped to American assembly plants; and pieced together. That’s more or less right. But somewhere down the line, some companies have used prisoners to create some of those components. A 2006 report from Alternet, for example, said Honda has previously hired prisoners to create some parts for its vehicles.
Would you eat a hamburger if you knew it had been served up by a convict? That fact alone probably wouldn’t scare off most people, but interestingly enough, food processing is a big industry in some prisons. One program, which processes beef and chicken, works alongside many federal agencies and public universities to provide job training and produce food.
“Training is conducted in over 20 programs including Patty Machine Operations, Meat Grinding Operations, Food Developer and Tester, Batch Master, Quality Assurance Tester and Equipment Cleaner,” according to the Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises website.
10. Older Ikea products
We’ll get specific with this last one. You might love (or hate) Ikea. Its products are affordable, and that’s enough for most of us. But did you know at one point the company employed forced labor to produce its products? Specifically, Ikea has admitted to using labor from East Germany back in the 1980s. That was a long time ago, but it still might change your perception of a company offering the greatest in-store meatballs in retail.