Boycotting Companies: An effective means of protesting against Mass Incarceration?

*This article contains the opinions of the author and does not represent PSN’s opinions. This article was edited from the original piece on Justice Education Project's website*  

Multinational retail industries allow wholesale and consumer goods to be purchased at relatively cheap prices, propelling such corporations to grow to new heights in size and popularity. While the top of the corporate food chain reaps the benefits, incarcerated individuals bear the brunt of the work, their bodies burdened with labor that often goes unpaid.

Having incarcerated people perform unpaid labor? Isn’t that illegal?

No, it is not. Under the 13th Amendment, which states that “Neither slavery nor indentured servitude, except as a punishment of crime whereof the party shall be dully convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place of their jurisdiction.” 

Though many argue that it is justified to punish those who have committed crimes by performing labor in exchange for their actions, we must consider restorative methods, such as providing mental health resources, over imprisonment. Having incarcerated people perform unpaid/significantly low waged labor is not a restorative method, but rather a punishment used to justify corporate greed. 

What’s the motive for large corporations to use labor from incarcerated people? 

For large corporations, the economic benefit from using labor done by incarcerated people far outweigh any moral or ethical concerns. 

In 1979, Congress introduced the Prision Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) to allow corporations to use prison labor again, after the practice had become regulated in the 1930s.

The PIECP is overseen by the National Correctional Industries Association (NCIA), an association of prison administrators and corporations. 

Worth Rises, a non-profit organization dedicated to dismantling the prison industry comments how “those benefiting from PIECP worksites are also responsible for monitoring their own compliance with the program’s legal guidelines.”

Additionally, the PIECP participant organizations ship products to well-known brands that are not members of the PIECP, indirectly linking large, commonly-used brands to prison labor.

Though it is true that the corporations under the PIECP must pay their workers the prevailing wages, the participating locations are not required to give sick days, absences, vacations, or employee benefits.   

This shows how large corporations— like McDonalds, Walmart, and Wendy’s who are the some of the largest beneficiaries of incarcerated people’s labor— have a direct incentive to perpetuate mass incarceration. 

Few of them advocate on behalf of the very institution they profit from, which puts us further away from providing restorative justice methods for people accused of crimes.

Will Boycotts on these companies be effective? 

Yes. In an era of digital activism, the effects of boycotting have the potential to be  profound, but it has to be focused. In instances of private companies exploiting incarcerated labor, we must collectively focus our attention and boycott a select few companies that are the largest drivers of unpaid incarcerated labor to have a tangible impact.

A boycott may look like refusing to buy from a conglomerate because of its unethical practices, opting for ethical alternatives, or simply just unfollowing a brand from social media. Whatever the form of boycott may be, the ultimate goal is remove the corporation’s influence by withdrawing support. 

By undermining the economic influence of the corporation and leaving them no choice but to adhere to the backlash, boycotts fight injustice from its source. 

Why should our boycotting be focused on a few select companies? Why can’t we boycott every company that uses Mass Incarceration? 

It is impractical for us to boycott every single company. Boycotts are only ever productive when a large mass unifies against those corporations. To cause a ripple in the trend, we must start at the core: the mass contributors and beneficiaries.

McDonald’s, Walmart, Wendy’s. Make them pay.

Tags: Decarceration and prison abolition