US, as Well as China, Exports Prison Goods

Prison-rights activists call US criticism of China hypocritical

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

WHILE the Clinton administration continues to criticize China for exporting prison-made products to the United States, California and Oregon are stepping up efforts to export their prison-made clothing to Asia.

American prison-rights activists call the policy hypocritical.

Oregon will export an estimated $3 million worth of inmate-manufactured jeans and shirts this year to Japan, Italy, and other countries, according to Brad Haga, marketing director for Oregon Prison Industries, the state agency that oversees the manufacture of prison goods. Oregon prisons sell a line of work clothes called Riggers, as well as specialty jeans, shirts, and shorts dubbed ``Prison Blues.''

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California prisons export less prison-made clothing than Oregon, having so far sent test orders to Japan and Malaysia.

The garments are manufactured by inmates whose net pay falls well below minimum wage. California inmates earn 35 cents an hour for sewing shirts. Oregon prisons pay inmates $6 to $8 an hour, but take back 80 percent for room, board, and in some cases restitution to victims.

Corey Weinstein, a board member of the California Prisoners Rights Union, says American authorities exploit prison labor. The US government, he says, typically ``complains about human-rights violations in other countries and cares not one bit about human-rights violations in the United States.''

Haga concedes that the two different policies on prison exports may ``smack of old-fashioned imperialism.'' But, he adds, ``there's a huge gulf between the [Chinese and American] prison systems.''

On Feb. 1, the US State Department issued its annual human-rights report, criticizing China for forcing prisoners to work for ``little or no compensation.'' Working conditions are often unsafe, the report said. Chinese prisons are ``horrendous,'' says John Shattuck, assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs. Prisoners are abused, he says, and prison conditions are ``far below internationally recognized standards.''

Prison-rights activists make similar charges against the California penal system. Luis Talamantez spent more than 20 years in various state prisons and now co-chairs a prisoner-rights project in San Francisco. He says prisoners are forced into ``slave labor'' in California prison workshops. If inmates do not work, they are at risk of losing privileges and serving longer sentences. The California prisoners often work with outdated and unsafe equipment, Mr. Talamantez says.

At Soledad prison in central California, about 150 miles southeast of San Francisco, prison authorities strongly encourage prisoners to work. ``The primary purpose is to give inmates jobs so they can manufacture items to be used in state government,'' says Dick Lowry, a top official with the Prison Industry Authority.

To prevent unfair competition, California prison-made goods cannot be sold to the private sector. License plates, office furniture, clothing, and other items are sold to government agencies or exported.

Working in prison teaches inmates good ``skills and work habits,'' Mr. Lowry says. If prisoners refuse work assignments, they are usually transferred from dormitories to cells and denied some canteen privileges, Lowry says. Most important, prisoners have one day taken off their sentences for every day worked.

``The working conditions here are much different than they are in Chinese prisons,'' Lowry says. ``The inmates here are treated very humanely. They've got three hots [hot meals] and a cot.''

Prison authorities in China make almost identical arguments. This reporter was among the few American journalists allowed inside a Chinese prison in 1982. At that time, Li Ren-Tang, a Shanghai jail warden, said workers received low hourly wages, but also got credit to reduce their sentences. Mr. Li conceded that physical conditions in China's jails were certainly worse than in the US, a reflection of the gap in economic development. Li claimed, however, that China's prisons are more humane, pointing to the lack of prison riots, homosexual attacks, and other violent crime inside his jail.

Weinstein says as long as California exports prison-made garments, ``the US has no basis for criticizing China for doing the same.''

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