Prison Coffee

Acompany contracted by Starbucks and Nintendo to package their products uses prison labor, which has undercut competitors and has evolved into the largest private-sector prison employment program in the country, reports Erica C. Barnett in the Seattle Weekly. Signature Packaging Solutions, based in Washington state, is one of 15 private companies that uses inmate labor to supplement their workforce within the state prison system.

The majority of the jobs come during the holiday season, one former inmate told Barnett, when companies are in a rush to package as much product as possible. Inmates spend their holidays packaging chocolate-covered Starbucks coffee beans and Nintendo Game Boys for minimum wage. “A majority of people don’t even realize that these products are being manufactured by prisoners,” says one inmate. “They need to know that they are buying these products from a company that is basically getting rich off prisoners.”

Starbucks has defended its use of prison labor, saying that its contract with the packaging company is “entirely consistent with our mission statement,” and Signature Packaging Solutions has defended the program as well. But those who oppose the program say that by taking nearly 50 percent off an inmate’s paycheck, the Department of Corrections saves on its own expenses. And by not having to pay for health insurance or retirement, companies who use prison labor save, too.

One Bellevue attorney maintains that the program is unconstitutional and is suing the Department of Corrections. The program allows businesses to undercut their competitors, he says, without passing those benefits along to the consumer. It also unfairly subsidizes some private businesses at the expense of others. His case was heard by the state Supreme Court on Jan. 31.
–Kate Garsombke
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