Bloomberg’s Prison Labor “Scandal”

Mike Bloomberg's campaign was forced to apologize for something that really isn't a scandal.

Over the holiday, The Intercept reported that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Presidential campaign contracted with a company that utilized prison labor to make phone calls on the campaign’s beha

Former New York City mayor and multibillionaire Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg used prison labor to make campaign calls. Through a third-party vendor, the Mike Bloomberg 2020 campaign contracted New Jersey-based call center company ProCom, which runs calls centers in New Jersey and Oklahoma. Two of the call centers in Oklahoma are operated out of state prisons. In at least one of the two prisons, incarcerated people were contracted to make calls on behalf of the Bloomberg campaign.

According to a source, who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution, people incarcerated at the Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, a minimum-security women’s prison with a capacity of more than 900, were making calls to California on behalf of Bloomberg. The people were required to end their calls by disclosing that the calls were paid for by the Bloomberg campaign. They did not disclose, however, that they were calling from behind bars.

The Bloomberg campaign confirmed the arrangement in an emailed statement to The Intercept. “We didn’t know about this and we never would have allowed it if we had,” said Bloomberg spokesperson Julie Wood. “We don’t believe in this practice and we’ve now ended our relationship with the subcontractor in question.”

The campaign said it did not know about the arrangement between ProCom and an undisclosed campaign vendor until The Intercept made its inquiry. The campaign then ended the relationship on Monday and said it has asked vendors to do a better job of vetting subcontractors in the future.

“The use of prison labor is the continued exploitation of people who are locked up, who really have virtually no other opportunities to have employment or make money other than the opportunities given to them by prison officials,” said Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News and an advocate for incarcerated people’s rights.

John Scallan, a ProCom co-founder, said his company pays the Oklahoma minimum wage of $7.25 an hour to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, which then pays the incarcerated people working in the call centers. The Department of Corrections website lists the maximum monthly wage for the incarcerated at $20 dollars a month, but another policy document says there is a maximum pay of $27.09 per month.
When asked if their total monthly earnings are capped at these levels, Scallan said incarcerated people who work for ProCom make far higher wages. “I can tell you unequivocally that is not us,” Scallan said. “Some of them are making that much every day.”

As noted, the campaign canceled its contract with ProCom when it was advised of the use of prison labor to make calls, and it does not appear that the campaign was aware of the fact that a subcontractor that ProComm contracted with used prison labor as part of its call center operations, which is essentially what was going on here. Additionally, it’s worth noting that we’re talking about a minimum-security prison here so it isn’t as if the people making the phone calls were hardened, repeat, or violent criminals. Most of them are likely in jail for what amount to low-level offenses and programs such as this are designed to teach them life skills that they can hopefully use on the outside after they’re released.

Jazz Shaw at Hot Air adds this:

[W]as this really a “scandal” and something that required the termination of the contract? Activists are describing this as a case of Bloomberg “exploiting prison labor” as if he’s some sort of plantation master wielding a whip. But the fact is that prisoners regularly get the opportunity to have jobs while behind bars, allowing them to earn a small amount of money to spend in the commissary or prison store. And many of those jobs are nothing to write home about, frequently involving janitorial work, laundry or kitchen duties. While I, fortunately, have no direct experience in prison work environments, I would imagine that getting paid to sit at a desk and make phone calls for a few hours would likely be one of the more sought after job assignments.

(..)

The real question is whether or not the Bloomberg campaign really did anything wrong here and if there was a need to apologize. Given the factors I mentioned above, it certainly doesn’t sound like it to me. If ProCom wasn’t employing them to make phone calls they could just as easily have been scrubbing toilets to earn money for some extra snacks. If anyone is “exploiting” those women, it’s the prison system itself, not Bloomberg.

As far as the broader issue of using prison labor for jobs like this, I honestly don’t see what the problem is. Programs like this allow inmates to learn skills that they can utilize when they get released and,as Jazz said, they seem like better uses of their time than traditional prison labor. Isn’t that a good thing?

It doesn’t appear that the Bloomberg campaign itself did anything wrong here. That being said, the need to apologize has nothing to do with what the campaign knew and when knew it. It’s simply a matter of political reality. Through no apparent fault of its own the campaign found itself in the middle of a controversy. Withdrawing from the contract and apologizing was really the only option once the story was reported and verified. While I tend to agree with Jazz that there’s nothing per se wrong with the fact that ProCom was utilizing a subcontractor that used people in jail to make calls, the fact is that this would have become a point in controversy in the race itself and the best thing for the campaign was to do exactly what it did.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, Mike Bloomberg, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    What’s the famous quote apparently misattributed to Talleyrand? It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.

    It was politically stupid. It was guaranteed in the era of 24/7/365 dudgeon and cancel culture it was guaranteed to blow up in his face. He maybe could have spun it if he’d gotten out in front, but even then it was going to sound an off-note. I was willing to hear the man out, but if his political instincts are this bad he’s just wasting his money.

  2. @Michael Reynolds:

    To be fair, there is no indication that the campaign knew that ProCom, the company it contracted with to make the calls, subcontracted with a company that utilized the prison labor market. The statement from the campaign said the opposite, and even though I’m no Bloomberg supporter I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt there. (Even the initial report from The Intercept does not claim that the campaign was aware of the prison labor angle.)

    Once they did find out, they canceled the contract, which was their only option from a political point of view.

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  3. Mike says:

    Oh the outrage. God forbid anyone looks at facts before the fake outrage sets in. My clients love any job they can get in jail. Anything.

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    A pol with Bloomberg’s experience and resources should have staff vetting things like this. What if ProCom had outsourced to a foreign call center? It should have occurred to someone in the campaign to check.

  5. @Michael Reynolds:

    Perhaps, but in the end, I don’t see this a big deal anyway for the reasons stated in the post.

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  6. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Say what you will either way. He was smart enough to get out in front of the story.

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    On the Right nothing matters; on the Left everything matters. I don’t like it, but it is what it is, and Bloomberg is running in 2020 not in some more easy-going era.

  8. @Michael Reynolds:

    “On the Right nothing matters”

    Not entirely true. Try being a pro-choice or pro-LGBT rights Republican anywhere outside the Northeast or California.

  9. KM says:

    @Doug Mataconis :
    I agree with @Reynolds that someone with Bloomberg’s money and resources absolutely should not be making these kinds of PR missteps. The man can afford the best and frankly should be doing so if he’s serious about being President. He’s not running a shoestring op with unpaid, inexperienced interns as his only option. It doesn’t matter that they technically didn’t do anything wrong – they were not out there making sure the narrative was where it needed to be and didn’t really do some deep digging to avoid potential scandals. It’s nearly 2020 and if somebody on Twitter is able to ascertain “dirt” before your paid staff does, what the hell are you paying them for? What’s the point of money if not buying excellence to prevent this kind of crap?

    It reinforces how this is more a vanity project then a serious bid for a serious Office. We’ve already got a (self-proclaimed) rich businessman who did it for the ego and don’t need another. Bloomberg seems to be doing what Biden is – he’s just sort of existing as the “default” and basically the political equivalent of “Do you want to die alone? Well guess you’re marrying me then!” How long did it take the Intercept to figure this out? Not much apparently but it’s more effort then the billionaire’s team is willing to put in. Just phoning it in only works for Trump because of Cult45 – the rest of us actually expect some competency from a potential future leader.

  10. @KM:

    I guarantee you that the Bloomberg campaign isn’t the first campaign to contract with a company that utilized prison labor to perform call center work.

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  11. @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    They canceled the contract as soon as the truth was reported, What else should they have done? (And let’s assume for the sake of argument that there was no way to know beforehand that Procom had a subcontract with companies that utilize prisoners to make phone calls.)

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  12. KM says:

    @Doug Mataconis :
    Oh I know he’s not. I wouldn’t be surprised if research shows several other contenders, now or campaigns past, did the same. This isn’t about hypocrisy or even the use of prison labor.

    My point is he’s got enough money to not cheap out and thus not get into this situation in the first place. There is ZERO reason for this to be a thing because he can literally pay people to make sure they’re not contracting out for the cheapest source. He can pay for exclusivity, American-only staff and contract riders to ensure this kind of thing doesn’t come back to bite him in the ass. He can pay them stupid amounts of cash to cover his own ass and make sure he runs a squeaky clean campaign. Hire the best, lure them away and make god damn sure there’s nothing to find because there’d be nothing to find.

    He just didn’t think of it. Because it didn’t matter since he’s thinking he’s going to just ride in and be the default last man standing with Joe.

    I’ve worked for rich clients and I’ve worked for wealthy clients. The difference isn’t the bank account but the level of quality and detail they’re willing to shell out for. Quality costs – meticulous detail requires resources and good staff and money, money, MONEY. Bloomberg has no excuses on that front. You want excellence, you pay for it. You want OK-with-some-slight-mistakes? Cheap out and deal with it when the “mistake” ends up costing you more then the initial outlay would have. This is a business decision he should have immediately understood. It’s concerning that, well, he didn’t.

  13. Gustopher says:

    From the quoted passage of Jazz Shaw:

    If anyone is “exploiting” those women, it’s the prison system itself, not Bloomberg.

    Um… yeah… Ok… working through a middle man does not absolve you of moral responsibility. That’s an utterly appalling thing to say or think. Morally bankrupt.

    We live in a society where there are lots of things that we have to do that are morally stained, and I won’t begrudge someone from eating meat from animals that were tortured, or buying the phone they need from someone who employs terrible working conditions — there aren’t free range phones out there, and free range chickens cost so much more. But, when you can make a choice without having to become a monk casting off all possessions, you’re responsible for that choice. There’s not a clear line, but this is clearly on the side of the line where it is a free choice with all of the moral responsibility.

    “Morality is hard, lets go shopping for products produced by prison labor” is not a reasonable moral position.

    Now, onto the matter of whether anyone is exploiting the prisoners… Prisoners should not be a profit center.

    Paying someone below minimum wage is simply unacceptable. There seems to be some confusion in the article about whether workers get paid $20 a month or (as the ProCom spokesvermin proudly boasts) they make that much every day, but it is still a pittance. It drives down wages outside of the prison, if nothing else.

    There are ways to make prison labor ethical. We aren’t doing it. It starts with wages — let them earn at least minimum wage, and send that money home to their families, or hold it for them until they are released so they have a chance at getting set up post-prison.

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  14. Kathy says:

    It strikes me this discussion is similar to the ethical dilemma at the center of “The Good Place.”

    How responsible are you for the actions of people you obtain goods and services from?

  15. Mister Bluster says:

    test

  16. Gustopher says:

    @Kathy: There is another wrinkle — prison labor is something that the government creates. So we* are responsible for creating the conditions.

    The government is placing people in a position where working for paltry fees is their best option, and often in a position where refusing to participate in prison labor is held against them when petitioning for early release — this is often phrased in the opposite, as in “he was a model employee, demonstrating that he will function on the outside…”

    That is the government that we vote for. And the government that libertarians are wary of having too much power.

    *: Not that a Seattle resident is responsible for Oklahoma state prisons, but there are similar programs here to various extents.

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  17. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    On the Right nothing matters; on the Left everything matters. I don’t like it, but it is what it is, and Bloomberg is running in 2020 not in some more easy-going era.

    Some of the “everything” in “on the Left everything matters” actually is important and does matter. Not all. Not even most. But enough.

    But also, Bloomberg is running as a Democrat. We’re the party of a $15/hr minimum wage, rather than coerced pittance wages. And we are Americans, so we are skittish and frightened about convicts having our phone numbers, because those convicts might be black. And we are the party of unions, who likely frown on prison labor. And we are the party of minorities, who are disproportionately convicted. Is there a significant democratic constituency this doesn’t piss all over?

    Its not a crazy purity issue to call him out for prison labor. I don’t see this as defensible from either moral or practical concerns.

  18. Raoul says:

    Not to be too much of a contrarian but you have to admire the speed in which the campaign defused the situation; and no I don’t like Bloomberg – the whole “stop and frisk” makes me sick; how anyone thinks that’s constitutional befuddles me.

  19. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    I think better handled it’d be fine. He needed to pitch it as a rehab thing before it was reported on. Once it was reported it fell into the ‘scandal’ bucket.

    Prison labor is fraught for all the reasons you cite, plus the South just generally, but properly-done, properly-monitored, it’s a way for a con to make enough to buy his kid a Christmas present, or buy his own security inside. It also has rehabilitative effects, it teaches work habits, enhances conversational skills, etc… Work is a good in and of itself, so long as it’s voluntary and under humane conditions.

  20. Teve says:

    @Raoul:

    how anyone thinks that’s constitutional befuddles me.

    somehow asset forfeiture is legal.

  21. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Gustopher:

    The government is placing people in a position where working for paltry fees is their best option,

    And this is the problem with it, it is no better than indentured servitude.

  22. de stijl says:

    Stop and frisk and imprison and enslave.

    Nice motto.

    PS to OTB front pagers. Don’t pay much editorial space to Bloomberg. He is unelectable. To ex Rs he could be seen as a bridge. He is not. D’s will not support him. This is a vanity candidacy.

  23. Kathy says:

    @Gustopher:

    I often think half of america’s problems can be solved by going back in time and making sure the Puritans never reach the continent.

    We’ve seen how hard it is to reform sentencing, never mind prisons. The latter should be humane, focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment. This would be better for all concerned. But try to explain that to people who think convicts ought to be beaten, and who don’t care about outcomes so long as the “animals” locked up suffer.

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  24. de stijl says:

    @Kathy:

    Look to Sweden.

    Low violent crime, and low recidivism for released prisoners.

    They may not have all of it figured out, but they are doing way better than we are.

  25. Mike says:

    @Michael Reynolds: exactly the ability to learn a skill and feel a sense of accomplishment. Jobs in jail provide more than money for child support payments for restitution to victims now instead of waiting 10 or 20 years, pay court costs, fines and money to get back on feet when released. Gives inmates hope and sense of accomplishment and belief and skill that they can hold regular job. Optics are bad but these are good programs if you look at facts

  26. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mike: Anyone out there that’s been paying attention knows that there are good ideas out there for welfare reform, prison reform, job retraining, and any number of other issues. All of the solutions founder on the rocks of not implementing them being cheaper in the near term. Beyond that is the problem of conservative living in a zero sum world where every advantage that a welfare mom, welfare kid, prison inmate, coal miner, resident of a ghetto gets means that some deserving conservative doesn’t get farther ahead than they already are. Can’t have that, now, can we?

  27. Guarneri says:

    LOL Billionaire exploits prison labor. Are they paid a living wage? No worries. What next, child labor camps? Vital early age skill development you know.

    BTW – How’s you guys hero Michael Avenatti doing these days? Michael and Mataconis were making goo-goo eyes over this guy in one thread some 6-8 months ago. Seems he’s got some, um, issues. You guys sure can pick’m. You probably want him on the FISA court.

  28. Hal_10000 says:

    The real scandal here has nothing to do with Bloomberg. It’s how little prisoners are often paid for these jobs and how may prisons are nickel-and-diming them out of what little money they make by charging them to read or talk to family members.

  29. Gustopher says:

    @Mike:

    Jobs in jail provide more than money for child support payments for restitution to victims now instead of waiting 10 or 20 years, pay court costs, fines and money to get back on feet when released.

    At pittance wages — $20/day assuming the high estimate “some of these guys are earning that much a day” from the article — that’s $5000/yr, which is EITHER modest child support, OR restitution, OR a bit of money to land on their feet when they get out. Assuming no commissary costs, no phone calls, and that they get to keep the money, and that they actually make that much.

    CA had inmates fighting wildfires for $1/day. So, I doubt the guy claiming inmates make $20/day… the numbers are lower.

    Done right, prison work programs have potential for rehabilitation. I don’t think we see them done right very often.

    There too much emphasis on punishment and not enough on rehabilitation and treatment (drug addiction and mental health issues are often a contributing factor to getting in jail).

    I think there are so many people out of jail who need to be punished and never will be that I’ve given up on punishment.

  30. Gustopher says:

    @Hal_10000:

    The real scandal here has nothing to do with Bloomberg.

    There are plenty of scandals here, let’s not absolve Bloomberg… I’d go with “bigger scandal” rather than “real scandal”.

    Bloomberg is in a spot where he can make informed choices as to his vendors — he didn’t care to.

  31. Gustopher says:

    @Guarneri:

    Michael and Mataconis were making goo-goo eyes over this guy in one thread some 6-8 months ago.

    Citation please. You’ve been repeating this lie for ages, back it up, guano.

  32. Ken_L says:

    This was a chance for Bloomberg to demonstrate that he is not just an obscenely rich politician out to buy the nomination, but a man with unusual qualities and ideas that deserved proper consideration. He could have made a spirited case explaining why the use of prison labor was perfectly justified. Or he could have used it as a learning opportunity, to launch a discussion of his ideas for prison reform.

    Instead, he meekly apologized in the hope people will forget it. But what about his candidature are they supposed to be remembering, apart from the fact he’s shovelling hundreds of millions of dollars to the TV stations?

  33. Jax says:

    @Guarneri: I second the “citation required” as to when Doug OR Reynolds were all googly eyed over Michael Avenatti, Sir Slice and Dice. That seems to be more in your wheelhouse, since you’re the one that’s mentioned it over, and over, and over again (eyeroll).

  34. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Guarneri: @Jax: @Gustopher:
    Can’t speak for Doug but Avenatti was never anything but a potential tool. I was as emotionally invested in him as I’d be in a screwdriver. But @Guarneri lives in Hannity world where we libs all thought Avenatti was Jesus. Which would be foolish because we all know Trump is the new Jesus.

    Talking to Trumpaloons is increasingly like talking to my mother-in-law with advanced dementia.

  35. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “He could have made a spirited case explaining why the use of prison labor was perfectly justified.”

    Frankly, I’ve heard all of the plutocrats making libertarianesque justifications for slave labor in the US that I need. Thank you all the same.

  36. wr says:

    @Mike: “Optics are bad but these are good programs if you look at facts”

    And this justifies paying 20 cents an hour? Because it builds morale? It’s the same argument MacDonald’s makes to pay minimum wage. And it’s bullshit.

    There is no reason prison laborers can’t be paid minimum wage at the very least. And that would mean they weren’t taking work from other people by underbidding them by 90%.

  37. wr says:

    @Ken_L: “He could have made a spirited case explaining why the use of prison labor was perfectly justified. Or he could have used it as a learning opportunity, to launch a discussion of his ideas for prison reform.”

    Or he could have done the responsible thing — say he just discovered this, and then demanded the contractor go back and make sure each worker was paid at the very least minimum — and for the sake of optics, fifteen bucks an hour.

    And when the contractor refused, he should have personally made the payments himself. It would have cost him a millionth of what he’s been spending on TV commercials and would have made a strong case that he cares about working people.

    But of course that would require that he even be aware he’s supposed to look like he cares about working people.

  38. wr says:

    @Hal_10000: “The real scandal here has nothing to do with Bloomberg. It’s how little prisoners are often paid for these jobs and how may prisons are nickel-and-diming them out of what little money they make by charging them to read or talk to family members.”

    Sure. Except that having been caught, Bloomberg was in a great position to actually do something about this, and it never even crossed his mind.

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