The richest contender for the presidency in 2020 used prisoners to make phone calls to California for his campaign, reports the Intercept. Michael Bloomberg’s campaign contracted, through a third-party vendor, a New Jersey-based company called ProCom. That firm runs two call centers in Oklahoma that are operated out of state prisons. In at least one of those prisons, “incarcerated people were contracted to make calls on behalf of the Bloomberg campaign,” reports the Intercept’s John Washington.
The Bloomberg campaign did not dispute the story but insists it had no idea that prison labor was being used to make campaign calls. “We only learned about this when the reporter called us, but as soon as we discovered which vendor’s subcontractor had done this, we immediately ended our relationship with the company and the people who hired them,” Bloomberg said in a statement he posted on Twitter. “We do not support this practice and we are making sure our vendors more properly vet their subcontractors moving forward.”
According to the Intercept’s reporting, people locked up in the Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, a minimum-security facility for women, made calls to California on behalf of Bloomberg. It’s unclear how much the prisoners who made the calls were paid. A ProCom co-founder told the Intercept that the firm pays the Oklahoma minimum wage of $7.25 an hour to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Yet the prisoners likely received far less than that considering the Department of Corrections says on its website that inmates are paid “up to $20 per month” if they have “institutional job assignments.” A “very limited number of inmates … may receive more,” notes the website. Another document claims inmates can receive a maximum pay of $27.09 per month. The ProCom co-founder disputes the figures. “Some of them are making that much every day,” he said.
Regardless of the exact number, civil liberties groups have often raised the alarm about prison labor, saying that it is an area that is rife for exploitation of a vulnerable population. Prisoners in 17 states held a three-week strike last year, saying that their conditions amounted to “modern-day slavery.” Alex Friedman, managing editor of Prison Legal News and an advocate for the rights of those who are behind bars, notes that while it’s possible Bloomberg’s campaign did not know about the arrangement, that does not mean it is not responsible. “It’s entirely possible they didn’t know,” Friedman told the Intercept, “but that’s like saying department stores making clothes in southeast Asia don’t know that 5-year-olds are stitching together their soccer balls. Well, shouldn’t you know? Shouldn’t you have some idea of your supply stream, or what your downside supply stream is doing?”