Hello from the inside: Researching the prison call center industry

Stephanie Redden  (credit: Surbhi Bharadwaj)
April 22, 2020

This past summer Stephanie Redden joined the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at the MacMillan Center as the 2019-2020 Modern Day Slavery and Human Trafficking Fellow. As part of the fellowship, she has been undertaking research on the utilization of prisoners as call center labor in the United States. Her research project is titled, “Hello from the Inside: Race, Gender, and Unfree Labour within the Transnationally-Situated Prison Call Centre Industry.” The MacMillan Center recently interviewed her about her project.

I don’t think many people are aware that there are call centers in women’s prisons.  How did you become interested in studying them?

I was surprised by this as well! However, while working on my doctoral research project—which was focused on exploring the gendered and racialized nature and impacts of everyday forms of worker resistance within Canadian transnational call centers—I kept coming across media references to the use of incarcerated call center labor (in both men’s and women’s prisons) in the U.S., Canada, and several countries around the world. I was very interested in this aspect of global call center labor, although at that time I was not able to devote the time needed to explore this work in any detail. The postdoctoral fellowship at the Gilder Lehrman Center (GLC) has provided me with the opportunity to really start thinking through the politics of this form of prison labor in a much more in-depth way.

What are you hoping to learn?

My postdoctoral research project is guided by four primary research themes. Two of these follow from my previous doctoral research on gendered and racialized labor and resistance within transnational call centers. The others stem from an interest in exploring this form of prison labor from a modern slavery perspective. However, they are all closely related. First, I am interested in how gender, race, and other social identities are used to structure work within this setting. Work within the transnational call center industry (outside of prisons) is highly feminized both in terms of the way that this type of labor is understood and the percentage of women who are employed in the industry globally. However, both men’s and women’s prisons in the U.S. have been used as sites for call centers, so I am interested in what factors lead companies (or state operations) to locate to particular prisons, and if/how prisoners’ social identities factor into these choices.

Second, I want to explore what worker resistance looks like in this setting. The national prison labor strikes in 2016 and 2018 have been very informative in this regard. However, while these larger collective actions are incredibly important, they do not reveal what resistance looks like on a day-to-day basis, including the types of actions that may be occurring in the lead up to these larger protests. Although, investigating this area of research may prove more difficult given the risks to incarcerated workers in revealing any form of resistance (even smaller everyday forms).

I also want to explore how this form of prison labor can improve our understandings of unfree labor. And finally, I am interested in examining the similarities in the historical methods and language used to market unfree labor (with a particular focus on the slave trade in antebellum America) and current efforts on the part of the U.S. government to market prison call center labor to private companies.

How are you doing the research for your project?

My plan is to complete ethnographic field research in one or more prison call centers in the United States by interviewing prisoners working in this industry and those directly involved in employing, supervising, and monitoring their work, as well as observing this labor first hand. Given the nature of the proposed research, the ethics review process took some time to complete. Once Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval for the project was secured, I started approaching state prisons where I knew call centers were located to try and gain access to conduct my interviews and observational research. Some of the prisons I approached refused access immediately. Others required me to submit my research project proposal for an additional review process. This aspect of my project is ongoing as I am currently waiting for decisions from Department of Corrections (DoC) research review bodies. I am also reworking my ethics protocol to align with DoC requirements and these modifications will require approval from Yale’s IRB. 

While these research review processes were underway, I reached out to several research librarians at Yale to get advice on how to best proceed with accessing statistical and other information related to this type of prison employment. While all of these discussions were useful, a conversation that I had with Kenya Flash (the librarian for Political Science, Global Affairs and Government Information at the Marx Science and Social Science Library) was particularly helpful in further refining my research. In reviewing one of the available federal government-produced brochures that serves to sell prison call center labor to private companies—in which the government touts the benefits of utilizing prisoners for this work by highlighting the cost advantages; the low level of absenteeism and turnover; and, the high degree of security in the workplace—she helped me see the connections between the language and methods of selling this form of unfree labor to historical cases of marketing unfree labor.

After this conversation, I turned my attention to researching how slave labor was marketed in antebellum America. The team at the GLC have been particularly helpful with this part of my research (although they have assisted and supported me every step of the way)! I discussed this new direction of my project with Professor David Blight (Director of the GLC), Michelle Zacks (Associate Director of the GLC), as well as Ambassador Luis C.deBaca (ret.) (the Senior Fellow in Modern Slavery at the GLC) and they provided me with invaluable feedback, as well as helpful suggestions on where to start in terms of the existing literature on the subject. Happily many of these texts were available through the David Brion Davis book collection housed at the GLC. I am not a historian by trade, so this knowledge and guidance was incredibly valuable. Professor Blight also pointed me in the direction of George Miles (William Robertson Coe Curator, Yale Collection of Western Americana) who helped me locate archival material related to the slave trade in antebellum America at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. I have started working through these materials, but still have a number of files to review.

Where are the call centers, what companies or organizations use them, and what is it like in them?

The call centers can be found in various state and federal prisons across the country. Several major transnational companies have been linked to prison call center labor, but it is difficult to know for sure what companies or organizations are actually involved. However, it is not just major companies that are relying on this labor. In December 2019 it was reported that Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign had subcontracted a company that used prison labor to make campaign calls (although the Bloomberg campaign was quick to deny any knowledge of this arrangement). Additionally, it has been reported that inmates have provided various other services over the phone, such as handling Department of Motor Vehicle calls in New York state and tourism related calls in North Carolina.

Currently there is really not a lot of information available about what working in these call centers is like. This is one of the main reasons why I want to conduct the interviews and observational research within one or more prison call center, so that I can get a first-hand look at what an average day looks like in these workplaces, and more importantly, to explore how this labor is viewed and understood by the prisoners actually doing it (as well as those employing them and the prison officials who oversee their labor). 

Do prisoners voluntarily take on this work?

Based on the information I have found to this point, employment in prison call centers appears to be on a voluntary basis and these jobs seem to be more desirable than many of the other jobs available to inmates. However, I have found Genevieve LeBaron’s (2013) argument for considering a ‘spectrum of labor unfreedom’ to be particularly helpful in understanding prison call center labor in the U.S. While prisoners may voluntarily take on these positions, it is important to recognize that they do so against a backdrop of constraint and limited choice. Incarcerated call center workers—although often paid little in comparison to their un-incarcerated counterparts—can (in some cases) earn more in these positions than they would performing other jobs available. Although, while prisoners may choose to “freely” engage in this labor, their decision to do so must be understood within the broader context of daily prison life where inmates’ actions and choices are severely controlled and limited.

While there have been media references to this form of prison labor, it has received very little academic attention. Why do you think that is?

I have been very interested in this question. I think part of it could be that this is a newer form of prison labor (even though it has been around for a few decades at this point). Another reason is that perhaps it has not been differentiated from other forms of prison labor that have already received considerable scholarly attention. I think that there is something in the nature of this type of service-based work—especially the voice-to-voice contact with callers—that makes it unique from other types of prison labor that are focused on the production of consumer goods.

Why are you exploring this form of prison labor from a modern slavery perspective?

Given the low (or in some cases, complete lack of) pay provided to incarcerated workers, as well as the lack of legal protections that they have, it is important to view prison labor from this perspective. As noted earlier, while incarcerated call center workers may choose to undertake this labor they do so against a backdrop of limited choice and constraint.

What are your next steps?

Obviously aspects of my research have been interrupted by the pandemic. I am currently unable to access archival materials related to the slave trade in the U.S. at the Beinecke given the closures on campus, and my proposed field research is effectively on hold. However, I have been using this time to further explore the literature on the historical marketing of unfree labor and analyze prison labor marketing materials that are available online. I am hoping that I will have a chance to return to the Beinecke to continue my archival research and to make more progress on my field research before my fellowship ends at the end of June. However, this may not be possible. 

The pandemic itself has added a new dimension to my research. Recent news reports have highlighted that prisoners in the U.S. have been involved in the fight against the spread of COVID-19 in several key ways, from producing hand sanitizer (which they are prohibited from using because of the alcohol content), making face masks (which in some cases they may not have immediate access to), as well as communicating information about COVID-19 at a 211 call center. This increased reliance on prison labor is problematic for many reasons, not least of which are the very low wages that prisoners are paid, the lack of protections they have as workers, and the health risks that they face right now as a result of the pandemic. I will be continuing to follow reports of pandemic-focused prison labor in the coming weeks and months and a critical analysis of this work will certainly be included as part of my overall project.

Stephanie Redden has presented her research at several top international scholarly conferences, including several International Studies Association (ISA) annual conventions, as well as at the Pan-European Conference on International Relations. Additionally, her work has been published in the International Feminist Journal of PoliticsGlobalizations, as well as a number of edited collections. She is currently preparing a manuscript based on her doctoral research project–The ‘Feminization’ of the Everyday: Examining the Gendered Nature of Worker Resistance within the Transnational Call Center Industry–which will be published as part of Rowman and Littlefield’s Global Political Economies of Gender and Sexuality series in 2020.

This was originally posted here: https://macmillan.yale.edu/news/hello-inside-researching-prison-call-center-industry