2023 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Medium Newsroom finalist

The Prison Sell

About the Project

In most states, prisoners are used for government contract work. They make license plates, highway signs and the like. But in Arizona, a for-profit, state-run company – Arizona Correctional Industries – has expanded its use of prisoners far beyond its peers. Not only does ACI use prisoners to make products at manufacturing shops inside Arizona prisons, it also leases prisoners to private companies looking for workers who are guaranteed to show up every day and will save them money on labor-related expenses.

During their 15-month investigation, the Arizona Republic and KJZZ News reviewed more than 11,000 invoices and quotes, and hundreds of contracts from companies and government agencies to see how prison labor is used throughout the state. Those quotes and contracts show that prisoners build, weld, hand-carve and manufacture all sorts of products – everything from picnic tables and Adirondack chairs to teak locker rooms and football goal posts.

But one constant in all this industrial effort is how little Arizona prisoners are paid and how few rights they have compared to workers on the other side of prison walls. And while ACI’s profits have more than doubled since Brian Radecki took over as chief executive in 2011, the plight of prison workers has only gotten worse.

As soon as our stories broke in July of last year, Democratic legislators and prison reform advocates began calling for change.

“Forced prison labor is nothing more than modern day slavery, and our state’s growing reliance on this workforce is irresponsible, immoral and inexcusable,” said Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale. “Any public official with any duty to protect taxpayer dollars should be rethinking the way we appropriate money and the accountability standards that are in place.”

Raul Grijalva, a Congressman representing Arizona’s 3rd District, said the “egregiously inhumane system needed to be completely overhauled.”

Unfortunately, Republicans have remained mute.

Calls to Republican leaders and to rightwing think tanks including the Rand Corporation, the Goldwater Institute and the Cato Institute were not returned.

But we did have a personal victory.

The Republic retained Ballard Spahr to compel the state to release its prison management system database, which contains everything from demographic information about prisoners to their work history and wages to their movement within cell blocks. Originally, all of this information was denied to The Republic, which culminated in the team creating its unique web scraper. However, the data was imperfect, and nowhere near as rich as the team would have liked. In the end, The Republic got everything it asked for – sans the names of prisoners – through discussions overseen by a Superior Court judge.