[...] Working under the auspices of Alabama Correctional Industries (ACI), men and women are paid anywhere from 25 cents to 75 cents an hour for their labors. The humming of the textile looms in these prisons is a point of pride for state business boosters: “Alabama’s state prison system faces a wide range of problems, from overcrowding to rampant violence,” reported AL.com. “But one thing its administrators do not have trouble with is coming up with things for inmates to manufacture. From cleaning solutions and clothing to couches and barbecue grills, the list of items made by prisoners who participate in the Alabama Correctional Industries prison work program is long and varied.” In the first eight months of 2017, ACI reported more than $15 million in revenues, including almost $2 million in profits, approximately half of which came from textiles.
Most of Alabama’s prisons were built during the 1970s and saw rapidly rising populations, due in part to stricter drug laws. In the late ’70s, when Tee Jays first opened, Alabama’s state prison population was approximately six thousand; now it hovers at around thirty thousand, 42 percent higher than the national average. African Americans make up less than a third of the state population but more than 54 percent of those incarcerated.
As the textile factories were shuttering, emptying out, or sold off to foreign buyers, Alabama’s prisons were steadily filled to overcapacity. [...]