Silicon Valley: where free labor is even better than cheap labor.


An article in the L.A. Times, mentioned there's a new scheme to help rehabilitate prisoners. Thanks to our friends in Silicon Valley. A high-tech incubator known as The Last Mile has been launched in Northern California's San Quentin State Prison. I guess it's kind of an incubator within an incubator, considering they're prisoners and all.

The program, which saw its seeds sprout in 2011, is being heralded as a chance for prisoners to use their spare time to learn high technology stuff. Oh and pitch their own ideas, too, so that when (or if) they're ever released, they can live an exemplary life as a model citizen under Big Tech's lovely shadow. It's one part Open University and one part Shark Tank, with Silicon Valley as the bosses. So far, five inmates have been released and landed jobs in big tech.

One such example of this program working, the article mentions, is Heracio "Ray" Harts, who served nearly nine years for manslaughter, only to pitch an idea to "combat obesity in low-income communities by turning empty lots into community gardens and abandoned buildings into fitness facilities." All with the help of a mobile app, of course. Taken as individuals, Mr. Harts and the other four or five other people who have been hired over two years, the program is considered a success. Taken as a whole, however, and the average success rate is quite low for a variety of reasons.

California is unique to the United States in that it's a very big state. Our prison system is second only to Texas. We spend a crazy amount of taxes on prisoners in California. And while the L.A. times says that only 4.3% of the nine billion dollars is spent on rehabilitation programs, by my math that's $387,000,000. And yet, the sad truth is that once released, two out of three ex-cons end up back in prison. It's easy to see why some people think throwing more money at the problem is the only solution. But it's also easy to see why a lot of other people think otherwise.

These prison schemes like the Last Mile can be controversial. Right or wrong, one belief among the non-criminal public is that prison is actually supposed to be a place where you are punished for crimes, not given free education. Some people feel like programs such as these send the wrong message. As one comment in the L.A. Times piece said: "So all I have to do is murder someone and I can get a free education. Great sign me up." While this can be seen on one level as the usual hyperbole of outrage, let's look at the root cause before we dismiss it fully.

Understand before we go any further here, I'm not interested in discussing the efficacy of prisoner rehabilitation. However, I do want to look at one aspect of that counter-argument, as it seems to pry open the door to the ever more cynical and brazen world of Google, Facebook et al. And that's the fact that Big Tech and Big Data is a bad as Big Oil and Big Tobacco. They will use any means at their disposal to save a buck. And any back they can hide behind to look good doing so is a good back indeed.

America is currently churning out boat loads of tech grads who find themselves in the position of competing with both prisoners and H1-B visa holders for the same few jobs. So why is is it that with the real total unemployment rate in America being 13.2% Big Tech is turning (carefully of course) to prisoners and lobbying for more visas?

The answer is simple. Cheaper labor. Or in the case of San Quentin: free Labor.

In describing the Last Mile program in the L.A. Times:

Over the course of six months, inmates are put through a business boot camp. They brainstorm a start-up, develop a business plan and boil down their pitch to five minutes. On "Demo Day," each inmate presents his idea to dozens of Silicon Valley investors and executives who crowd the prison chapel.

The inmates can't actually start these companies from prison, but they are introduced to a world that would otherwise be closed to them. When paroled, Last Mile graduates are given paid internships at tech start-ups.

Paid internships upon parole? Whoopee! How lucky! But in the meantime, Silicon Valley investor vampires swoop down upon the imprisoned, tablets at the ready, waiting to benefit from free labor, free I.P., free content, from prisoners, knowing it's all kosher, even if they say, develop these apps and make money off of them. And all the while they get to pat themselves on the back for teaching people who aren't legally allowed to start companies of their own how to give up their ideas in exchange for "skills," or something. Cynical much?

Here's something else: Despite the fact you're being told otherwise, America does not have a talent labor shortage. We have a shortage of Big Tech companies willing to pay American wages. According to an Atlantic article entitled "The Myth of America's Tech-Talent Shortage"

The H1-B program's fiercest critics, such as University of California, Davis computer science professor Norman Matloff, have long derided it as little more than a pipeline for cheap "indentured" labor. Companies are technically supposed to hire H1-B immigrants only if there are no Americans available to do the job, and then are required to pay them on par with U.S.-born professionals. Thanks to an array of legal loopholes in the way appropriate wages are calculated, though, it doesn't necessarily work out that way.

Often, it comes down to a matter of age: Companies frequently save money by hiring a young, less experienced immigrant instead of an older American who would command a higher salary. And because the bureaucratic hurdles make it difficult for H1-B holders to switch jobs -- particularly if they're stuck in line waiting for a green card -- guest workers have notorious difficulty bargaining for promotions or raises. They also can't go off and start their own businesses, as they'd lose their visa. Unlike green card holders, they're professionally chained in place.

I believe everyone deserves a fair shake, prisoners, immigrants, Americans alike. May the best person and idea win. But that fair shake still has to come fairly, too. Otherwise it's coming at a price. Goodly intentions or not, no company makes a decision unless it's good for their bottom line. So you have to ask yourself: why is Silicon Valley so insistent on importing cheap labor? Why the desire to have prisoners give up their ideas for free?

Remember, if Silicon Valley companies were so concerned about the penal system in California, or the plight of immigrants, or our failing education system churning out tech grads no one wants to hire, they could make a lot larger gesture immediately: pay their taxes. But Facebook Apple and google don't pay taxes. So let's cut the crap already. We need to see past the bleeding heart hippie shit and the glowing L.A. Times Articles, and understand the deep-seated corporate cynicism that exists in these companies is no different from the cynicism found in Wall Street.

The only thing different is that the ever-growing behemoth known as Silicon Valley uses big-hearted words and comes up with cool apps to try and cover up the fact they see any future (and current) employees as indentured servants.

about the author

kidsleepy 17 year copywriter, now CD, who has worked in many cities including Pittsburgh, New York, Atlanta, Montreal and currently Los Angeles. I snark because I care. I ain't complainin' I'm just tellin' it like it is.

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