Jailhouse Rock: Was that new pedal you just bought made behind bars?

Elvis_Presley_Jailhouse_Rock2In today’s musical equipment market, the country of origin and it’s contribution to quality is just as hotly debated as tone stacks and vacuum tubes.  For many players, a U.S.-made guitar or amplifier will always carry a certain cachet that products made in other countries will not have, regardless of their quality.  Having a “Made in U.S.A” label is often justification enough for many players to open their wallets just a little bit wider, especially when a U.S.-made product is priced temptingly close to that of its imported rivals.

There is a perception in the marketplace that many imported products are priced lower than their U.S.-made competitors because of labor practices, including forced labor.  While practices like these may seem foreign (no pun intended) to U.S. consumers, there are perhaps more similarities in U.S.-made products than many people realize.

tumblr_mn5txa7Fah1r6m2leo1_1280Many corporations contract with companies that arrange prisoner labor pools within the U.S.  Paid anywhere from 93 cents to $4.73 per day, U.S. prisoners serving time throughout the United States are contracted to assemble furniture, work in “call centers”, sew uniforms and other clothing items or manufacture various other products that Americans buy and use everyday.*  Because prisoners can be paid at lower rates, retail prices can stay low and be competitive with imported products.

Is this how some U.S. musical equipment manufacturers do it?  Rumors have swirled around some brands in the past, but in reality connecting the dots is not so easy.  Lists of companies purportedly using U.S. prison labor to manufacture their goods don’t provide a lot of clarity on exactly how that labor is used, whether directly or indirectly (e.g. the company buys parts from another company that uses prison labor).  My Internet research uncovered no musical equipment manufacturers listed among companies using U.S. prison labor and only one reference made in 2013 on a message board about handful of rumors, the use of prison labor among them, that were circulating about a musical equipment manufacturer at some point in time.

However, prison labor need not always be viewed in a negative light.  In the early 2000s, inmates from Lovelock Correctional Facility in Nevada were provided the opportunity to participate in an educational program that would allow them to build their own mandolins and guitars.  The instruments would then be sold to raise funds for trainings programs in the prison.  While the program actually produced some fine instruments that occasionally show up for sale, it was beset with financial issues and the program was shuttered in 2005.  Less than 20 of the instruments ever made it to market, but many of them have the appearance of finely crafted, professional-grade instruments.

Unfortunately, knowing the origin of what we buy can be difficult, particularly when it comes to products that use so many different components, such as musical equipment.  And chances are that some products we already own may have been at least partially produced by prison or forced labor.  The upside is that we have options.  The Tone King provides reviews on a variety of different equipment, from the big manufacturers to small, boutique shops that build their items by hand in small quantities.  Armed with that information, musicians can easily make informed decisions about the products they buy…which can only make being sentenced to a life of G.A.S. that much easier.

* Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-fraser/private-prisons-_b_1439201.html

** Source: http://people.umass.edu/kastor/private/prison-labor.html

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