The warden’s most recent bid had come in lower than that of the Affiliated Garment Producers of Cambodia, so today the men of Apparel Unit 21 were producing robes for Buddhist monks. The irony of this situation wasn’t lost on Harrison as he stood in the sewing cell, watching hundreds of orange jump-suited men sway like cilia as they fed the swaths of Hare Krishna Orange cotton through their machines. But he was unapologetic. “We can kick their sorry overpaid Khmer asses,” he told his guest, CEO of The Do-Over Foundation, “and do it with quality.”
A non-profit dedicated to remediating the policy errors of the late 20th century, the Foundation had been established five years earlier. One of its first acts was to acquire a 20% share in Penal Tomorrows, a C-Corporation dedicated to bolstering domestic employment. Keeping Jobs in America…Whatever it Takes was the motto emblazoned over electrified campus gates. So though he usually left the tours to the prisoners of Public Relations Unit 1 (a scrawny but loud-talking group of former actors and marketing executives), today Harrison was personally escorting this important visitor around the vast campus.
“We’ve come a long way since license plates and road crews,” he’d declared at their first stop on the tour, a former jet hangar that now housed hundreds of rows of ankle-cuffed teenagers sitting at monitors, playing up to five concurrent games of Farmville: Ganymede Edition or Finance HQ, then selling their points to less-skilled players on the outside. “Milk drinkers,” the prisoners sneeringly called their customers, but Harrison allowed the attitude to go unpunished. The margins on this trade were exceptional, averaging 89%, so if the inmates needed a little scorn to keep them jacked up, he had no problem with that.
Though no manufacturing occurred in the Research Pavilion, Harrison had to shout over the din in there. “It’s not just keyboard noise,” he explained to his guest, gesturing at the aisles of people rapidly typing their responses to survey after survey, while also orally answering the questions piped into their ear buds. “These days a lot of pollsters and market researchers have reverted back to live interviews to make sure they’re getting answers from real people.” If he listened hard, Harrison could make out the recurring phrases: “Not at all likely”…“A good value for the money.”
They passed through some of the smaller, more specialized barracks—the Homeopathic Nutritional Supplements facility and the African-American Hair Products plant, and stopped at the entrance to a small television studio. “Honey, this marriage cannot be saved,” counseled a man sitting in front of a blown-up image saying Dear Dr. David in a flowing cursive font, “and you’ve got to draw a hard red line in the sand. If you don’t set limits, this parasite will just keep taking and taking.”
“We signed NZTV last week,” Harrison whispered. “This check forger is now giving advice to people on every continent but Antarctica.”
As the golf cart drove them through the golf-cart assembly facility, Harrison answered his guest’s questions about the economic impact of Penal Tomorrows. “It’s huge,” he said with easy pride. “Look, about 27% of our GDP comes from in-sourced labor. We don’t have to worry about unions or overtime. We’re producing with quality. We’re keeping jobs in the country and getting bad guys off the street.”
The cart stopped in front of two massive, carved cherry-wood doors. A stream of prisoners wearing American flag pins on their jumpsuits filed through them. Beaming, Harrison turned to his guest. “Of all our new accounts, this is the one I’m most proud of.”
“Your attention please, Representatives,” the loudspeaker blared. “Voting will begin in five minutes on HR 7381, the Federal Mandatory Sentencing Act.”
Julie Wittes Schlack leads product innovation for an online community company and is a graduate of Lesley University’s low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing. She writes book reviews for the Boston Globe and The ARTery, and is a regular contributor to Cognoscenti, the online journal published by NPR affiliate, WBUR. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals, including Shenandoah, Louisville Review, South Carolina Review, Ninth Letter, Saint Ann’s Review, and Tampa Review.