Palm Beach State College Prison and Police Abolition Article Outline

Palm Beach State College Prison and Police Abolition Article Outline

Prison and Police Abolition

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By John Washington
JULY 31, 2018
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What Is Prison Abolition?
The movement that is trying to think beyond prisons as a tool
to solve society’s problems.
t’s difficult to
fully capture the
Inmates on the Gwinnett County, Georgia, work crew cut grass off
Highway 124. (AP Photo / Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Johnny
Ready To Fight
repercussions of
keeping millions of
black, brown, or
poor—in jail,
prison, or under
some form of
supervision.” How
do you calculate,
for example, the impact on families and communities
across our country when almost half of all black adult
women in America have a family member locked up? Or
that at least 80,000 people are, at any given time,
resigned to some form of solitary confinement? Or that
the aggregate cost of total incarceration in the United
States (including costs borne by the families of those
incarcerated, lost wages, and health impacts) is, by
some estimates, about $1 trillion a year? A trillion
dollars, the break-up of families, the destruction of
lives, and little to show in the way of rehabilitative
effects—and yet this system is just a part of life?
The long-lasting impact of our incarceration complex
is, it seems, receiving increased mainstream attention.
The cause of criminal-justice reform has been taken up
by everyone from liberal champion Van Jones to the
arch-conservative Koch brothers. A Republican-cosponsored bill that would bring long-overdue changes
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to conditions inside prisons even passed the House this
spring. Inmates staging work strikes and protests,
including a major strike being planned for this August,
have also brought increased scrutiny to the plight of
those consigned to life behind bars. But what if
softening the jagged corners of prison life, or even
reforming the whole system, is not enough?
For a hundred years, at least since Emma Goldman
quoted Dostoyevsky to call prison hell on earth, a
variety of community groups and prisoner activists
have been working not only to reform the prisonindustrial complex, but to dismantle it entirely. Now, as
critiques of the inherent racism and classism—and
transcendent harm—of our criminal-justice system have
gained attention, a growing collection of activists and
writers have not only been working to humanize the
cages, and not only to tear down the cages, but to build a
more equitable society in which we don’t need to rely
on cages at all. This is the prison-abolition movement.
The prison-abolition movement is a loose collection of
people and groups who, in many different ways, are
calling for deep, structural reforms to how we handle
and even think about crime in our country. There are
de facto figureheads (such as Angela Davis and Ruth
Wilson Gilmore, the most famous contemporary
abolitionists) and organizations (such as Critical
Resistance, INCITE!, the Movement for Black Lives,
the National Lawyers Guild, and Incarcerated Workers
Organizing Committee—all of which, if not explicitly
abolitionist, at least engage in abolitionist ethics), and
there are converging or at least overlapping political
ideologies (anarchist, socialist, libertarian), but there is
no structured organizing group or coalition. Masai
Ehehosi, a co-founder of Critical Resistance and
longtime member of the New Afrikan Independence
Movement, pointed me to the overlap between
organizations promoting civil rights and abolitionists:
“We want freedom” can just as easily be applied to
ending Jim Crow or the New Jim Crow, to unlocking
iron shackles or swinging open prison doors.
The “movement” thus operates with affinity groups,
with various organizations working in prisoner support,
prisoner advocacy, political advocacy, or community
education. “And when something big happens,” as
Azzurra Crispino, prison labor activist and co-founder
of Prison Abolition and Prisoner Support, explained to
me, “we all show up as a coalition, and we don’t
interfere” with each other’s work.
Abolitionists believe that incarceration, in any form,
harms society more than it helps. As Angela Davis
argues, prisons are an obsolete institution because they
exacerbate societal harms instead of fixing them. “Are
we willing to relegate ever larger numbers of people
from racially oppressed communities to an isolated
existence marked by authoritarian regimes, violence,
disease, and technologies of seclusion that produce
severe mental instability?” Davis has written. Even if we
were to greatly diminish the current prison population,
even if we were to cut it in half but keep the prison
complex intact, we would still be consigning millions of
people to isolation and violence—and that’s a form of
inhumanity that abolitionists can’t abide. Moreover,
Davis contends, mass imprisonment “reproduce[s] the
very conditions that lead people to prison.”
Abolitionists don’t stop at the prison walls, however:
They aim to reshape our society as a whole. We are not
doing nearly enough to address the root causes of
poverty, addiction, homelessness, and mental-health
crises, abolitionists contend, and criminalizing poverty
through harsh fines and debt regulation; criminalizing
addiction through drug laws; criminalizing
homelessness by conducting sweeps of people sleeping
in parks; and criminalizing mental illness by turning
prisons into de facto psychiatric hospitals is all treating
the symptom instead of the disease. This is one of the
key differences between reform and abolitionism: The
former deals with pain management and the latter with
the actual source of the pain.
Abolitionists, therefore, share an idea—a vision—more
than a structure: a future in which vital needs like
housing, education, and health care, are met, allowing
people to live safe and fulfilled lives—without the need
for prisons.
The three pillars of abolitionism—or the “Attrition
Model” as the Prison Research Education Action
Project called it in their 1976 pamphlet, “Instead of
Prisons: A Handbook for Abolitionists”—are:
moratorium, decarceration, and excarceration.
The first step, moratorium, is simple: “Stop building
cages,” is how Critical Resistance co-founder Rachel
Herzing described it. According to a Congressional
Research Service report, “the number of state and
federal adult correction facilities rose from 1,277 in
1990 to 1,821 in 2005, a 43% increase.” Five hundred and
forty-four new facilities in 15 years works out to about
one new prison opening every 10 days. (Since the 1970s,
there has been at least a 700 percent increase in the
state prison populations.) Though prison construction
has slowed since, new prisons are still being built, and
immigration detention has seen yet another
construction boom since Trump took office.
Abolitionists have had some success slowing the prison
construction boom: Earlier this year in the town of
Goshen, Indiana, residents successfully prevented a
new private immigration-detention center, to be run by
CoreCivic, from being built in their backyard. The basic
thinking behind moratorium is that with fewer prison
beds, there will be fewer people in prison.
A bit more complicated is the second step—decarceration
—which involves finding ways to get people out of
prison. According to abolitionists, a lot of people in
prison right now represent no threat to society, and
therefore shouldn’t be languishing behind bars. In
states that have legalized marijuana, for example, it’s
particularly cruel to still be keeping people in prison for
possessing marijuana. The Drug Policy Alliance
estimates that there have been about 350,000 arrests
for marijuana in California in the past 10 years (medical
marijuana, meanwhile, has been legal in that state for
over two decades, and recreational use is now also
legal), and a total of 1 million people have reviewable
convictions. The New York Times also recently reported
that, despite what seems like a national relaxation of
arrests and convictions for marijuana use, black and
Hispanic residents of some parts of New York City are
arrested at a rate 15 times higher than that of white
people—for the same “crime.” Other decarceration
strategies include creating review processes to
reevaluate sentence terms, recognizing that many
people are given long stints for petty crimes—especially
under many states’ three-strikes rules.
Excarceration strategies—the third abolitionist pillar—
could potentially be the most transformative for society:
These involve finding ways to divert people away from
the prison-industrial complex in the first place.
According to abolitionists, many of the reasons people
end up coming into contact with law enforcement can
be solved through more humane means.
Decriminalizing mental-health episodes, fighting
homelessness, or decriminalizing drug use are three
clear ways to keep people from getting pipelined
towards prison. And for abolitionists, we don’t just stop
at decriminalization: Adequately funding mental-health
treatment, providing housing for those in need, and
offering adequate rehabilitation services for people
with substance dependence are all critical. As author
Alex Vitale told me, “Housing-first initiatives for
homeless people—that is police reform.”
“When we no longer call something a crime, we can
define the phenomena differently, and we can respond
to [it] differently,” Justin Piché, director of Carceral
Studies Research Collective, at the University of
Ottawa, told me. If a population stops thinking of
vagrancy or sleeping on a park bench as crimes, and
instead considers them problems with unemployment,
inequality, and a paucity of mental-health services, we
can stop hailing the cops so much. We need to open up
the possibility to react to wrongdoing, injury,
difference, and culturally ingrained prejudice without
merely seeking to punish or encage someone. “The
moment you go to the state,” Crispino told me, “the
conflict no longer is your conflict—the state
appropriates it.”
“I approach [abolition] as a process,” Vitale said. “Show
me a problem and I’ll show you a way to address that
problem without policing.” Critical Resistance’s Ehehosi
—who served 14 years in a Virginia prison as a political
prisoner, in his view—emphasized the need for food coops, housing co-ops, and other means of offering people
affordable and healthy means to live and survive—with
the end goal of building community—so that we can
deal with tensions in our own way and don’t need to
rely on armed police and incarceration. “When you’re
poor, and you don’t know when your next meal is going
to come, everything gets a lot harder,” Ehehosi said. “It’s
not just about closing down prisons, but the whole
But what about those acts of extreme violence—what to
do with people who have committed rape or murder?
How should such truly harmful transgressions be
handled in a post-prison world? According to
abolitionists, one solution may be a process called
restorative justice.
Through restorative justice, offenders are expected, as
Vitale describes, “to fully account for their behaviors in
dialogue with the individual and communities affected
by their actions.… They must then work with those
parties to develop actions to try to repair the damage
done as much as possible.” The process is restorative
because the goal is to restore the victim, their
community, and the offender, to how they were before
the transgression occurred. As Crispino put it to me,
“People who commit violence are hurt by the violence
they commit,” and therefore need to be part of any
process that seeks to find justice for that violence.
One step further than restorative justice is
transformative justice. Crispino defined this concept as
asking the offender what in their life has led them to
commit the act, and what we all can do to change those
conditions. Through either restorative or
transformative justice, the systemic analysis takes the
place of individual interrogation and punishment.
These processes are hardly new: Abolitionists trace the
roots of restorative justice back to a wide variety of
indigenous and religious practices such as the Mohawk
Nation of Akwesasne band council in Canada, which has
established a indigenous people’s court according to
Mohawk principles. As Bonni Cole, an indigenous
prosecutor, explained, “It’s not just looking at
penalizing… that’s old thinking—that’s outside thinking.”
Likewise, the Jewish practice of Teshuva, or atonement,
has been linked not only to punishing the offender but
also to a holistic reparation of the relationship between
offender and victim. Another Canadian indigenous
people, the Mnjikaning, avoid the terms “offender” and
“victim” altogether, focusing instead on the behavior of
the individuals and how it impacts the community.
Restorative justice is being tried out in some schools as
well, with districts from Oakland to Denver adopting
some restorative practices, which are already showing
Even with instances of egregious abuse, as during
Guatemala’s long Civil War, restorative justice pushes as
much for bringing the offenders to justice—including
airing out the crimes through truth-and-reconciliation
processes—as for reparations for the victims and their
communities. And though the outcome of Guatemalan
efforts has been mixed, the restorative-justice model
has brought in traditionally ignored voices (promoting
women and indigenous lawyers) and has at least
spotlighted decades’-old institutional harms that might
otherwise have been overlooked or forgotten in sweepit-under-the-rug amnesty bills. Guatemala’s
Commission for Historical Clarification, as well, though
slow and with wavering results—such as the
nullification of a genocide conviction against the late
war criminal Efraín Ríos Montt—has kept the harms of
the conflict in the foreground—a key to healing.
It may be hard to imagine a victim of a violent
transgression sitting down for a discussion with the
perpetrator, but according to Vitale, there are many
situations in which the victim or the victim’s family has
actually been more fulfilled by a restorative process, or
feel they have attained greater justice through
restorative-justice models. An obvious benefit of the
restorative model is that it takes account not just of the
singular event, but the structural problems surrounding
and leading up to the offense.
The practice of abolitionism, therefore, is about a lot
more than the bars themselves. It’s about addressing
community tensions, understanding why people turn to
the police, and trying to break the self-perpetuating
cycle of violence and imprisonment. And yet, with such
an idealistic-sounding goal—tearing down prison walls
and restructuring society—it can be hard to fathom
tangible first steps. Incarceration is so embedded in our
society—even in our way of looking at the world—it
may seem hard to even broach a conversation on
Herzing offered an approachable and practical first
step: “Be curious.” In an essay for TruthOut, Herzing
sketched a loose guide to a “police-free future.” The
place to start, she suggested, was by being aware of your
context, asking yourself, first, what role cops play in
your life, and then moving on to who you could rely on
in an emergency situation. If you are easily willing to
rely on police intervention—ready to grab the phone
and call the cops when you’re scared, have been
wronged, or merely see a black person taking a nap—
you might consider why some people, instead of seeing
cops as a source of safety or justice, see them as a threat
and a danger. The goal, step by step, is to build a team, a
community, a whole network of resources to “increase
people’s abilities to prevent, interrupt and repair harm
and respond to crisis without law enforcement.”
Another practical step most of the abolitionists I spoke
with is joining of a racial/economic-justice movement.
The goal, as Vitale put it, is to work toward “building a
new political narrative.” And building a new narrative
means a lot of educating, sharing, communicating—
something not effectively accomplished behind the
existential windscreen of a laptop or smartphone.
None of this is going to happen without continuing to
change broad cultural attitudes not only toward prisons
but also toward people of color and what drives gaping
economic inequalities. Notably, Critical Resistance’s
“Abolitionist Toolkit” mainly consists of questions,
workshop suggestions, and critical-thinking prompts.
This seems to go along with the philosophical ethic of
abolitionism—it’s not a hierarchical strategy with a
single key or solution, but an alternative way of
thinking about society. Herzing described the
abolitionist ethic as “slow and steady.” The “Abolitionist
Toolkit” explains that “abolitionist steps are about
gaining ground in the constant effort to radically
transform society. They are about chipping away at
oppressive institutions rather than helping them live
longer. They are about pushing critical consciousness,
gaining more resources, building larger coalitions, and
developing more skills for future campaigns. They are
about making the ultimate goal of abolition possible.”
“I’m a prison abolitionist for my own liberation,”
Crispino told me. What abolitionism comes down to,
she added, is the “recognition that no human being is
In the 1960s and ’70s, activists were able to “muse about
a prisonless future,” as Justin Piché put it. Today, with
over 2 million men, women, and children in cages, that
prisonless future may seem like a saccharine utopia.
The practical difficulty in envisioning a less repressive
future, however, hasn’t stopped abolitionists from
working towards it.
Five decades ago, Davis writes, she couldn’t have
imagined the prison population increasing nearly 10
times over, “not unless this country plunges into
fascism.” Though this is a frightening tacking of stock,
given the historically unprecedented boom in
incarceration—indeed, at least a 700 percent increase—
it’s also a liberating thought: If change is possible in one
direction, it might be possible in the other.
It’s revealing to consider periods in history where
society seemed particularly blind to the future: periods
in which our predecessors engaged in backwards or
John Washington writes about immigration and border politics, as
well as criminal justice, photography, and literature. His first book, on
US asylum policy, is forthcoming from Verso Books in 2020. Find more
of his work at
To submit a correction for our consideration, click here.
For Reprints and Permissions, click here.
brutish conduct. In the mid-19th century, for some
Americans abolishing slavery hardly seemed feasible. As
late as 1856, as historian Matthew Karp has pointed out,
some predicted as many as 100 million people would be
enslaved in the United States by 1950. Abolitionists are
trying to shake society from this ethical torpor and
show us that, like slavery, locking humans in cages need
not be inextricably woven into our society.
As Critical Resistance explains in its definition of
abolition, “we must build models today that can
represent how we want to live in the future.” The
abolition of prisons is, in the end, a project of radical
optimism and reconstruction. As a society, abolitionists
contend—and it’s hard to argue the point—we can do a
lot better.
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By Michelle Chen
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‘We Were Treated Like Dirt’:
A Visa Program Exploits
Student Workers
With the J-1 Visa, employers can skirt safety protections and
avoid paying the minimum wage.
Students in the State Department’s Summer Work Travel program
protest the conditions at a Hershey packing plant in Pennsylvania in
2011. (AP Photo / John C. Whitehead)
t’s difficult to fully capture the negative
repercussions of keeping millions of people—
overwhelmingly black, brown, or poor—in jail, prison,
or under some form of “correctional supervision.” How
do you calculate, for example, the impact on families
and communities across our country when almost half
of all black adult women in America have a family
member locked up? Or that at least 80,000 people are,
at any given time, resigned to some form of solitary
confinement? Or that the aggregate cost of total
incarceration in the United States (including costs
borne by the families of those incarcerated, lost wages,
and health impacts) is, by some estimates, about $1
trillion a year? A trillion dollars, the break-up of
families, the destruction of lives, and little to show in
the way of rehabilitative effects—and yet this system is
just a part of life?
The Summer Work Travel (SWT) program is a shortterm labor scheme for foreign students enrolled in a
college or university outside the United States. It’s the
largest job program administered by the State
Department through the J-1 Visa, and is marketed as a
way for students to “to share their culture and ideas
with people of the United States through temporary
work and travel opportunities.” And each summer, more
than 100,000 of these student workers arrive, pre-
matched with a certified employer, to improve their
English, explore life in the States, or just make some
quick cash.
Yet, according to an investigation published by the
International Labor Recruitment Working Group
(ILRWG), a coalition of unions and rights groups,
companies often see J-1 workers as a cheap, easily
exploitable source of labor. Because J-1 workers are
considered part of an “international exchange,”
employers can skirt regulations like health and safety
protections, Social Security and health care benefits,
and even the minimum wage. The biggest beneficiaries
of this scheme are giant American corporations like
McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Disney.
Oliver Benzon, 24, traveled from the Dominican
Republic to Ocean City, Maryland, in 2015, expecting to
be set up with a restaurant job. But when he arrived, he
realized he would be tasked with setting up the
restaurant itself.
“We went to the restaurant, and then we see that it’s
under construction,” Benzon recalled, speaking by
phone from the Dominican Republic. “We said, ‘Oh my
God, this is going to be very, very hard.’”
Benzon, who had planned to work as a cook, ended up
spending the first part of his “experience” hauling
kitchen equipment, even though SWT participants are
not supposed to perform such tasks because of safety
concerns. Eventually, he said, he did work in the
restaurant, but had to face bullying treatment and
abusive language from his boss. He recalled, “We were
treated like dirt because our supervisors knew we
couldn’t complain.”
In addition to the hostile workplace, he said, he and all
the other black and Latinx workers were forced into
low-wage “back of the house” jobs, while their white
coworkers filled server positions that came with better
pay and tips. Even then, he said he was paid just a
fraction of what he was owed, after spending thousands
in fees for the privilege of working there.
Although SWT-sponsoring agencies are supposed to
oversee participants and handle problems with
employers, he said his sponsor did nothing, despite
receiving numerous complaints. According to
advocates, sponsors have a vested interest in keeping
workers on the job. The business model is based on
charging individual students fees—sometimes
extracting several thousand dollars per applicant to
connect them with US-based employers seeking
seasonal labor. The sponsors “don’t really care about
anything,” Benzon said, “because they already have
their business with the employer, getting benefits with
In theory, the SWT worker is supposed to experience
their workplace as a form of cultural immersion, where
they “work and interact with U.S. citizens, and engage
in activities and events that provide exposure to U.S.
culture.” Even though the rather loose definition of
“culture” includes low-wage manual and service work,
demand for this experience has soared. In 2018, about
104,500 workers were hired through SWT, up from
about 95,000 in 2015—a more than fivefold increase
from 1996. According to 2015 data, the average age of
SWT workers was just 21, and just over half were
women. They came from 141 countries, mostly Bulgaria,
China, Ireland, Romania, and Ukraine. Nearly 16,000
firms operated as employers.
Typically, sponsoring agencies with names like Life
Adventures, Inc. match employers with workers, who
usually end up in the most precarious and lowestpaying industries, including hospitality, entertainment,
and retail work. While it is marketed to students, the
program’s labor component is pragmatic, not
educational: The government requires that jobs involve
“minimal training and are seasonal or temporary in
order to earn funds to help defray a portion of their
expenses.” Some student workers have complained
about being placed in service jobs where they are
isolated from other human beings—a far cry from the
English-language practice they often thought they were
signing up for.
The State Department said in a statement to The Nation
that it “has zero tolerance for any abuse and
misconduct. We work with local, state, and federal law
enforcement entities to uphold the law and protect
participants…[and] proactively monitor sites and meet
with participants to ensure their health, safety, and
But according to Evy Peña, communications director of
the advocacy group Centro de los Derechos del
Migrante, which collaborated on the ILRWG report, the
State Department is unable to effectively regulate the
program. Instead, she argues, the Labor Department
should have oversight over the tens of thousands of
SWT workers. “The State Department’s mission is not
to protect the workers,” she said. “That is not built into
the program.”
State Department work programs have faced several
public scandals in recent years. In 2011, a group of
young workers who were assigned to work at a Hershey
packing plant organized a high-profile strike and
protest campaign against their harsh working
conditions. Boosted by social media, about 200 youth
walked out to try to shame the classic American brand
for forcing them into a summer of drudgery, working
long shifts packing candy.
That same year, the J-1 program veered into the Miami
underworld, when two SWT workers arrived for what
they thought was going to be a summer of clerical work
at a yoga studio. They were instead roped into a sex
trafficking scheme, which advertised their services as
“Beautiful ladies from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Belarus,
and Ukraine offering Sensual Body rubs.”
The SWT workers’ marginal status also makes them
vulnerable to intimidation and retaliation if they try to
report violations. As foreign workers, J-1 workers are
also typically ineligible for the legal-aid services that
US residents often rely on for representation in civil
But even if they are not subject to outright abuse,
economic insecurity is baked into SWT. The program
itself fuels a broader pattern of outsourcing and
subcontracting low-wage labor. Though the State
Department does not report detailed wage data for
SWT, there is a documented pattern of employers’
using J-1 labor to circumvent union contracts. A 2011
analysis of the program by legal scholar Kit Johnson
found that Disney’s various programs for J-1 Visa
workers—touted as a cultural and educational
experience despite revolving around custodial and
concession jobs—collectively “saved” some $15 million
in labor costs, because they were excluded from
collective-bargaining agreements.
The ILRWG report also points to a trend of “visa
shopping” among some employers, who use J-1 workers
to supplement their seasonal hiring under other labor
visa programs, including H2-A, a larger program for
importing farm labor, generally from Latin America,
and H2-B, a similar temporary labor program for lowpaid industrial jobs like landscaping and amusement
park maintenance. Both programs, unlike the SWT, are
administered by the Department of Labor. Combined
with the even less regulated SWT program, they are
producing a constant flow of underpaid and underprotected short-term workers.
After the negative publicity of the SWT summer
nightmares of 2011, the Obama administration initiated
reforms to improve supervision of sponsors and
employers. Yet advocates say that the State Department
still fails to protect J-1 workers, enabling employers to
capitalize on an under-regulated workforce of students
who, due to their restrictive visas, are tethered to their
There have been some stirrings in the White House this
week, however, following the publication of the
ILRWG’s report. The State Department is reportedly
considering curtailing the use of J-1 as a work program
by ramping up oversight and requiring more
transparency in the recruitment process.
But while limiting the scope of J-1 work visas might
help, the ILRWG calls for a complete overhaul of SWT,
not only to bring it within the purview of the Labor
Department but also to ensure transparency in the
system. The government, the report says, should inform
students of the terms of their employment, and provide
a grievance process and an improved enforcement
system for abusive companies or sponsors.
The idea of “summer work” for students suggests a
casual, temporary gig. But when operating on such a
massive scale, it can erode working conditions in
already precarious job sectors. In the long term, labor
advocates want to reimagine guest worker programs so
they will provide fair pay, equal protections under labor
laws, and ultimately, a pathway to citizenship.
For now, many workers like Benzon have no illusions
about cultural exposure. Even before his ordeal in
Maryland, he saw the J-1 Visa as the easiest way to
legally earn money in the United States. For him, even a
short-term job was a better opportunity than he had
available in the Dominican Republic.
Some young people come do come back with an
impressive amount of cash, he said. “So everyone sees
that and they want to go to the United States. But when
you go there, you see that the reality is another.”
Michelle Chen Michelle Chen is a contributing writer for The Nation.
To submit a correction for our consideration, click here.
For Reprints and Permissions, click here.
Benzon is now at home and working at a call center—a
typical dead-end gig for young people who cannot
migrate for work. But he has joined the ILRWG in its
campaign to reform the J-1 program. At the media
conference announcing the report, he warned his fellow
young workers: “The world needs to know about this
program—a government-approved program that
businesses are using to denigrate workers’ rights.”
The State Department website is still promoting SWT
to the world as a colorful cultural exchange, with
photos of smiling young people gaining “first-hand
experience” and exploring “entrepreneurship” through
work. As long as Uncle Sam keeps selling aspiring
migrants exciting opportunities abroad, they’ll keep
learning, from firsthand experience, the hard lessons of
labor in America.
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