Prison Labor: Workin' For The Man
By Reese Erlich
Convicted kidnapper Dino Navarrete doesn't smile much as he
surveys the sewing machines at Soledad prison's sprawling workshop.
The short, stocky man with tattoos rippling his muscled forearms
earns 45 cents an hour making blue work shirts in a medium-security
prison near Monterey, California. After deductions, he earns about
$60 for an entire month of nine-hour days.
"They put you on a machine and expect you to put out for
them", says Navarrete. "Nobody wants to do that. These jobs are
jokes to most inmates here." California long ago stopped claiming
that prison labor rehabilitates inmates. Wardens just want to keep
them occupied. If prisoners refuse to work, they are moved to
disciplinary housing and lose canteen privileges. Most importantly,
they lose "good time" credit that reduces their sentence.
Navarrete was surprised to learn that California has been
exporting prison-made clothing to Asia. He and the other prisoners
had no idea that California, along with Oregon, was doing exactly
what the U.S. has been lambasting China for - exporting prison-made
goods. "You might just as well call this slave labor, then", says
Navarrete. "If they're selling it overseas, you know they're making
money. Where's the money going to? It ain't going to us." For the
first time in the interview, Navarrete's usual scowl turned briefly
into a smile.
Federal law prohibits domestic commerce in prison-made goods
unless inmates are paid "prevailing wage". But because the law
doesn't apply to exports, no California prison officials will end
up in cells alongside their "employees".
Interestingly enough, prison authorities on both sides of the
Pacific make similar arguments to justify prison labor. "We want
prisoners to learn a working skill", says Mai Lin Hua, warden at
China's maximum security Shanghai Jail. He admits that his
prisoners are forced to work, facing solitary confinement if they
refuse. He also says China no longer exports prison-made goods to
the U.S. (2)
U.S. prison officials echo a similar line, except they claim
the labor is voluntary. Fred Nichols, head of Oregon's "Prison
Blues" jeans-making operation, says, "We provide extra training for
them. Here the inmates volunteer." (3)
But prisoners in Oregon, like those virtually everywhere else
in the U.S., get time subtracted from their sentences for working
in prison industries. If prisoners don't work, they serve longer
sentences, lose privileges, and risk solitary confinement.
So what's the real difference between China's "forced labor"
and that in the U.S. prison system? Brad Haga, marketing director
for Oregon Prison Industries, sheepishly admits, "Perhaps it smacks
of old-fashioned imperialism to be making those kinds of
A Dynamic Sector
Regardless of such qualms, hundreds of thousands of American
prisoners now work in what is becoming a growth business: prison
industries. The term encompasses several distinct but related
arrangements: Federal and state prisons employ inmates to produce
goods for sale to government and for the open market. Private
companies as well contract with prisons to hire prisoners. And
private prisons similarly employ inmate labor for private profit,
either for outside companies or for the prison operators
themselves. What all three arrangements share is the exploitation
of a growing and literally captive labor pool.
And that pool is overflowing. The U.S. now has 1.12 million
people behind bars, and its incarceration rate is second only to
Russia's. The U.S. rate is more than four times Canada's, five
times England's, and 14 times Japan's. (5)
Some cite the country's violent traditions, chronic social
tensions, and high crime rates to explain this perverse
accomplishment. But such explanations beg the question of how
society responds to crime and its causes. Instead of addressing the
causes of criminality, political leaders and the mass media have
inflamed popular concern about crime and sparked revulsion at
notorious offenses. Hyped-up moral panics and crime hysteria lead
to good ratings and easy political points. They also deflect
attention from the causes of crime. The goal becomes simply to
suppress deviance, a stance that prepares the terrain for a harshly
repressive response to crime.
For those at the bottom, public policy has become all stick
and no carrot. "Three strikes" and other mandatory minimum laws,
the war on drugs, and moves to abolish parole are the concrete
embodiments of the repressive approach. In the past 20 years, while
serious crime rates have remained relatively stable, the
incarceration rate has more than doubled. As programs for the poor
and disadvantaged face the axe, spending for police and prisons
As a result, U.S. prisons are jampacked. To keep prisoners
busy and increase revenues, prisons across the country are
expanding prison industries. And conservative politicians are
jumping on the bandwagon. Presidential candidate Sen. Phil Gramm
(R-Texas) has called for prison labor to pay half the cost of the
federal prison system. (6)
But beneath these pragmatic arguments lurks a darker subtext:
the need to impose discipline and control over an ever-larger and
increasingly restive prison population. Critics also charge that
inmates are exploited, the jobs provide few real skills, and prison
industries throw prisoners into direct competition with civilian
Meet The New Consensus
In the 1950s, prison authorities, unions, and private
companies reached a compromise on the issue of prison labor. The
federal government and states agreed that prisoners should work as
a means of rehabilitation. Inmate-produced goods would be used
inside prisons or sold only to government agencies - and would not
compete with private businesses or labor. (7) Now, prison
authorities, along with cost-conscious entrepreneurs, budget-paring
politicians, and private prison operators such as Wackenhut and the
Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), are in the process of
overturning that long-held political consensus.
The law hasn't changed since the 1950s, but the political
climate has moved so far to the right that it is often ignored.
Nowadays, almost no one talks about rehabilitation. And in the go-
go, free enterprise, let's-privatize-everything 1990s, many in
authority just don't care if prison labor competes with civilians.
Prisoners are one more sector ripe for exploitation.
In fact, some politicians and businesspeople view inmates much
as they see workers in the Third World. In a revealing comment,
Oregon State Representative Kevin Mannix argues that corporations
should cut deals with prison systems just as Nike shoes does with
the Indonesian government. Nike subcontractors there pay workers
$1.20 per day. "We propose that (Nike] take a look at their
transportation costs and their labor costs", says Mannix. "We could
offer [competitive] prison inmate labor" in Oregon. (8)
And prison labor is proving highly competitive. From 1980 to
1994, while the number of federal and state prisoners increased by
221 percent, the number of inmates employed in prison industries
jumped by 358 percent. Prison industries sales have skyrocketed
during those years from $392 million to $1.31 billion. (9) And
they're not just making license plates.
* Oregon prisoners sew jeans called "Prison Blues." Inmates are
paid anywhere from 28 cents to $8.00/hour, but 80 percent of the
higher wage is withheld. (10)
* In 1994, a local prison secretly slipped Chicago-area prisoners
into a Toys R Us store to stock shelves. Union protests stopped it.
* Southern California youth offenders book flights for TWA. (12)
* Private companies hire prisoners in Ohio, California and other
states to do data processing inside prisons. (13)
The Prison-Industrial Complex
That prison labor is being exploited should come as no
surprise. Prison industries are only one source of potential
profits for companies feeding off the imprisonment boom. Prisons
themselves are a growth industry. Federal, state, and local
governments spent an estimated $30 billion for their prison systems
in 1994, up from only $4 billion in 1975. (14) This year, for the
first time in its history, California will spend more for prisons
than on higher education. (15)
"Prison construction is going crazy all over the country", one
happy contractor told the New York Times. (16) California officials
estimate they will have to build 20 new prisons to handle the
state's "three strikes" law. Florida plans eight new prisons and
four new work camps by 2000. And, incredibly enough, Texas plans to
open one new facility a week for the next 18 months. (17) Larry
Solomon, vice president of Joy Food Service in Florida, said sales
to prisons are "a great, great business. Sales are just about
doubling every year." (18)
Corporate interest in prisons goes beyond construction and
providing candy bars. Long distance phone carriers are falling all
over themselves to provide pay phones to prisons. In return for the
pay phone monopoly, they routinely kick back part of their profits
to prison systems in the form of commissions. Why? Prisoners must
phone collect, and the companies can charge substantially higher
rates than at other pay phones.
A single prison phone can gross $15,000 per year, five times
more than a street phone box. (19) One of the worst offenders among
the phone companies, RCNA, holds the contract for the Immigration
and Naturalization Service (INS) detention center in Florence,
Arizona. RCNA charges inmates $22 for a 15-minute call to the East
Coast, with INS taking a 35 percent cut. (20) The relatives paying
for the calls often have no idea of the scam, until their phone
Since the early 1980s, some new corporate players havejoined
the fray. Private companies such as CCA and Wackenhut are now
building and operating private prisons under contract from federal
and state governments. So far, 13 states have private prisons. (21)
CCA co-founder T. Don Hutto, a former Virginia corrections
commissioner who jumped to the private sector, (22) is but one
example of a revolving door in corrections that has nothing to do
with the recidivism rate. The interlocking directorates of former
government officials and corporate boards looks alarmingly like the
more familiar military-industrial version.
Wackenhut most strongly reflects this trend. Its boards of
directors includes former Marine Corps Commandant Paul X. Kelley,
a pair ofretiredAir Force generals and a former Air Force under
secretary, former Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, and the
former chair of AlliedSignal, among others. (23)
But Wackenhut's competitors can play the game as well. When
Esmor Correctional Services Corporation wanted to win a halfway
house contract with the City of New York it hired an aide to
Democratic state Rep. Edolphus Towns. Both Towns and the aide had
initially opposed the project. (24)
Esmor also runs jails for the INS, so it made a senior vice
president out of Richard Staley, a former acting INS director. And
former acting Attorney General Stuart Gerson sits on Esmor's board
of directors. (25) These government ties didn't help Esmor,
however, when INS detainees rebelled over bad conditions and almost
destroyed its private prison in New Jersey. (See Sidebar One)
This new prison-industrial complex is establishing a network
of political contacts and local constituencies - wardens, prison
guard unions, subcontractors and suppliers, and local government
officials - that benefit from increased incarceration. As in the
case of the prison pay phones, that complex will make great profits
at the expense of the inmates and the public. Just as the country
now struggles to get rid of unnecessary military bases and weapons
systems, in the years ahead, the prison-industrial complex may
lobby to maintain unneeded prisons or promote laws that help fill
Wackenhut's Brave New World
For a glimpse of the future, just visit the small town of
Lockhart, Texas. Located about 30 miles outside Austin, the sleepy
little town is most famous for a lip-smacking barbeque restaurant.
But just down the road is a private prison run by Wackenhut. The
private security firm in recent years has branched out and is now
the second largest private prison operation in the U.S. And it's
the very model of the prison-industrial complex.
Scott Comstock, warden at the Lockhart Work Program Facility,
sits in a comfortably appointed office with an entire wall of deer
and elk heads mounted behind him. He's been hunting for years,
almost as long as he's been in the prison business. Comstock, as is
the style in these parts, sports a mustache, Stetson hat, and
cowboy boots. As an early member of the prison-industrial complex,
he worked his way up from guard to warden in the Texas state system
and then made the leap to the private sector.
"I think that Texas, in particular, has proven that
privatization is a viable alternative", he says. (26) And
certainly, that arrangement has been viable for Wackenhut, which
receives $31 per day per prisoner from the state. From that money,
Comstock must provide housing, guards, electricity and everything
else to run the facility. Whatever is left over is profit. So
Comstock says adding prison industries to the mix can eventually
help the bottom line.
At the moment, however, Wackenhut must convince private
employers they will profit from locating in a prison. The Lockhart
facility currently houses three private companies: Lockhart
Technologies, Inc. (LTI) (circuit board assembly), a subsidiary of
Ft. Lauderdale's United Vision Group (eyeglass manufacture) and
Chatleff Controls (valves and fittings). (27)
Leonard Hill, owner of LTI, is an unassuming man with thinning
grey hair. He wears a sweater with no tie and appears shy and
uncomfortable at the prospect of being interviewed. He is exactly
the kind of small entrepreneur that prison industries are
attracting across the country - not so big he can locate overseas,
but not so small as to go belly up in the first months of
operation. And in order to attract businesses like his, Wackenhut
arranged a sweetheart deal that defense contractors could only
LTI, which assembles and repairs circuit boards for companies
such as IBM, Dell, and Texas Instruments, got a completely new
factory assembly room, built to specifications by prison labor. It
pays only $1/year rent and gets a tax abatement from the city to
boot. Hill closed his circuit board assembly plant in Austin, laid
off 150 workers and moved all the equipment to Lockhart, where he
pays prisoners minimum wage, as required by federal law. (28) The
prison then takes about 80 percent of inmate wages for room and
board, victim restitution and other fees. Wackenhut argues this
work benefits both the prisoners and society. But Hill is no do-
gooding liberal out to help inmates. He made a hard-headed business
decision to relocate inside the prison because he eventually
expects to rake in bigger profits.
"Normally when you work in the free world", says Hill, "you
have people call in sick, they have car problems, they have family
problems. We don't have that here." Hill says the state pays for
workers' compensation and medical care. And, he notes, inmates
"don't go on vacations".
Union Labor And Prison Labor
Under federal law, Wackenhut was supposed to consult with
local businesses and unions before allowing LTI to set up shop. But
the Texas AFL-CIO was never consulted, according to its president,
Joe Gunn. Gunn too sports a huge Stetson and has a penchant for
string ties held together with a silver clasp in the shape of
Texas. But Gunn is no mirror image of Warden Comstock.
Wackenhut violated the law by not consulting with labor, he
charges, "and we're going to pursue it". He calls this kind of
prison labor "absolute indentured slavery. [Wackenhut] puts people
to work under conditions that we criticize China for." (29)
Wackenhut denies any violation of the law, saying it followed
guidelines established by the Texas Employment Commission (TEC),
the state agency regulating such matters. But the TEC's guidelines
follow a rather crabbed interpretation of federal law. The TEC
claims Wackenhut needed to consult with unions only in the county
where the plant was set up. Since there are no electronic unions in
largely rural Caldwell County where Lockhart is located, Wackenhut
had no one with whom to consult. (30)
The Texas AFL-CIO begs to differ. The TEC should have required
Wackenhut to consult with the AFL-CIO office in Austin in
neighboring Travis County, where 150 jobs were lost, says Gunn.
The experience of the Texas AFL-CIO and the laid-off Austin
workers explains why the trade union movement has been among the
most active opponents of private prisons and prison labor in
general. In a few cases, unions have successfully fought prison
industries. United Auto Workers (UAW) union members were shocked
when they learned that Weastec Corporation in Ohio hired prisoners
to assemble Honda parts. The company paid the state $2.05 an hour
for inmate labor. From that, the prisoners got 35 cents an hour.
UAW Region 2 Director Warren Davis says the deal threatened
union jobs even more than cheap parts imported under NAFTA. "No
smaller employer could compete for that contract with Honda", says
Crying foul,the UAW Community Action Program contacted local
legislators, other unions, and the media. State Rep. Rocco Colonna
successfully sponsored bills in the Ohio House of Representatives
banning prison industries from taking over civilian jobs. Although
the legislation never passed the state senate, the pressure forced
Honda to eliminate the prison labor contract in 1992.
"Honda backed off", says Davis, "because they didn't feel the
negative publicity was worth it."
Dead End Skills?
The debate about privately run prison industries extends far
beyond their impact on free labor. Wackenhut and other private
companies claim that they, unlike state prisons, actually
rehabilitate inmates. That's no small issue when most states have
given up rehabilitation as even a stated goal. Lockhart does have
more education and training programs than many similar state
operations. Some prisoners appreciate the difference.
Derek Hervey is serving a 15-year sentence for drug dealing.
The slightly built African American is dressed in the green uniform
worn by all LTI "employees". He says field work at the state-
operated medium-security Sugarland prison was "hot, hard work, very
abusive". At Lockhart, he got some basic education and works in a
clean, air conditioned plant. (The air conditioning is for the
circuit boards, not the men.) He hopes to get a job after release,
noting that many companies in Texas manufacture circuit boards.
"It's something I can apply for."
But the direct skills learned at LTI aren't going to get
Hervey or anyone else a job. Owner Hill admits that most circuit
board assemblers on the outside are immigrant women. "I think those
people are not goingto get jobs identical to what we're doing
here", he admits. Hill argues, however, that the work discipline
and general familiarity with electronics should make the men more
Helping Prisoners Profit
In theory, any prison job that involves good training and
skills could eventually threaten free-world employment. And any
well-manufactured prison product could end up undercutting sales of
a small company. Yet some union officials have worked with prison
administrators and reformers to establish meaningful training
Unions can help "break the cycle of crime, prison, parole and
crime again", says Jack Buckhorn, training director for an
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) program at
San Quentin Prison, near San Francisco. (33)
Since 1978, the IBEW and the local building contractors
association have trained six San Quentin inmates each year as
apprentice electricians. Of the inmates who continued the program
after release, 90 percent stayed out of prison. In most American
prisons, over half the ex-cons return within three years. At San
Quentin, the recidivism rate tops 80 percent. (34)
But most inmates don't have the opportunity to become
apprentice electricians. San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey
runs an innovative jail labor program that both helps keep order
and rehabilitates less-skilled prisoners. Inmates can take classes
in English as a Second Language, classes to get high school
equivalence diplomas, and a class in modern printing techniques.
Hennessey also reopened a long abandoned agricultural field
and set up a small farm. Inmates grow specialty fruits and
vegetables, which are sold to local restaurants. Released prisoners
are encouraged to continue their education in community college.
And the Community Garden Project was established in San Francisco
to help employ excons. Local restaurants are able to buy
competitively priced and high-quality produce from the privately
Such efforts provide a concrete alternative to the "lock'em up
and throw away the key" mentality currently in vogue. And they
avoid the exploitation of captive labor typical of profit-driven
prison industry programs. Prisoners, like anyone else, do need
training, skills, and experience to help them compete in a dog-eat-
dog labor market. Likewise, civilian workers and businesses need
guarantees that their jobs won't be taken over by profit-hungry
While programs like those in San Francisco are relatively
small, they could be replicated anywhere. For prisoners, they would
be an improvement. The current system certainly doesn't work,
except for those who profit from prison labor. As long as the U.S.
remains hell-bent on packing the prisons, meaningful work programs
that actually prepare inmates for life on the outside are worth a
try. Otherwise, prisoners may as well be making license plates.
[Reese Erlich, a free-lance reporter, teaches journalism at
California State University, Hayward. Portions of this article
appeared in the UAW's magazine "Solidarity". Erlich co-produced the
PBS-TV documentary "Prison Labor/Prison Blues" for We Do the Work
productions. For VHS tapes, call 510 547 8484, Kyung Sung Yu
provided invaluable reporting and research for this article.]
1. On-site interview, Mar. 1994.
2. Interview with Warden Mai Lin Hua at the Shanghai Jail, July 5,
3. Interview with Fred Nichols, Oct. 17, 1994.
4. Interview with Brad Haga, Jan. 28, 1994.
5. Steven A. Holmes, "Ranks of Inmates Reach One Million in a 2-
Decade Rise", New York Times, Oct. 28, 1994.
6. Speech to National Rifle Association, May 20, 1995.
7. Taped interview with historian Paul Lucko, Austin, Texas, Jan.
8. Interview with Rep. Kevin Mannix, Oct. 27, 1994.
9. Statistics provided by fax by Correctional Industries
Association and in phone interview with Department of Justice
official. Figures for 1994 from Justice Department spokesperson,
10. Interview with Fred Nichols, Oregon Prison Industries, Oct. 17,
11. Tom Pelton, "Union hits inmate labor at Toys R Us",
Chicago Tribune, June 24, 1994, sec. 2, p. 4.
12. Aaron Bernstein, et al., "There's Prison Labor in America,
Too", Business Week, Feb. 17, 1992, pp. 42, 44.
13. Taped interview with Rob Sexton, legislative aide, Ohio State
Legislature, Dec. 1994.
14. Steven A, Holmes, "The Boom in Jails is Locking Up Lots of
Loot", New York Times, Nov. 6, 1994, sec. 3, p. 4.
15. Yurni Wilson, "Prisons Get Bigger Slice of the Pie", San
Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 11, 1995.
16. Holmes, op. cit.
18. Kevin Helliker, "Expanding Prison Population Captivates
Marketers", Wall Street Journal, Jan. 19, 1995, p. B1.
19. Alix M. Freedman, "Phone Firms Wrestle for Prisoners' Business
in Hot Phone Market", Wall Street Journal, Feb. 15, 1995, p. A1.
20. Alisa Solomon, "Yearning to Breathe Free", Village Voice, Aug.
8, 1995, p. 26.
21. Anthony Ramirez, "Privatizing America's Prisons, Slowly", New
York Times, Aug. 14, 1994, sec. 3., pp. 1, 6.
23. Corporate Yellow Book, Winter 1995, pp. 1032-33.
24. John Sullivan and Matthew Purdy, "In Corrections Business,
Shrewdness Pays", New York Times, July 23, 1995, pp. A1, 28.
26. All information on Lockhart Correctional Facility from on-site
interviews, Jan. 30, 1995.
27. Interviews with Comstock and Hill, Jan. 30, 1995.
28. The federal Prison Industry Enhancement Program, passed during
the Carter administration, requires prisoners be paid at least
minimum wage if they work on products sold interstate. No such
requirement exists for goods exported outside the U.S. or for those
sold within a state.
29. Interview, Jan. 30, 1995.
30. Interview with Texas Employment Commission representative,
31. Information about Weastec and UAW actions from interview with
UAW International Representative Jim Harris, Dec. 1994.
32. Quoted in Reese Erlich, "Prison Labor, Prison Blues",
Solidarity, March 1995, p. 10.
33. Interview, Jan. 1995.
34. The recidivism rate is so bad at San Quentin that a prison
spokesperson giving the information requested anonymity.
35. Jim Balderston, "Start the Presses", San Francisco Bay
Guardian, Apr. 13, 1994.
(Sidebar Number One)
Private Prisons: A Bargain?
Private prison officials argue that their operations are more
efficient than state facilities and give taxpayers a better bargain
for their money. Most private prisons are too new to make any final
judgment on that claim. So far, virtually all U.S. private prisons
handle low and medium-security prisoners, leaving the tougher
criminals to state care. Private prison companies thus skim off the
easiest and least expensive prisoners to handle.
But it is not entirely clear that private companies can even
operate medium-security prisons more cheaply when there's a fair
comparison. The state of Louisiana is running an interesting
experiment. It set up three medium-security prisons at the same
time, one run by the state, one by Corrections Corporation of
America, and one by Wackenhut. In March 1993, a legislative review
committee found the per prisoner cost for each facility was
virtually the same. (1)
Critics have long argued that private prisons are tempted to
abuse inmates by skimping on food and other basics in order to
increase profits. The privately operated Immigration and
Naturalization Service detention center at Elizabeth, New Jersey,
is a case in point. Immigrants charged with illegal entry into the
U.S. had long complained about inedible food, dirty clothes and
insects in the beds at the Esmor Correctional Services facility.
Their complaints were ignored. Then, on June 18, hundreds of
detainees rebelled, nearly destroying the prison. (2)
An INS report on the incident concluded that Esmor had skimped
on food, building repairs, and guard salaries in order to make
greater profits. The report said some detainees were abused by
guards. INS cancelled its contract with Esmor in New Jersey, but
will continue contracts with Esmor and other private companies
elsewhere in the U.S. (3)
1. Interview with Peggy Wilson Lawrence, spokesperson for
Corrections Corporation of America, Oct. 4, 1994.
2. Richard Perez-Pena, "Aliens' Melee Closes Center in New Jersey",
New York Times, June 19, 1995, p. 1.
3. Ashley Dunn, "U.S. Inquiry Finds Detention Center Was Poorly
Run", New York Times, July 22, 1995, p. 1.
(Sidebar Number Two)
Good Ol' Days
In 1885, Texas forced mostly African American inmates to haul
granite for building the new state capitol. These men, some of whom
had been born into slavery, had become slaves once again. The
skilled granite cutters union strongly objected to the use of
prison labor and boycotted the building project. The contractor
imported 62 scab cutters from Scotland to break the boycott.
The use of prisoners to take away civilian jobs has a long
history in the U.S. For most of the last century, prisoners were
regularly leased out to plantation and factory owners. Guards
whipped inmates for failing to meet quotas or for other work
Prison labor led to the Briceville, Tennessee, Coal Creek
Rebellion in 1891-92. When coal owners insisted on a contract
barring union membership, coal miners were locked out, and leased
convicts were forced to scab in the mines. Miners stormed the
convicts' stockade and freed the prisoners. The company gave in,
rehiring the miners and halting the use of convicts.
By the early 1900s, most states banned prison contract labor
as the public became aware of the brutal conditions facing
prisoners. Citizens also objected to the corruption of prison
officials who took bribes to provide inmate labor to selected
companies. The infamous chain gangs of the South weren't completely
abolished until the 1950s.
Just this year, Alabama and Arizona reinstituted chain gangs
to do road work. Prison authorities are also bringing back inmate
labor for private companies. Too bad they haven't read their
history. Then again, maybe they have.
(The data for this section came from interviews with Paul Lucko,
historian studying for his Ph.D.)
(Source: Covert Action Quarterly #54 - Fall 1995)
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