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Bloomberg’s presidential campaign used prison labor to solicit votes

AP Photo/Eric Risberg
Skimping on the help.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published

Former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign used prison labor to reach out to voters in the 2020 Democratic primary.

The Intercept first reported that Bloomberg’s campaign hired a vendor for voter outreach that in turn tapped a company called ProCom, which runs call centers in two minimum-security prisons in Oklahoma. Prisoners at the Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center made calls to California voters, urging them to support Bloomberg’s candidacy.

Bloomberg’s campaign told the Intercept that it would cancel the contract and claimed the staff did not know prison labor was being used to make the calls.

A billionaire thanks to his eponymous financial data and media firm, Bloomberg has been accused of trying to essentially buy the Democratic presidential primary, spending record sums on ad blitzes and political operatives. But his team, led by longtime aides Kevin Sheekey and Howard Wolfson, is apparently skimping on the field budget.

While money can bring an advantage in advertising, the work of direct voter contact—whether canvassing door to door or through phone-banking—is often done by volunteers. It’s not clear whether Bloomberg, who switched parties to run for mayor as a Republican before returning to the Democratic fold, has attracted the grassroots support necessary for such a field operation. A late entry to the race, he is polling at an average of just 5% nationally and even worse in early primary states.

Reform of the criminal justice system has been a major issue in the 2020 Democratic primary already. California senator Kamala Harris, seen as an early frontrunner, ended her presidential campaign in part because her record as a prosecutor made it difficult for her to address critiques of the racial biases in law enforcement.

Bloomberg has already received criticism of his own record on criminal justice. During his tenure as mayor, the New York Police Department (NYPD) embraced a policy called stop-and-frisk that came to symbolize the harassment of minorities by police. After years of criticism, Bloomberg apologized for the approach last month.

The US imprisons people at a rate higher than any other country in the world, and the work is increasingly being outsourced to private companies. In California, prison labor has been top of mind thanks to the major wildfires in recent years. Thousands of prisoners battle these blazes in dangerous conditions for just dollars a day, and are unlikely to be employable as firefighters when released due to their convictions.

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