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Worked to Death: OH Work Release Programs

By Dan Cahill

Many of us have been concerned about the possibility of abuse and tragedy in the unprotected use of prison labor. Over the past several years Ohio legislators have made it legal to market prison labor to private companies.

One of the mot recent tragedies involved the trash burning power plant in Columbus, OH. The Franklin County Workhouse on Jackson Pike, directly across the road from the trash burning power plant, supplied prisoners in a work release program to a private company, Shaneway. These work release prisoners were paid about $5.00 an hour to separate metal from the ash stream with their hands, without any protective clothing or equipment. Work release prisoners were actually working right in the largest known source of deadly dioxin in the United States: the ash stream from the power plant.

Prisoners worked in toxic ash which contained arsenic levels 22 times those allowed by OSHA standards; cadmium levels at 5 times; lead at 138 times; and dioxin at levels 770 times the ambient air in the community. All the work release prisoners working in the ash stream had visible skin problems consistent with symptoms of chloracne caused by dioxin exposure.

With the passing of Senate Bill 2 this year, the state will greatly increase the number of Community Correctional Programs, and will have an ever increasing number of prisoners available to anyone who wants to profit from this cheap labor. Prisoners in these work release programs, and even in state and federal prisons, need to be represented by an outside union to protect them from unscrupulous government officials and employers, who have already demonstrated that they are not concerned about subjecting prison laborers to toxic waste or other safety hazards.

Non-violent offenders serving short sentences of six months or less in county or city jails are a perfect marginal transient population for toxic labor. For the prisoners who worked at that power plant, the relatively short sentences turned into a lingering death sentence.

These prisoners pay all regular taxes and deductions, and then are made to pay court cost, restitution, and even pay for their own imprisonment and correctional supervision. So, they come away from these work release programs as poor as they were when they started working. This is raw exploitation of labor. [Editors Note: This is capitalism at its finest, one step removed from chattel slavery. Worse is that it cannot function without the prisoners' consent and cooperation.]

Without support from our unionized brothers and sisters in the free world, prison labor will be exploited and abused to its fullest, and there will be many more tragedies. For now, prison laborers are unprotected, and employers are lining up to take advantage of this cheap labor. We need to be represented by a progressive labor union. We need outside support. Contact: Dan Cahill # 251641, P.O. Box 56, Lebanon, OH. 45036.

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