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Forced Labor for Arizona Death Row Prisoners

On November 22, 1995, a memo was distributed to Arizona's 119 death row prisoners. The memo relays an order issued by DOC chief Sam Lewis. It states in part: "Arizona Revised Statute 31-151 gives the Director of Corrections authority to require that each able bodied prisoner in the department engage in hard labor for not less than forty hours per week.... Be advised that the statutes do not exempt you, because of your Death Sentence, from performing work or hard labor, nor is it unconstitutional This program is an opportunity for you to improve your status while on Death Row. Even though hard work may be considered as punishment, it does provide you with a means to earn some money [10 cents an hour], and you are able to perform an assignment that is beneficial to the inmate population as a whole, while working in the garden growing vegetables.

"Inmates refusing to turn out for work assignments shall be forcibly removed from their cells and taken to the work cite, secured accordingly [chained to a post under the hot Arizona sun all day], and then be subjected to the disciplinary process."

The forced labor program was announced by governor Fife Symington at a July press conference. Donna Hamm of Middle Ground, a prisoner advocacy group [and a long-time PLN supporter], said the program is certain to be challenged in court and could spur 'a physical protest in the form of a riot or disturbance."

"I'm just astounded they would open themselves, their staff, not to mention the public, to that type of risk, all for the sake of self-aggrandizement" by Symington, she said. "It's just an insane idea."

According to Symington's press secretary, Douglas Cole, "The food they grow, the taxpayers don't have to pay for. Before, these guys were costing us lots of money because they were sitting idly in their cells."

On December 7, 1995, the first work crew of 23 death row prisoners was put to work weeding and hoeing a 19-acre field within the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence. The 23 prisoners were supervised by nine armed guards on horseback. The prisoners are paid 10 cents per hour. Total pay for 23 prisoners for 8 hours: $18.40. Assuming the cost for the guards is $11 per hour (not to mention the cost for boarding and feeding the horses), the total pay for nine guards for 8 hours: $792.

Mike Arra, a Corrections Department spokesman, said the vegetables raised on the 19-acre plot will supplement food purchased by the DOC to feed Arizona prisoners. Considering the labor cost for the death-row vegetable patch averages $800 a day, those are some mighty expensive vegetables. But if you look at the "political capital" Symington reaps from this "get tough" program (which is prominently featured in Arizona's conservative newspapers), $800 a day is a bargain - especially considering that the bill is footed by Arizona taxpayers rather than from the campaign contributions of Symington's Republican pals.

Sources: AP, The Arizona Republic , reader mail.

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