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Ex-Welfare Workers in Georgia Replaced with Prison Slaves

To save money, a South Georgia recycling plant fired 50 trash sorters, including 35 who had taken jobs to get off welfare, and replaced them with prison slave labor. The former welfare clients had been earning $5.20/ hour before they were laid off in December, 1998 because the "waste stream" was not what had been predicted.

Four months later 36 female prisoners from the Pulaski State Prison in Hawkinsville, GA, began working, unpaid, at the recycling plant 8 hours/ day, 5 days/ week, sorting recyclables from garbage trucked in from dozens of nearby towns and counties.

State law prohibits prisoners' taking the place of paid employees and allows prisoners to work only for state, county or local governments. That law was circumvented with some tricky bookkeeping: Although the recycling plant is operated by the Atlanta-based Environmental Technologies Group (ETG), a private, profit making business, its workers' wages are paid by the Crisp County Solid Waste Management Authority, a government entity.

Chip Wells, board Chairman of the Crisp County Solid Waste Management Authority told the Atlanta Journal- Constitution that ETG, the private contractor, has complete control over who is hired, fired or promoted. When asked if the county paid workers directly in order to get around the legal prohibition against prisoners replacing free workers, Wells said, "I believe so."

The scheme to use convict labor was quietly hatched in February at an Atlanta meeting attended by Authority representatives, Lt. Governor Mark Taylor, a state senator Rooney Bowen (D) and state prison officials. Taylor later claimed to know little about the plan.

"It was just another constituent request," Taylor told the Journal- Constitution, "and I passed it on to the department of corrections."

The authority reimburses the DOC about $122,000 a year for the guards' salaries and the expense of transporting the 36 prison slaves to and from the work site. If those 36 workers were paid $5.20/hour, their annual wages would total nearly $390,000 and the cost to the employer (with employer contributions to social security, workers' comp, and other payroll deductions) would approach half a million dollars annually.

DOC attorney Bill Amideo said his agency was told "the layoffs have nothing to do with four months later acquiring inmate labor .... These are merely work details, like the guys that mow the lawn for the Humane Society or clean up beside the highway."

Wells told the Journal- Constitution that the combination of prison labor and a paid workforce of 130-160 ensures that the facility will not have to close. The prison slave labor helps put the facility "a little bit closer to being profitable. Once this facility breaks even ... I would expect we will not be keeping those inmates."

"They are really exploiting the inmates as cheap labor until they get back on their feet," said Tim Mellon of the Prison & Jail Project, a feisty advocacy group that struggles for the rights of Georgia's poor and its prisoners. "The aspect that makes it even worse is here are people... who need jobs and their jobs were taken away. What they are doing is wrong."

Striking a Blow against Slave Labor

On July 28, 1999, the Georgia attorney general ruled that the 36 women prisoners forced by the DOC to pick through garbage at the for-profit Crisp County recycling center were working under a contract that "clearly runs afoul" of a Georgia law that prohibit using convict labor for a profit.

The July/August 1999 issue of Freedomways, a newsletter of the Prison & Jail Project, reported that Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker ruled that the Crisp County Solid Waste Management Authority and its private operator, Environmental Technologies Group, were illegally making money off of unpaid prison labor.

The AG's ruling came after the Prison & Jail Project, the Crisp County Watchdog Group, and the Southern Center for Human Rights presented a letter to the AG's office with irrefutable evidence that the recycling plant was operating in violation of state law.

Atlanta Journal Constitution, Freedomways [PO Box 6749, Americus, GA 31709]

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