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Prisoners Labor at Wisconsin Wal-Mart Site

by Michael Rigby

Wal-Mart is using prison labor to build a new distribution center in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. Local residents have expressed safety concerns and also worry that lower paid prisoners are siphoning jobs away from the community.
Prisoners working at the Wal-Mart site come from the Fox Lake Correctional institution, where about 130 of the prison's 1,330 prisoners participate in work release programs. Guards drop the prisoners off at the site and pick them up after work. The prisoners, who perform manual labor-type tasks, are supervised by their employer while on the job.

Some nearby residents are concerned about possible violent prisoners. Senator Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) responded by asking the Department of Corrections (DOC) to ensure that no inmate convicted of a violent or drug related crime is being permitted to work in such close proximity to a residential area.

Most prisoners working at the site have been convicted of non-violent crimes and are close to release. The number of prisoners varies by day but appears to be between 5 and 8. The placements began in October 2005 and were scheduled to end in December 2005.

Out of the original 7 workers, 4 had been removed by November 10. The fired prisoners were serving time for burglary, battery, armed burglary/battery, and manufacturing and delivering cocaine--crimes Fitzgerald was fretting about.

Hansen-Rice, the building contractor employing the prisoners, is a general contracting company based in Idaho. Lafe Herrick, the company's Beaver Dam project manager, said Hansen-Rice was the only company using prison labor at the site. Wal-Mart later instructed him not to speak with reporters.
The prisoners earn an average of about $9 per hour, depending on the type of work, said John Dipko, a spokesman for the DOC. From the wages, prison officials deduct room and board, transportation expenses, child support payments, fines, and restitution. When wages are worked out, they are based on what the employer would pay somebody hired off the street," said Dipko. They are having a tough time hiring enough people from the general public to get the job done.

But some area residents are skeptical. Anne Breuer, who lives near the construction site, said she did not recall seeing ads for such jobs. Others decry Wal-Mart's use of prison labor. Mike Grater, business agent for the Menasha-based Laborers Local 330, said he would prefer to see local residents hired--for good wages and benefits--to do the jobs the prisoners are doing. However, Wal Mart does not seem to hire anyone but managers for good wages and benefits.

Most of the state's 1,100 work release prisoners are employed at food plants or do assembly work at factories. These offenders gain valuable work experience. They can build good work habits and learn what it takes to be successful on a job. The ultimate goal is being gainfully employed, productive members of the community upon release from prison," said Dipko. Stable employment is directly linked to a lower likelihood of re-offending, so it ultimately helps promote public safety.

Dipko's sentiments are admirable and may well be true. But many employers only hire prisoners to increase profit margins. The companies save money by paying prisoners less than the prevailing wage and avoiding such frivolities as insurance and retirement benefits.

Rose Lynch, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, said private projects are not required to abide by prevailing wage statutes. A private entity such as Wal-Mart is not covered," she said.

One advocacy group, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, has also questioned the correlation between Wal-Mart's political contributions and its sizeable aid and tax relief package.

Wal-Mart has received $2.2 million in state transportation and commerce assistance and $7.8 million in tax breaks since 1999 to open facilities in Beaver Dam and Tomaha. In the spirit of reciprocity, the Wal-Pac political action committee and Wal-Mart Stores employees donated $87,775 to Governor Jim Doyle, Wisconsin legislative candidates, and party committees from July 1, 2003 to June 30, 2005.


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