On April 20, 2010, an explosion on Deepwater Horizon, an offshore drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico, killed 11 workers. The accident resulted in an oil spill that leaked oil into the gulf for three months, damaging both the ecology and economy of coastal states – particularly Louisiana. Deepwater Horizon was owned by a corporation called Transocean and leased to oil company BP (formerly British Petroleum).
Early in BP’s effort to clean up oil-soaked beaches in Louisiana, cleanup workers wearing scarlet pants and T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Inmate Labor” were easy to spot. Local residents, many of whom had been rendered destitute by the oil spill, which had destroyed the fishing industry in the region, expressed outrage. Why was BP hiring prisoners when the Deepwater Horizon accident had forced so many coastal residents into unemployment?
The first and most obvious answer to that question is to save money. Louisiana has 39,000 prisoners, but only enough space in its state prisons to incarcerate 19,000. The other 20,000 are housed in private prisons, parish jails and work-release centers. This decentralized incarceration scheme makes if difficult to oversee, or even understand, the statewide practice of prisoner labor. Parish jails, under the direction of local sheriffs, are allowed to contract out prisoners to work for private businesses. The prisoners receive between zero and forty cents an hour for their labor plus an opportunity to earn extra credits (“good time”) off their sentences.
The businesses get a sober, drug-free, cheap workforce, supervised by guards, that shows up on time ready to work – even if the assignment is dangerous to the prisoners’ health, such as cleaning up a toxic oil spill.
“If you talk to people around here, it is jokingly referred to as rent-a-convict,” said Michael Brewer, a former public defender, who was quoted in a July 2006 New York Times article on prisoner labor in Louisiana. “There’s something offensive about that. It’s almost like a form of slavery.”
Just getting a workforce that will show up is a big plus for BP. Although the appearance of prisoner laborers sparked outrage, BP claimed it could not find enough local employees who would take the hot, dirty, exhausting and dangerous 12-hour-a-day jobs at the $10 per hour BP was offering. One work release center operator noted that the Louisiana Workforce Commission might field 400 new non-prisoner employees on any given Monday and only have 200 show up for work the following day.
After local residents complained, workers with scarlet pants and “Inmate Labor” T-shirts disappeared from Louisiana beach cleanup crews. BP and government officials claimed they didn’t know if prisoners were still being used for cleanup efforts. Does that mean prisoners were no longer working on the crews? Not at all. Rather, the prisoners were issued oil-resistant coveralls and shirts with BP logos. Prisoner work crews in just such attire were observed returning to the Lafourche Parish Work Release Center (LPWRC) in unmarked white vans.
But BP’s attempt to conceal the fact that it was using prisoners to clean up the oil spill was largely ineffective, as 70% of Louisiana’s prisoners and almost all of the prisoner workers on the cleanup crews are black while 90% of the local coastal residents are white. The obvious racial disparity in the cleanup crews led NAACP president Ben T. Jealous to ask “why black people were over-represented in the most physically difficult, lowest paying jobs, with the most exposure to toxins.” The answer is because black people are overrepresented in the prison system, which is where many of the cleanup crews came from.
Prisoner workers are bound by BP’s notorious gag rule and thus cannot speak about the cleanup. Most prison and government officials refuse to comment on or feign ignorance about the use of prisoners in the cleanup effort. However, it is known that beach cleanup crews work 12 hours a day. They are dressed in high-density polyethylene coveralls that are taped to their plastic-covered steel-toed boots. Under OSHA rules, they work 20 minutes followed by a 40-minute rest due to the oppressive heat that builds up in their protective suits under the hot sun. Between their 6 a.m. starting time and the end of the work day at 6 p.m., they will have clocked 3-4 hours of back-breaking labor and 12 hours of exposure to noxious, possibly toxic oil fumes. If a prisoner decides that the risk to his health is too great and refuses the cleanup assignment, he forfeits “good time” credits towards his sentence and is returned to prison.
Some local officials have acknowledged using prisoner labor for oil cleanup. A Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office lieutenant admitted having three unpaid prisoner crews sandbagging to block the spread of oil in Buras, Louisiana. The warden of LPWRC said he had 18 prisoners assigned to oil cleanup work, noting that the number changed on a daily basis. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s office issued a press release praising the training of 80 state prisoners in the “cleaning of oil-impacted wildlife recovered from coastal areas.” The prison system later denied that was the case, but the media reported that “more than 80 prisoners wearing green jumpsuits were searching for wildlife affected by the spill.”
The situation is similar in Alabama, where SG & S Oil Recovery Product, LLC hired over 200 state prisoners to assist with the oil cleanup effort. Most of those prisoners were trained for three days in Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response, while some were used to manufacture oil containment booms at a work-release center in Loxley.
SG & S owner Jay Graddick said he prefers prisoner labor. “It’s almost impossible for them to steal anything,” he said. “They’re not walking around talking on cell phones. They’re orderly, because repercussions are harsh. I’ve had less problems with these guys than when I’ve hired just normal people.”
Further, prisoners will do work that “normal people” won’t do, according to Graddick, who put an ad in the local paper offering $8 to $10 an hour for cleanup work and “didn’t get a single phone call from somebody looking for a job.” Nonetheless, “if a guys walks up, and he’s looking to do the work, I’ll hire him,” Graddick said. Of course, cleanup companies would rather hire prisoners who have little choice about showing up for work or being exposed to toxic oil fumes while on the job.
Nor are officials in Louisiana and Alabama the only ones who recognize the benefits of prisoner labor for oil cleanup. In Dade County, Florida, where no oil has come ashore, county commissioners considered a proposal to use prisoners to “rehabilitate” the shoreline in the event the spill reaches the Miami area.
It’s a dirty job cleaning up BP’s oil spill, but apparently prisoners are the ones who have to do it.
Sources: The Nation, http://blog.al.com, www.cbs4.com, The Daily Mail (UK), DailyKos, www.aolnews.com, New York Times
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