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Prison Slave Labor Replaces Freeworld Workers in Down Economy

The fact that prison slave labor can cut costs and generate revenue has never been a secret. Private businesses nationwide are vying to exploit prisoner workers to reduce operating expenses and gain a competitive advantage, while government agencies are increasingly using prisoners for jobs that otherwise would go to public employees or contractors. Even farmers have turned to prison labor to harvest their crops.

Expansion of Prison Labor

For as long as there have been prisons there have been prisoner work crews. The only class of people who may be forced into slave labor under the U.S. Constitution are prisoners, as the 13th Amendment expressly permits and forever enshrines slavery “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” As the American penal system has evolved since the demise of the convict leasing system in the early 1900s, the use of prison labor has been mostly confined to making license plates, manufacturing office furniture, landscaping, maintenance of government buildings, and picking up trash and cutting grass along roadsides.

With state and local governments facing budget deficits due to the continuing economic downturn, however, they are looking for ways to reduce costs and fulfill government obligations in the face of hiring freezes and layoffs of public employees. For some government officials, prison slave labor is viewed as a partial solution.

“The old county work camps were great. There just aren’t enough of them anymore,” said Georgia state Rep. Alan Powell. “The state gets better results out of a prisoner in 12 months hard labor than sitting in a cell. If the taxpayers pay to fight fires and build roads or pick up trash, then let the prisoners do it.”

In keeping with that philosophy, Georgia’s Department of Transportation is using parole violators to clean up trash on highways statewide. “It costs the department millions of dollars every year to pick up litter along Georgia’s 20,000 miles of state and federal roads,” remarked Eric Pitts, a state maintenance engineer for the Transportation Department. “And frankly, we don’t have enough funding or manpower to do the job as well as we would like. The parolees’ help is invaluable.”

In October 2011, Camden County, Georgia considered a proposal to place two prisoners in each of the county’s three firehouses. The prisoners would respond to calls alongside firefighters, who would be responsible for supervising them. It was hoped that using prisoners convicted of non-violent offenses rather than hiring more firemen would save the county $500,000 annually. The prisoners would not receive any pay but would be eligible to be hired as firefighters – five years after their release.

Despite criticism, particularly from firefighters who didn’t want to add “prison guard” to their public service duties, a similar program in another Georgia county has been successful. “It worked out quite well,” said Sumter County Administrator Lynn Taylor.
“This is a measure that governments are looking into to provide the same high level of service in the most economic way possible.”

In California, due to a massive budget deficit, state parks have been neglected. “They’re all in need of sprucing up, fixing up, repainting and bringing up to standards. So the need here was pretty great,” said Folsom Lake State Recreation Area Superintendent Ted Jackson.

To solve that problem, the California Department of Parks and Recreation and the California Prison Industry Authority (PIA) collaborated to have prisoners perform clean-up and maintenance work at state parks. “For the PIA to offer up this labor for us to get work done that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to get done, it’s fabulous,” Jackson stated.

Officials in Green Bay, Wisconsin are expanding the concept of “chain gangs” beyond the traditional role of roadside maintenance. “Having them sweeping and picking up leaves, cleaning off bird droppings. Shoveling the walkways this winter, things are going to be done quicker and at no cost. It’s a win-win for this community,” said Mary Scanlan, supervisor of Green Bay’s Department of Public Works.

The expansion of prison labor comes with an incentive for the prisoner workers and benefits for taxpayers. In August 2011, judges in Brown County, Wisconsin signed off on a deal to reduce a prisoner’s sentence by one day for each 24 hours worked. Every day shaved off a sentence saves the county $67 in incarceration costs.

“We’ve actually managed now, in the last month, to shut down a housing unit, which has been big for us because it allows us to use that manpower in other areas of the jail, relieving overtime, which is a big help to us,” said Lt. John Mitchell, who oversees the prisoner work program for the Brown County Sheriff’s Office. Of course, reducing sentences would accomplish the same thing minus the slavery component.

The increase in the use of prison labor in Wisconsin came after Governor Scott Walker signed legislation that gutted collective bargaining rights for public employees and allowed the use of non-union workers.

Soon after the law was enacted in June 2011, Racine County announced that it would have prisoners add shoveling, painting and landscaping to their job duties. As in Brown County, prisoners will receive time off their sentences in lieu of pay. Previously, public employees or contractors performed such work.

Prison Slave Labor Costly

Although using unpaid prison labor seemingly appears to be free, there are associated costs that must be considered. The greatest expense is for the guards who have to supervise the prisoner workers – a significant cost that is borne by the government agency responsible for providing prison work crews. Other costs include transportation, training and the provision of meals, tools and safety equipment.

This has resulted in some states eliminating or scaling back “free” prison labor programs. “We actually stopped all but one work crew (which the requester fully funded) in September 2010,” said Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) spokesman John Cordell.

The MDOC wants to continue the crews, but with a $10 million price tag for the department’s 2010 prison labor operations amid a budget crunch, something had to change. “We will have to charge the entities that use the crews,” Cordell said. “We just can’t subsidize the program anymore.”

North Carolina cut $4.78 million in funding for all 127 of its prison work crews in 2009. It added back 39 crews the following year but budget reductions have again shut them down, according to Keith Acree, the public affairs director for the North Carolina Department of Corrections.

In March 2012, officials in Sutter County, California discussed ending prison work crews for a different reason. For decades, prisoners have been used to feed dogs and cats, clean their cages and even assess their health at the county’s animal shelter. Over the past five years multiple reports have cited shortcomings with the use of prison labor because prisoners, who are not trained in veterinarian care, have caused problems at the shelter by making mistakes and distracting employees.

A 2007 grand jury report found that prisoners were partially responsible for an “abnormally” high number of animal deaths at the shelter. “The utilization of inmate labor remains and will continue to pose serious and detrimental effects on shelter operations,” a more recent report stated in November 2011.

Prison slave labor also comes with another cost – the cost of freeworld jobs that are lost to prisoners, both in the public and private sectors.

In Florida, a $24 million cut in the 2010-11 budget for the state’s Department of Corrections (FDOC) resulted in the elimination of 71 of the prison system’s 184 work squads. However, an agreement between the FDOC and the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) will keep many prison work crews operational for the next year. [See: PLN, Feb. 2012, p.38].

The agreement puts more than $19 million into FDOC’s coffers for providing prison labor for virtually any kind of work that DOT requires. FDOC guards or DOT employees will supervise prisoners while they repair roads, signs, bridges and fences. In all, there are 94 different types of DOT jobs that prisoners will perform at a rate of $10.45 per hour – none of which the prisoners will receive.

The $19 million appropriated for Florida prisoners to perform work for DOT could have employed almost 900 non-prisoner workers for a year at the same hourly wage. The unemployment rate in Florida was 9.4% in February 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is not helped when jobs that could go to citizens instead go to prisoners.

One Florida city decided to forgo prison labor in order to preserve freeworld jobs. The Ocala City Council voted in 2010 to hire a private company to mow the grass on city property, though using prisoners would have saved $1.1 million. “Our area has been really hard hit by unemployment,” said Council member Suzy Heinbockel. “There was a belief that the private company would bring local jobs, rather than giving those jobs to prisoners.”

In Georgia, the city of Augusta has become reliant on prisoner workers, who collect trash and maintain and clean schools and other government buildings. However, the cost of housing those prisoners in a city-owned correctional facility far exceeds the value of their labor – with $3.23 million in annual incarceration expenses versus an estimated $1.25 million in savings through the use of prison work crews (see related article in this issue of PLN).

During a forum on labor rights in Columbus, Georgia on April 4, 2012, Richard Jessie, second vice president of the Columbus NAACP, noted that “Our prison workforce is an enslaved workforce basically.” Commenting on the money the city saves by using prisoner work crews, which is reportedly $9 million to $17 million annually, he added, “We use slave labor to do much of the work that could and should be paid jobs.”

At the same forum, Ben Speight, organizing director for Teamsters Local 728, asked a good question: “If we’re saving $17 million, where’s that money going?” In fact, the “savings” achieved through prison slave labor are often fictitious; they do not represent actual cost reductions, but rather money that otherwise would be spent if freeworld workers were hired to do the same jobs that prisoners perform.

Down on the Farm

Since at least 2005, immigration has loomed large in the political spotlight. Conservative lawmakers and pundits argue that illegal immigrants burden the health care and welfare systems and take jobs from U.S. citizens. Those who advocate on behalf of undocumented immigrants say they are largely law-abiding and are trying to provide a living wage for their families while performing work that most Americans refuse to do, such as picking crops.

As part of a crackdown on illegal immigration, the federal government has increased enforcement efforts and border security, including the construction of a partial fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Arizona was the first state to pass its own illegal immigration enforcement law with the enactment of SB1070 in April 2010, and several other states have since followed suit.

A harsh anti-illegal immigrant law in Georgia that went into effect in July 2011 (HB87) caused an estimated 11,000 undocumented migrant workers to leave the state. As those workers had performed the majority of farm labor, crops worth millions of dollars began to rot in the fields. Farmers appealed to lawmakers for help.

Governor Nathan Deal ordered prisoners to fill open jobs in the state’s $68.8 billion agriculture industry. “Governor Deal is interested in having an organized system to match a group that needs employment with employers who need labor,” said Stephanie Mayfield, the governor’s spokeswoman. “It’s not a cure-all, but it allows two groups with fixable needs to help each other.”

As a result, around 2,700 work release prisoners held in Georgia DOC transitional centers were subject to being sent to farms to pick crops. Probationers, who are required to maintain employment as a condition of their supervision, also were encouraged to apply for agricultural jobs.

However, farmers were not enthused with the quality of work performed by prisoners and probationers. The summer heat, long hours and grueling field labor were more than many could bear, resulting in many refusing the jobs or quickly quitting.

“There were some obvious challenges with using probation labor,” admitted Agricultural Commissioner Gary Black. “And the two [farm] producers found that the probationers were unable to harvest at the same rate as the other workers. At the end of the day, both producers agreed that the program had potential to meet the niche need for farmers desperate for workers.”

At least one Georgia organization questioned the use of prison labor where “the prisoners come from a private prison, such as the one CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) and the Valdosta-Lowndes County Industrial Authority want to build in Lowndes County.” Prisoner workers receive a small portion of their wages and the remainder goes to cover the cost of their incarceration. For public prisons such funds go to the state treasury, but for a private prison it results in “[y]our tax dollars profiting a private corporation for slave labor,” according to a blog entry on the website of the Lowndes Area Knowledge Exchange.

Alabama, like Georgia, turned to prison labor after a harsh anti-illegal immigrant law that went into effect in September 2011 (HB56) caused undocumented workers to flee the state. Tomato farmers complained their crops were going unpicked and said they risked losing their farms. In response, Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries Commissioner John McMillan proposed using prisoners to provide field labor, and met with farmers in December 2011 to discuss the idea.

“The suggestion to use prisoners who are eligible for work release programs was made as a way to help farmers fill the gap and find sufficient labor,” said Department of Agriculture and Industries spokeswoman Amy Belcher.

The Alabama Department of Corrections opposed the use of prisoners to pick crops, saying the prison system isn’t a solution to worker shortages caused by the state’s anti-illegal immigrant legislation, and that most prisoners on work release already have jobs. Of course, it is somewhat ironic that government officials are offering prisoners – who have been convicted of committing illegal acts – as a replacement for the illegal immigrants who typically perform migrant farm work.

In Washington, with a $1.5 billion apple crop at risk, state officials ordered prisoners into the orchards in November 2011. A late harvest and fewer farm workers made the crop more difficult to bring in. According to Grandview harvester Alberto Morales, the word on the picker grapevine was that some apples in upper Yakima valley and upper central Washington would not be picked due to a worker shortage.

To assure it could bring in its apples, the McDougall & Sons Orchard in Grant County agreed to pay $22 an hour for prison labor from the Olympic Corrections Center. Most of those wages went to the state; prisoners received minimum wage less deductions for incarceration costs, restitution, victim compensation, child support and other financial obligations. The prisoners’ net pay was between $1.00 and $2.00 an hour.

For the first several days, 105 prisoner workers were housed in tents. “We took field kitchens and port-a-potties over there,” said Danielle Wiles, assistant director of Washington state’s Correctional Industries. She noted that five hours into the workday, one prisoner had picked four apple bins while many had filled only one. An experienced picker can pick up to ten bins a day.

An outcry ensued when the prisoners’ $22-per-hour wage rate was publicized, since the apple growers had offered to pay much less to freeworld employees. “It’s really hard work and this isn’t right for the inmates to be paid $22 an hour and we’re not even going on breaks,” said farm worker Jose Patino, who said McDougall & Sons refused to pay him and his wife more than minimum wage.

The Washington Department of Corrections claimed prisoners did not take jobs away from freeworld workers, as there was a labor shortage. “They were desperate to get the crop off before it gets too cold,” said Wiles.

In Idaho, state prisoners have long been used on farms to sort and pack potatoes; in 2011, prisoners were used for the first time to pick spuds in the fields, reportedly due to a shortage of farm workers. Idaho companies that use prison labor to process potatoes include SunGlo of Idaho, Inc.; Walters Produce, Inc.; High Country Potato, Inc. and Floyd Wil-cox & Sons, Inc.

Colorado has used prison labor on private farms since 2005, when the state enacted stricter immigration laws. Around 100 female prisoners from the La Vista Correctional Facility, for example, are employed weeding, picking and packing onions and pumpkins under the supervision of prison guards. The prisoners receive $9.60 an hour, of which about $5.60 goes to the state. At least ten Colorado farmers use prison labor.

In Arizona, Wilcox-based Eurofresh Farms employs around 400 prisoners through an Arizona Corrections Industries program. The prisoners are paid close to minimum wage. “We’re fortunate, we’re near a prison here,” said Eurofresh chief operating officer Frank van Straalen.

Florida is another state that has put its prisoners to work on farms, including a program that began in 2009 which uses work crews from the Berrydale Forestry Camp on a 650-acre publicly-funded farm at the University of Florida’s West Florida Research and Education Center. The prisoners grow collards, cabbage and turnips in the winter, while the spring crop yields snap peas, corn and tomatoes.

The arrangement provides the University with agricultural research and supplies vegetables for prisoners’ meals. In 2010 the farm program resulted in $192,000 in food cost savings at the prison and saved the University $75,000 – money that otherwise would have been spent on paid staff.

Who Benefits? Who Doesn’t?

Claims that prisoner work programs reduce costs and provide rehabilitative job training are typical among advocates of prison slave labor.

Some proponents also point to the eagerness of prisoners to work. “They want to get out of the cell and move around,” stated Steve Fisher, administrator of Texas’ Walker County Jail. “They enjoy getting out. It makes their time go faster and it encourages good behavior. Our goal with the jail is to give back to the community as much as we can.”

Dwight Hamrick, warden at the Muscogee County Prison in Columbus, Georgia, concurred. “So they enjoy getting out, one to alleviate the boredom, they enjoy having meaningful work and some really do take pride in what they do. To have work and a job is important to them,” he said.

Then again, given the alternative of sitting in a jail or prison cell all day, being able to leave – even to do manual labor for little or no pay – is seen by many prisoners to be an improvement. Corrections officials rarely mention the monotonous and sometimes onerous conditions of confinement that contribute to prisoners’ “eagerness” to participate in work programs.

Further, critics note that prison slave labor often takes jobs away from freeworld workers. For example, the Prison Industry Enhancement (PIE) program, which is authorized by federal law, allows prisoners to work for private companies to produce goods and services that are sold on the open market. [See: PLN, March 2010, p.1].

Typically, businesses involved in PIE partnership programs set up shop in prisons where they benefit from a captive, inexpensive work force and low overhead. They thus have a significant competitive advantage over other companies that do not use prison labor.
While prisoners employed in PIE programs are supposed to earn “prevailing” wages, they usually only receive minimum wage – and up to 80% of their pay can be withheld for restitution, victim compensation, incarceration costs and mandatory savings.

“These partnerships are causing problems with labor and competition with non-PIE companies trying to stay in the market,” said Robert Sloan, a prison industry expert and consultant. “For example, Escod Industries manufactures wiring harnesses and cabling for HP, IBM, Dell and other companies. They are using inmate labor for that manufacturing at a South Carolina plant. The use of inmate labor gives them an edge over their competitors.”

Although PIE has been hailed as a “training” program that provides prisoners with job skills they can use following their release, it is questionable whether such skills actually translate to job opportunities for former prisoners. One PIE program involving Wilson Sports, for example, consisted of prisoners inflating basketballs – a “skill” with limited utility in the outside job market.

“What good is the [PIE] program if the very companies taking advantage of it by claiming they’re ‘training’ inmates for employment upon release don’t hire those inmates after they get out?” asked Sloan. “The program is simply being abused by all involved – as is the practice of using inmates to replace public sector workers at the state, county and municipal levels.”

In April 2012, the Alabama legislature passed a bill (SB63) that would allow private businesses to partner with the state’s Department of Corrections and use prison labor through PIE programs. Thirty-eight other state prison systems authorize PIE programs, which employ approximately 5,000 prisoners nationwide.

While prison slave labor is usually touted as saving money, it may actually harm the local economy. “When a prisoner gets a job performing work in the community or in a prison industry program, they’re taking a job from someone else,” said PLN editor Paul Wright.
“[E]stimate how many civilian workers could be employed by each state participating in this kind of ‘partnership’ using prison labor,” added Sloan. “Inmates are working in their place all across the country, displacing those who need jobs to feed their families and [put] a roof over their heads.”

As one example, when Brown County, Wisconsin began using prisoners to cut the lawn at Sheriff’s Office properties, the company previously contracted to do that work, Lizer Lawn Care, lost a $13,000 annual contract.

“Obviously, we’d like the work, but I know just like any other business, if there’s a chance of saving money, it would be a smart business move,” stated Lizer Lawn Care’s owner, John Calewarts.

And in December 2011, a Tennessee-based company, Tennier Industries, learned that it had lost a $45 million contract to produce clothing for the Department of Defense (DOD).
Who won the contract? Federal Prison Industries, better known as UNICOR – which operates industry programs for the Bureau of Prisons. Prisoners employed with UNICOR earn from $.23 to $1.15 per hour, and it’s hard for freeworld businesses to compete with such low prison labor costs. Tennier had to lay off around 100 workers after losing the DOD contract.

“Our government screams, howls and yells how the rest of the world is using prisoners or slave labor to manufacture items, and here we take the items right out of the mouths of people who need it,” said Steven Eisen, Tennier’s chief financial officer.

In our nation’s free market economy, however, where both the supply of prisoners and the demand for cheap labor are high, the use of prison slave labor at the expense of freeworld workers is only likely to expand. However, prison slavery has its limits and there are sound reasons that slavery is no longer the dominant mode of production in the world today. Slaves are not efficient workers and represent an investment for the slave owner, whether the state or an individual. Given the massive need for farm workers, it is doubtful that prisoners will be able to meet that need anytime soon. The other option, decent working conditions and a living wage, which might entice Americans back into the fields a la Grapes of Wrath days, appears to be unlikely.

Sources: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA Today,,, The Huntsville Item,, CNN, Seattle Times,, Yakima Herald-Republic,,,,,,,,,,, Wall Street Journal,,, New York Times,,,,,

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