by David Reutter
The use of prisoner labor and poor prison conditions are behind calls for action in Texas and Alabama, and have led to concerns over the use of prison labor nationwide.
Most people believe slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but that amendment includes an exception clause which permits slavery “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted....”
Prison Legal News has long advocated against the use of prisoner slave labor, including in prison industry programs, where workers toil for scanty wages or none at all, often in unsafe conditions. [See: PLN, Sept. 2017, p.60].
Texas Correctional Industries (TCI), which was created in 1963, is one of the most egregious offenders. TCI produces “mattresses, shoes, garments, brooms, license plates, printed materials, janitorial supplies, soaps, detergents, furniture, textile, and steel products,” according to its website. It provides prison-made products to a variety of government agencies.
Yet TCI pays most of its prisoner workers nothing – unless they are employed in industry programs that partner with private, for-profit businesses.
“Texas’s prisoners are the slaves of today, and that slavery affects our society economically, morally and political[ly],” stated a letter posted on the website for the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), an arm of the International Workers of the World, a labor union. “Beginning April 4, 2016 all inmates around Texas will stop all labor in order to get the attention from politicians and Texas’s community.”
By April 5, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) confirmed it had placed at least seven prisons on lockdown due to the work strike. In addition to demanding meaningful credit for work time to be used towards parole eligibility dates, Texas prisoners sought repeal of a $100 annual medical co-pay, better prison conditions and effective oversight of the TDCJ.
“Yes the taxpayers do, ostensibly, fund prisons, but the fact of the matter is that private corporations use prison labor to manufacture goods, which then make profits,” said Jim Del Ducca with the IWOC. “And these profits don’t go back to the prisoners, they don’t go back to the prison system to lower the burden on the taxpayers.”
TCI is overseen by the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, which has nine members – including former Texas Supreme Court Judge and attorney Dale Wainright. Other board members include R. Terrell McCombs, nephew of billionaire Billy Joe McCombs; corporate attorney Eric Gambrell with the law firm of Akin Gump, which has lobbied for private prison firm CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America); former police employee Derrelynn Perryman, who also serves as the Victim Advocate Director for the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office; and former state judge Thomas P. Wingate.
With few exceptions, most of the board members have no background or expertise in corrections or prison operations. And while the Texas Board of Criminal Justice has the ability to establish “an incentive pay scale for work program participants,” it has not done so.
Prisoners in Alabama also went on strike, beginning May 1, 2016 – May Day – to protest the prison system’s use of what amounts to slave labor. The state’s prison industry program, Alabama Correctional Industries, produces a variety of products ranging from clothing and barbecue grills to janitorial supplies. Unlike in Texas, prisoners are paid for their labor – at wages ranging from $.25 to $.75 per hour.
Leaders of the protest movement have advocated for non-violence; prisoners are also seeking better conditions of confinement. Five state prisons were placed on lockdown due to the coordinated work strikes.
The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) incarcerates 29,605 people, which is 220 percent above its design capacity. To complicate matters state prisons are chronically understaffed, maintaining only 3,000 to 4,000 of 6,000 authorized guard positions over the past decade.
According to the wife of one ADOC lifer, conditions at the Holman Correctional Facility (HCF) were “deplorable,” citing Grade-D meat fed to prisoners in boxes labeled “not for human consumption.” HCF is also a violent facility, with a 2014 homicide rate of 232.4 per 100,000 prisoners in contrast to a national prison homicide rate of 7 per 100,000 prisoners.
The poor conditions at HCF spawned a fight in early March 2016 that turned into a riot after guards and the warden started yelling and cursing at prisoners. One guard and the warden, Carter F. Davenport, were stabbed and received minor injuries. Prisoners then took over “C” dorm and streamed the chaos live using contraband cell phones. [See: PLN, May 2016, p.1].
Well before the riot and work strikes, Alabama prisoners and their outside supporters had formed the Free Alabama Movement (FAM).
“Our plan is to have a statewide strike which may in turn have a domino effect on other states,” said a prisoner activist identified as Karma, who used a cell phone to communicate with the media. “Our goal is to eliminate slavery altogether. It shouldn’t exist just because someone committed a crime ... whether you have stolen a piece of gum or killed someone, you should not be made a slave.”
“Slavery is only legal under the criminal justice system,” he added. “If we are gonna continue to work for free, we continue to give them power by which they can keep the system going. We have to affect the money. If we affect the money, then they’ll have to downsize.”
The average citizen may ask, “what do I care about someone in prison who works for little or no pay while serving a sentence for committing a crime?” The IWOC provided an economics-based answer.
“Sixty percent of the 180,000 prisoners [in Texas] work. That’s about 100,000 jobs,” the IWOC stated. “Texans should be demanding that the state give those jobs to citizens. Those 100,000 new jobs would alleviate the unemployment rate.”
Meanwhile, prison officials continue to silence activist prisoners. As the work stoppage involving the Free Alabama Movement occurred in May 2016, the ADOC reportedly began “bird feeding” prisoners by giving them 60% of normal meal servings. “They are trying to starve [us] into compliance,” one unidentified prisoner stated.
“We need new language to discuss this subject,” said Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, who directs The Ordinary People Society (TOPS), an Alabama-based organization that advocates for prisoners’ rights. “These are people, not just prisoners. And what these labor strikes can do is draw attention to that fact.”
The hoped-for domino effect of prison protests may be coming true, as tens of thousands of prisoners participated in a nationwide work strike on September 9, 2016 – the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising. [See: PLN, Jan. 2017, p.22]. There is also growing public awareness of the issue of prisoner slave labor, spurred in part by the movie “13th,” released in October 2016, which focuses on the exception clause of the Thirteenth Amendment.
Sources: The Daily Beast, Alabama Political Reporter, www.al.com, Associated Press, The Atlantic City Lab, The Hill Talk, www.rt.com, Austin Chronicle, www.correctionsone.com, The Intercept, www.solitarywatch.com, www.incarceratedworkers.org, http://abcnews.go.com, www.freealabamamovement.com, https://news.littlesis.org, www.texasstandard.org
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