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Florida City, County Decide to End Use of Prisoner Slave Labor

by Kevin W. Bliss

In January 2019, the city of Gainesville, Florida followed the lead of Alachua County by deciding to terminate its contract with the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) to provide prisoner work crews for such duties as ground maintenance, filling potholes and trash detail. Activists from the Incarcerated Workers Organization Committee (IWOC) convinced Gainesville officials that the continued use of such work crews constituted “slave labor” and did nothing to promote rehabilitation.

Gainesville entered into a three-year contract (plus a potential three-year extension) with the FDOC in June 2016. The city agreed to pay $180,000 in exchange for services provided by a five-prisoner work crew; the services could be scheduled for any governmental agency or nonprofit organization, but not for private businesses. The contract stated the city would supply the work crew’s vehicle and any necessary equipment, as well as the supervising guard’s $54,000 annual salary and $750 for the prisoners’ protective equipment, first aid and safety gear.

Opponents to the use of prisoner slave labor addressed the city commission prior to a January 24 vote on the FDOC contract extension, which led to a decision against extending it. Mayor Lauren Poe thanked those involved for shining “a light on a very serious issue,” and called the termination of the work crew contract a “moral imperative.”

“It’s important that the Department of Corrections explain to the policymakers why using prison labor is a good use of taxpayer dollars,” stated County Commissioner Ken Cornell. “But more importantly why it’s good for the prisoners they’re ultimately responsible for.” He added the work programs should assist in post-release job placement and help to reduce recidivism. “That’s the kind of data you would expect to see unless we’re just using them for slaves,” he said.

The Alachua County Commission voted on January 22, 2019 to hire full-time staff for maintenance services that had been performed by prisoner labor, at an estimated cost of over $1 million per year. 

At least 500 public entities contract with the FDOC for prisoner labor, including the University of Florida. Cornell said he hoped Alachua County’s contract termination would prompt others to do the same. 

“We would like to see if we can be a catalyst for change throughout the state to help kind of fix this system of prison labor. Whenever county government either relies on or depends on free labor, it diminishes the value of paid labor,” he remarked.

City officials in Gainesville are funding a pilot program to pay at-risk youths to perform the work previously done by prisoners, at wages of $10.50 to $12 per hour. 

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Sources: theappeal.org, wcjb.com, gainesville.com, City of Gainesville Contract #W1063