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California Prison Factories Fined For Exposing Unwitting Workers to COVID-19

Cal/OSHA had earlier issued even larger fines to San Quentin State Prison and Avenal State Prison for failing to protect prisoners from exposure to the novel coronavirus that causes the disease (see PLN Mar. 2021, p.12). CALPIA spokeswoman Michele Kane said the fines would be paid from the agency’s revenues, not by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

CALPIA employs an estimated 7,000 prisoners statewide in facilities producing items like U.S. flags, state license plates, packaged snicker-doodles, as well as office furniture used by state agencies. CDCR is its largest customer, accounting for two-thirds of all sales.

State law requires “any able-bodied inmate” to “perform any work deemed necessary” for prison operations. With the exception for “punishment” to the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment ban on slavery, that allows CDCR to pay wages as low as 8¢ an hour and CALPIA to pay between 35¢ to $1 an hour. Prisoner workers are not considered employees, so they’re ineligible for unemployment, sick leave or paid time off. In fact, they risk disciplinary action that can negatively impact parole decisions by failing to perform “within the inmate’s abilities.”

“The more you give them, the more they want,” said Robbie Hall.

Along with other prisoners at California Institute for Women in Chino, the 58-year-old was forced to stitch face-masks 12 hours a day in a non-socially distanced setting at a CALPIA sewing factory at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak. She said it was “like a slave factory.”

The fabric she sewed — like the guards who watched her — traveled from the nearby state prison for men, where an outbreak early in the pandemic killed 23 prisoners. Fabric is CALPIA’s biggest manufacturing moneymaker, netting $23.7 million in 2019 revenues, with furniture coming in a close second at $16.9 million, according to a recent audit.

The prison system “keeps us as a money tree,” notes Hall, who has been denied parole repeatedly since her 1994 conviction for killing a man she says raped her.

Michele Goodwin, Chancellor’s professor of law at the University of California in Irvine, says that with its “punishment clause,” the 13th Amendment has “given the state authority to do this form of slavery (in which) people can do unpaid or minimally paid labor” in prisons.

As in virtually every other aspect of America’s criminal justice system, the resulting racial disparity is stark. African Americans, like Hall, make up approximately 6.5% of California’s population but more than 28% of its prisoners.

“The punishment clause in the 13th amendment is a legacy to slavery that has allowed people incarcerated, disproportionately Black and brown, to be exploited for decades,” added Laura Pitter, deputy director of the United States Program at Human Rights Watch.

“The exception to the 13th Amendment’s ban on slavery corrupted criminal justice into a tool of racist control of Black Americans and other people of color,” agrees U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who is co-sponsoring a constitutional amendment to remove the “punishment clause” from the Thirteenth Amendment.

 As of March 2021, CDCR had counted more than 49,000 inmates and 16,000 staff members who had tested positive for COVID-19. For a year, it had canceled activities that benefit prisoners, like rehabilitation programs, education classes, religious services and visits with their loved ones, in an effort to slow the spread of the disease. But not work programs.

In CALPIA factories, prisoners have continued to work overtime during the pandemic, making millions of dollars for the agency. The sewing factory at the Correctional Training Facility, near Salinas, California, ran 14 hours a day, according to corrections records.

At Hall’s sewing factory in Chino, supervisors kept raising daily quotas from 2,000 to 3,000 to 3,500 masks, according to workers. But the women making the masks were forbidden from wearing them until mid-April. Supervisors warned prisoners that they would be replaced if they refused overtime. Factory staff also threatened prisoners with discipline if they refused to work because of COVID-19 fears, promising they would be fired if they missed a day — either of which could extend the length of their confinement.

“Why is money more important than human lives?” asked David Burke, a prisoner at Avenal State Prison, where 2,931 prisoners and 296 staff were infected with COVID-19 and seven prisoners had died by October 9, 2020. “Inmates are just a business.”

CALPIA spokeswoman Michele Kane acknowledged that “essential critical enterprises” such as food, laundry, and the manufacture of masks and hand sanitizer have continued during the pandemic. She also admitted that goods like furniture were made “when deemed safe.” But she declined to say what other factories remained open.

“It is a bureaucratic decision to keep people working for pennies an hour during a pandemic,” said Kate Chatfield, director of policy at the Justice Collaborative, a national organization advocating for criminal justice reform. “This should appall everyone who wants to live in a civilized society.”

By April, CALPIA sewing factories had made more than 1.4 million masks, primarily to be used by prisoners and staff. Dozens of other state agencies also placed orders. On April 1, 2020, the 11-member Prison Industry Board (PIB) agreed to pay prisoners overtime, overcoming the objection of one member who claimed that prisoners would slow production “just to get into the overtime.”

CALPIA General Manager Scott Walker admitted during the meeting that he couldn’t justify keeping factories open to produce “non-mission-critical” goods like shoes, furniture or snowplows for Caltrans. The Avenal furniture factory closed the next day.

However, it reopened 27 days later on April 29, 2020. The first Avenal prisoners tested positive for COVID-19 two weeks later. A prisoner who worked in the furniture factory tested positive and was quarantined during the third week of May, according to other factory workers. Though every one of his co-workers had been exposed to him, supervisors threatened prisoners with a write-up if they did not report to work the next day.

“It prevents us from (getting released) early,” explained one prisoner, who became ill with COVID-19. “A bunch of us went back to work. And a bunch of us contracted the virus.”

The factory didn’t shut down again until May 28, 2020, in response to an outbreak on the factory floor, according to CALPIA. It reopened June 18, 2020, Kane said, but then closed again for two weeks in July following another outbreak, according to workers.

By mid-August, 83% of prisoners in the yard that staffs the furniture factory had been infected with COVID-19, said Burke, who as chairman of his yard’s Inmate Advisory Council receives internal reports on prison operations, including COVID-19 issues.

Kane defended the furniture factory operation, claiming it had been working on an order for a substance-abuse program that prison officials hope to launch, though such programs have been shut down due to COVID-19. Even operating on a skeleton crew for half of July, the factory produced more than $300,000 of furniture that month, according to prison workers.

Furniture factory workers were not alone in contracting COVID-19. As the disease spread quickly to the 40 women manufacturing masks in the Chino sewing factory, Hall was found on her cell floor on May 8, 2020, gasping for breath and unable to talk. Paramedics rushed her to a local hospital, where she spent weeks fighting COVID-19 before she was discharged back to the prison with an oxygen tank. Although she still has trouble breathing and fears reinfection, she returned to the sewing factory in hopes of improving her parole prospects.

“What keeps prisons safe?” asked Dr. Stefano Bertozzi, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of California in Berkeley. “Having fewer people in them.” 


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