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Arizona Exploiting Prisoner Labor for Profit

by Kevin W. Bliss

A new constitutional amendment proposed to Congress in June 2023 would remove the exception for prisoners to the U.S. ban on slavery. The effort follows a report from Arizona in December 2022, which found that private firms in the state used over two dozen undocumented migrant workers they could never legally hire but for the fact they were incarcerated by the state Department of Correction, Rehabilitation and Reentry (DCRR).

Though patently hypocritical – Arizona has adopted severe penalties for firms that take it upon themselves to hire undocumented workers – the program is legal under another state law allowing enforced labor of prisoners.

“[U]sing migrant individuals who are unable to work legally here, that seems like just a violation of the law,” explained Arizona State University School of Law Professor Michael Selmi, an employment law and civil rights expert. “If they are migrants who are detained, then it would fall under the prison labor law in Arizona.”

Published by the Arizona Republic, the report counted 26 DCRR prisoners with detainers filed by federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The detainers render them ineligible for employment in the U.S. Moreover, a 2007 state law makes any potential employer criminally liable for failure to check their work eligibility. But the law exempts employers renting prisoner labor from DCRR or its for-profit subsidiary, Arizona Correctional Industries.

Many Arizona firms have taken advantage of this opportunity, including brands like Hickman’s Egg Farms, Taylor Farms, NatureSweet and Televerde. After hiring DCRR-supplied workers for as little as $4.75 an hour – one-third minimum wage – the firms claimed not to know whether any undocumented workers were among them. DCRR couldn’t say either, though it noted that 10,000 undocumented prisoners are currently working assignments inside state prisons where they are incarcerated.

DCRR did say it has hired out 15,700 “Mexican nationals” since 2008, but it could not say how many were illegal immigrants and how many lost employment eligibility only after criminal conviction, when ICE declared they were being deported. American Immigration Lawyers Association Director Ruben Reyes said, “I’m venturing a guess that a large majority of the people who are labeled a Mexican national by [DCRR] are unauthorized to work here.”

The U.S. constitution currently exempts prisoners from its ban on slavery. But seven states have closed that loophole, including Alabama, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah and Vermont. [See: PLN, Apr. 2023, p.63.] The new resolution introduced to Congress on June 14, 2023, would begin the process of amending the federal constitution to remove the exemption nationally. Commented one of the resolution’s sponsors, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Or.), “There should be no exception to a ban on slavery.”

Sources: Arizona Republic, KTVZ

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