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Colorado Prisoners Disciplined for Not Working Despite Ban on Prison Slavery

Although Colorado voters amended the state constitution in 2018 to ban slave labor inside state prisons, the state Department of Corrections (DOC) has continued to discipline prisoners for refusing to work—14,000 times just since 2019, according to a November NPR News report.

That bolsters the claims of two state prisoners suing over DOC’s policy; as PLN reported, Richard Lilgerose and Harold Mortis filed suit in February 2022, seeking an injunction to prevent DOC from charging prisoners who refuse to work with a Class 2 disciplinary violation, which can result in a loss of earned “good time” sentence credits or even placement in solitary confinement. [See: PLN, Mar. 22, 2022, online.] In August 2023, a state judge hearing the case agreed that isolation, like physical punishment, may violate the constitution; however, revoking privileges like “good time” credits may not.

University of Denver assistant professor of sociology and criminology Michael Gibson-­Light noted that “slavery was not abolished” by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, “it just changed,” he said, so that “now the justifications were different. They had to do with law-­breaking. They had to do with vagrancy. They had to do, eventually, with drug use.”

“I was actually 30 years a slave,” Abron Arrington said of his long incarceration by DOC, much of it spent in isolation for refusing to work for just 13 cents an hour—time he preferred to spend studying for a physics degree. Community organizer Kym Ray of Together Colorado said that’s the point of efforts to end the DOC policy—not to keep prisoners from benefitting from work programs but just “to give people the choice.”

“There’s a reason it’s called the Emancipation Proclamation, not the compensation proclamation,” Gibson-­Light agreed. “It’s not a question about wages. The question is about freedom.”

Arrington, who was granted clemency and released in 2019, said that “[a] lot of people are making a lot of money off the system,” including some 100 Colorado companies using prisoner labor for wages often far below market, plus the state and local governments using underpaid prisoners to perform maintenance and housekeeping tasks, as well as more dangerous jobs like firefighting.

Nationwide, prisoners produce an estimated $2 billion in goods and services annually, according to research by the American Civil Liberties Union and the University of Chicago Law School’s Global Human Rights Clinic, plus another $9 billion worth of services they provide to the prisons where they are held—usually for little or no money.

“It’s a massive labor force that is completely hidden from view,” Gibson-­Light said. “And that’s by design.”

In Colorado, DOC still pays prisoners as little as 13 cents hourly, though the rate for some jobs rises to $2. That’s better than nine states where prisoners earn nothing—Maine, Nevada, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. Most prison systems justify work requirements by pointing to the benefits provided post-­release. But Gibson-­Light calls that a lie.

“On the surface, it sounds like ‘Oh, there’s so many opportunities.’ [But] they do not align with the realities of the labor market,” he said. “You can be a barber and make good money, but you get out and you can’t get a barber license if you have a record.”

If the job DOC forces on a prisoner doesn’t pay much and also fails to deliver benefits promised after release, there’s little incentive to do it absent the threat of punishment. That’s why Towards Justice attorney Valerie Collins, who is representing Lilgerose and Mortise, said that arguing about wages “muddies the water.”

“We did not bring wage claims,” she said, “to keep the focus on the forced nature of the work itself, in the coercion that is used to extract that labor.”

Ray wants more protections and training for prisoner workers, many of whom “have lost fingers because they’re working on faulty equipment or equipment that they haven’t even been properly trained on.”

Meanwhile, six other states—Utah, Nebraska, Vermont, Oregon, Alabama and Tennessee—have followed Colorado and passed constitutional amendments to close the loophole excepting prisoners from slavery bans. “This is a fast-­moving train,” said Abolish Slavery National Network co-­founder Kamau Allen.  


Source: Bolts Magazine

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