Prison Labor: Modern Day Slavery

From 1998 to 2001 I worked at the St. Augustine Maintenance Yard for the Florida Department of Transportation. I truly hated that job. There is something off about that place, like it was cursed. The morale there was abysmal, and many of the people were just this side of criminally insane. It felt dangerous, in an inmates-running-the-asylum kind of way. It’s what turned me into a bridgetender. I needed peace, after that horror. So I suppose something good came out of it after all.

One of the things that made me squirm the most in that place is that we had a contract with the Department of Corrections. We paid them. They provided us with slaves in the form of prisoners who not only had no choice, but also were not paid for their labors. They dug ditches in the hot Florida sun. They cleared underbrush, using machetes, in amongst the snakes and scorpions and spiders. They picked up trash on the side of busy highways. They did all the grit labor that our other crews didn’t do. Prison Crews are chain gangs without the chains, and field hands without the field.

Were they treated well? In front of us, yes. But some of the guards were thinly veiled Neandertals, and I have no doubt a lot happened out there in the boonies that we were not made privy to. They used to tell us that the prisoners enjoyed this work, but I don’t see how that’s possible. Yes, they got out in the fresh air, but they were sweat-soaked, underfed, and not doing anything that would give them work experience that they could employ upon release. And after all that unpaid labor, they often still had to pay restitution. After digging ditches for about 4 hours, they were treated to a baloney sandwich, and then were expected to work another 4 hours. If some emergency came up and they had to stay late, the prison didn’t hold dinner for them. They simply went without.

One of my coworkers used to long for the good old days. Back then, when a prisoner got “uppity” and refused to work, they’d be locked in a small metal box in the oppressive heat, and the guards would beat on the box with sticks. “That would straighten them right up.” Now, they only get written up and thrown into solitary confinement. Happy to work, my butt.

I have no doubt that that coworker voted for Trump. He wanted to make America great again. He used to make my flesh crawl. And he was free to go home at night, after standing around not doing a thing all day.

According to this article, entitled “Work Forced”, Florida is but one of several southern states that use unpaid prison labor. In these states, the vast majority of prisoners are African American. Without these P Crews, many rural communities would not be able to function, as they’d actually have to pay people a living wage, and they’d be hard-pressed to find people willing to do this scut work.

Is it any wonder that more and more people are locked up for petty crimes? What a boon to the economy when you can snatch someone off the streets for carrying a small bag of weed, and you can work him for years. Slavery still exists, folks.

And it’s not just those Southern states that are culpable. Other states employ prison labor as well. They just pay them. After prison fees and expenses and fines, some of them are lucky to get 90 cents an hour, which isn’t even enough for them to buy a bar of soap in the prison commissary. In many states, if prisoners have a hundred dollars or more in their prison account upon release, the prison doesn’t give them any further money. Just a bus ticket. Thanks for all your hard work.

Lest I entertain the fantasy that this stuff was a thing of the past, I saw P Crews on a daily basis maintaining the grounds of Indian River State College when I was a student there in 2011-2012. These “hardened criminals” were allowed to move around campus, unsupervised, amongst the co-eds.

And that same article really gave me a shiver when it directly discussed some abuses that were happening out of the same prison that we had our contract with when I worked for FDOT, and in the same area where our maintenance yard worked, so it had to be some of the very crews I used to work around. It said:

The Times-Union reviewed all 105 disciplinary reports issued for “refusing to work” from July 2018 and identified at least nine that were written for work squad members. Two of those were written by the same officer, Steven Holmes, who policed a Department of Transportation work squad based out of Putnam Correctional Institution.

In his response to an infraction, Derrick Harmon insisted that he wasn’t refusing to work, but that he simply felt unsafe on Holmes’ work squad. For a week, he said, he had been suspecting Holmes and another officer were plotting to set him up with a disciplinary report for refusing to work.

The disciplinary hearing team, made up of other officers, found Harmon guilty based on Holmes’ statement, which quoted Harmon saying, “I ain’t getting in no ditches today.”

“When Officer Holmes asked Inmate Harmon if he was refusing to work, he said yes,” the disciplinary report said.

Harmon spent two weeks in administrative confinement before he was reassigned to a different squad.

Two weeks later, another prisoner on Holmes’ squad, Henry Summerlin, complained of personal difficulties and other safety concerns. Summerlin, who told officials he was distraught after recently finding out his wife had died, complained of being forced to work in the middle of a “very busy intersection at St. Augustine Beach.” A couple of days later, Summerlin said, Holmes denied his request for a new pair of safety glasses and gloves.

“He stated that he already told us that we needed to start keeping up with our equipment better and that he could not keep getting us new ones every day,” Summerlin wrote in his statement.

“You know that I have been taking it real easy on your ass,” Holmes warned the men, according to Summerlin’s statement on the disciplinary report.

After spending a week in administrative confinement, Summerlin lost 10 days of “gain time,” or time earned off his sentence. He was then reassigned to food service.

I can’t believe this is happening in the 21st century.

As a matter of fact, the documentary that I recently blogged about, 13th, mentions that prisons nationwide have also forced their inmates to work in sweat shops for some very well known companies. Microsoft. Boeing. Victoria’s Secret. JC Penney. Seattle Fish.

Do you eat Idaho Potatoes? Odds are very good that your potato was planted, harvested and packaged by inmates. In fact, more and more farmers are using prison labor because now that we have such an anti-immigration stance, they’re finding it impossible to employ anyone else for that back-breaking work. So, like it or not, we’ve all eaten off the backs of an involuntary farmhand at some point or another.

It kind of makes you think, doesn’t it? Government sanctioned slavery. Here and now.

I know I’ll never look at an Idaho potato the same way again.

1200px-A_Southern_chain_gang_c1903-restore
Nowadays the uniforms are a solid light blue, and the shackles are gone, but the work hasn’t changed a bit.

I wrote an actual book, and you can own it! How cool is that? http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

One thought on “Prison Labor: Modern Day Slavery

  1. Pingback: 13th – The View from a Drawbridge

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