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.

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

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13th

I know it can be a hard sell to get people to watch documentaries, but if you watch only one documentary in your life, it should be this one. 13th can be seen on Netflix. I’ve had the good fortune to see it twice. Once on my own, and once as a part of my Race and Social Justice Initiative training at work. Each time, it brough out a storm of emotions within me.

This movie discusses a very shocking loophole in the 13th amendment to the US constitution. The amendment reads as follows (italics mine):

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

We’d like to think we’ve abolished slavery in this country, but that’s not at all true, as this movie makes blatantly obvious. Once “official” slavery was abolished, this country had a big, sucking vacuum where all that free labor used to exist. The solution to that problem became obvious rather quickly. After emancipation, convictions for petty crimes began to rise, and they’ve been rising steadily ever since. As it stands, America has 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of the world’s prisoners. There are 2.3 million Americans in prison today, and the majority of them are African American. And oh, are we ever good at putting them to work.

We’ve criminalized drug addiction. We’ve waged war on crime. Politicians began to talk about “getting tough” and “law and order” as a backlash against the civil rights movement. We’ve had harsher sentencing for crack than we do for cocaine, and these drugs are divided along racial and economic lines. We’ve called these people super predators and beasts. They are considered enemy combatants that we should be able to stop and frisk with impunity.

We’ve perpetuated the myth that black men are rapists. Something we rarely think about is that the history of interracial rape is far more white male/black female. Which makes a creepy amount of sense, given the unequal power dynamic.

We created a three strike policy in this country that requires mandatory minimum sentencing. This means that judges can’t dispense justice with any type of discretion. For example, if someone had been convicted of two petty crimes as a brash young teenager, and then lives an upstanding, crime free life for another forty years, and is then talked into plea bargaining for a crime he didn’t commit to avoid this mandatory minimum situation, that person will practically be thrown under the jail, as the saying goes. 97% of those locked up have plea bargained for that very reason. Which means they aren’t really getting any justice at all.

Even former President Clinton now admits that his Omnibus Crime Bill was a mistake. It has militarized our police departments, and funded a lot of prisons which then needed to be filled to remain profitable. It has doubled the prison population.

This has decimated the African American community. Black men have a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison, whereas for white men, the statistics are 1 in 17. It has left a whole generation of leaders incarcerated. African Americans comprise 6.5% of the US population, but 40.2% of the prison population. This makes it difficult for the black community to defend itself.

And have you ever thought about the injustice of the Stand Your Ground laws in some states? Stand your ground allowed George Zimmerman to hunt down and kill Trayvon Martin. Where was Trayvon Martin’s right to stand his ground?

And then, you have to think about all the convicts who pay their debt to society and never have their rights fully restored. It can be nearly impossible to find a job when you get out of prison. And 30% of the black male population in Alabama has lost its ability to vote. Is that democracy? Really?

Two other issues that this movie discusses in depth are ALEC (the American Legislation Exchange Council), and Prison Labor. Those issues are so intense that they’ll each have a blog post of their own.

The frustrating thing about the modern day slavery in this country is that I feel personally helpless to do anything about it. And if I’m honest, most of the time I get to not think about it. I can sit in my white privilege comfort zone and focus on other things, like my next vacation or the fact that my dog wants to go for a walk. It’s a big source of shame for me.

The very least I can do is blog about this issue in an effort to signal boost the voices of the less privileged. So here I am, doing the very least I can do. But it sure doesn’t make me feel any better.

WAR & CONFLICT BOOKERA:  CIVIL WAR/BACKGROUND:  SLAVERY & ABOLITIONISM
The scars aren’t as visible these days, but they’re still there.

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Freedom of Movement

There is an excellent yardstick for measuring liberty and quality of life. Simply consider how much freedom of movement you have. From that basic indicator, you can determine if you live in a police state and/or a cult, you will know how much information and education you have access to, and you will have a good sense of the level of prejudice you are being exposed to.

Your ability to travel goes hand in hand with your freedom. If you live in a country where the women cannot travel without the permission of their husbands or fathers, you live in a misogynistic police state. If you are in a religion that does not allow you to interact with outsiders or learn about opposing points of view, or worse yet, cuts you off from family, then you are in a cult. If you can’t go anywhere without having your papers constantly checked by authority figures, then you are a slave.

Inhibiting your ability to go where you wish is an effective way of controlling the information that you have access to. If you can’t even move about the internet, then someone else is controlling your narrative, and they have an agenda that is not in your best interest. If someone wants to leave and you don’t let them, then you have just reduced them to a mere object.

Also, preventing women or minorities from having access to education is a self-defeating power play. One should be able to travel in mind as well as body. If your opportunity to learn is hindered, you should wonder what the powers that be don’t want you to discover.

People who put up walls to restrict movement are the worst kind of racists. They are either attempting to keep a group out or keep a group in. Either way, they are restricting the flow of information, and preventing the masses from becoming unified. Divide and conquer.

The only things that should prevent you from being able to travel are your own priorities and your own budgetary constraints. And even that is a can of worms, because income inequality is another great way to keep us all ignorant and close to home.

The more you travel, the more you learn. The more you travel, the less you hate. The more you travel in mind, body, and spirit, the more you know what it is to be free.

Freedom

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Civil Trade War

So now Trump thinks Canada is a security risk? Oh, come on. Those people won’t even jaywalk at an intersection. Seriously. There could be no cars for miles, and they’d still patiently wait for the crossing signal.

Trump imposing tariffs on Mexico, Canada, and the European Union is like walking up to your three best friends in the school yard and punching them each in the throat. Just ‘cuz.

As if we weren’t already convinced that this man is an idiot, he now decides to do something that has absolutely no upside, even for him. But oh, yeah, it certainly has taken our focus off of Russia, hasn’t it? He does like to stir shit up.

Smoke and mirrors. It’s all smoke and mirrors. The next election can’t come fast enough.

For some reason, though, a lot of people don’t quite get (yet) what a global pissing match Trump has just set off. So let’s scale it down a bit for easier comprehension.

Let’s say the Governor of Maine doesn’t like the Governor of Georgia. So Maine decides to impose a tariff on all peaches. This means that it gets a lot more expensive for Georgia to get their peaches to consumers in Maine. This causes the Governor of Georgia’s head to explode, and he says, “Fine! We are now putting a tariff on Lobsters! Take that!”

Well, messing with Lobsters in Maine is like touching the third rail. This cannot be borne! So Maine says, okay, now we’re going to put a tariff on airplanes. (You may not know this, but Georgia’s top export is airplanes.)

But hold on. Airplanes are also the top export in California, Arizona, Washington, Kansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, Florida, and Connecticut. So they all sit up tensely and blink, too. What’s going to happen next? They all start looking around to see how they can hurt other states who might hurt them. Everyone is poised for battle.

That’s really how the civil war started. Only back then, the commodity was slaves. Not only won’t we buy your slaves, but you can’t have them either. And before we knew it, hundreds of thousands of Americans were dead.

This trade war? Worst idea ever. Thanks, Trump. Way to go.

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That Race Thing

Recently I attended an all day seminar at work regarding race and racism. That’s one of the many beautiful things about living on the left coast. I doubt it would even occur to my former employers in Florida to allow us to have such training, let alone make it an annual event.

I learned much that day. For instance, on a scientific level, race doesn’t even exist. If you look at our DNA, only one out of every thousand nucleotides is different, from human to human. In fact, Penguins and fruit flies have more genetic differences within their own species than we humans do. (I didn’t learn this in the training, but I’ve read somewhere that our DNA is has 40 percent in common with that of a banana! Think about that the next time you eat a banana…)

The trainers showed us a fascinating video in which they did an experiment with a high school class. They sequenced a portion of each student’s DNA. Before the results came back, they were asked who they assumed they had the most genetic similarities to. Naturally, the African Americans assumed they would have more in common with each other, and the Whites gravitated toward the Whites, the Asians with the Asians, the Hispanics with the Hispanics, and so on. But here’s the interesting thing. That turned out not to be true at all. The commonalities and disparities were actually amazingly random.

The skin color thing is a function of the sun. Humans in more overcast climes developed lighter skin over time so that they could absorb every ounce of vitamin D that they could. Otherwise they would not have survived to pass on their genes. It’s just a melanin thing, as simple as that.

Race is something constructed by society to further political and economic goals. Thomas Jefferson, the same guy who wrote that all men are created equal, also wrote, in Notes on the State of Virginia, that “Blacks are inferior to whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” That was, in essence, his way of justifying his ownership of 225 slaves. But there is no scientific evidence of these inferiorities whatsoever. The only reason blacks became slaves in our society was that the white indentured servants who used to do our scut work before slavery could too easily run away and blend in with the general population. Whereas if your skin was a different color, you had nowhere to hide. Slavery was a much more sustainable outrage than indentured servitude.

We often talk about America being a melting pot. I was taught to believe that that meant we are diverse, and we’ve all blended together to become Americans. I used to be so proud of that! But actually, the melting pot concept was more about the desire for all Americans to be able to assimilate and be exactly the same. It was all about only allowing white Christians to sit at the table. I’m repulsed by how twisted I got this. I’d much rather that we be a hardy stew.

One last thought for those of you who still think others are inferior because they have not reached your level of success. It’s easy for us W.A.S.P.s to forget that everyone else has to start 30 yards deep in their own end zone. They don’t have the leg-up that we were born with and never earned. This picture is one of the hand outs from the training. Print it out. Mark off all the privileges you have. Then mark off any additional ones you feel you don’t have that people will assume you have. (For example, I’m not a Christian, but people would think that I was.)

Once you’ve marked off all that privilege, think about who has to be oppressed for you to have each one. It’s a sobering realization. Now, tell me again how all men are created equal?

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20,528 Karma Bombs in Two Minutes

Born in 1800’s America, I’d have been an abolitionist. That is, if I were lucky enough to be a member of the upper class, rather than dying at the age of 25 while working some nasty, brutish factory job for 100 hours a week, while pregnant for the 6th time. What a difference time and place makes in your fate.

That thought, among many others, was in the forefront of my mind while looking at an interactive entitled The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes. This stunning, horrifying animation graphically illustrates the 20,528 voyages that we still have accurate records of for the 315 year period between the 16th and 19th centuries. This visual will haunt me for quite some time.

Each vessel is a dot moving across the Atlantic. You can pause the graphic and click on each one to get the chilling specifics. For example, “The Noordstar, under a flag of the Netherlands, left Senegambia in 1679 with 500 enslaved people, and arrived in Surinam with 421.”

Each dot represents the theft and kidnap of human beings. Each dot represents pain and disease and pestilence and death and despair and the destruction of families and communities. Each dot represents avarice and evil. And there were so many of them. So very many.

And consider this: 2 million of these slaves did not survive the ocean passage. That means the Atlantic Ocean is riddled with minute traces of 2 million bodies. Think of that the next time you make a sand castle on the beach or take a cruise to the Bahamas.

I was really surprised to discover that fewer than 4 percent of the slave ships arrived in the continental U.S. Most went to Brazil or the Caribbean. Not that that’s an excuse, mind you. It just makes me realize that the horror of the American slave trade was eclipsed a thousand times over by what was happening to our south. I can’t even imagine it. It is the stuff of nightmares.

Another interesting thing about this graphic is that if you were to look at it without knowing what it was, you’d be inclined to think that it was missiles being shot at us from Africa. And in a way, it was. Because this destructive and horrible industry was not only devastating to that continent. It was a poisonous legacy for the ports of call, as well. It brought a moral plague to our shores. And for centuries we welcomed it.

It is sobering to see that the very places where these ships landed are economically depressed to this day. They are also, in my opinion, still sites of heightened prejudice, ignorance, and fundamentalism. They are areas of backwardness. As observations go, that one isn’t particularly scientific. It could be pure coincidence. But it could also be karma brought upon us by a legacy of greed.

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Chocolate Isn’t So Sweet

I am allergic to chocolate. It gives me migraines. But that doesn’t stop me from eating it. Over the years I’ve just learned how much I can get away with by trial and error. I love chocolate.

So if the prospect of excruciating pain would not deter me from eating this delectable treat, and my ever-increasing waistline clearly hasn’t, what would? Well, I must admit that this documentary, “The Dark Side of Chocolate” certainly has me rethinking my consumption habits. It reveals that child labor and even slavery is very common in the cocoa industry in Western Africa.

From there, I read this article from the Food Empowerment Project, and it made me feel even more uncomfortable.

I’ll let those two sources provide you with the statistics, but suffice it to say that children have been sold, abducted and/or deceived in order to be forced to work on these cocoa plantations. They are often beaten, deprived of education, forced to survive on a diet of corn paste and bananas, all while working inhumane hours using very dangerous tools that leave them scarred. They are locked in at night as they sleep on the floor, and are whipped if they try to run away. Many never see their families again.

That’s what you are most likely holding in your hand if you are holding a candy bar. And some of the worst culprits are the larger chocolate companies, such as Hershey’s, Mars, and Nestle. The industry hopes to keep this a dirty little secret. In fact, several reporters have been killed trying to get this story to you. After all, there’s big money in chocolate.

Suddenly chocolate doesn’t taste so sweet to me.

All is not lost, however. Go here for a list of companies that source their cocoa from Latin America and Asia, where this horrible cycle of child labor on cocoa plantations is not currently in evidence. (Seattleites, great news! Theo Chocolate is on the list!) It’s still possible to eat chocolate without compromising your morals. It’s just harder, because 70% of the world’s cocoa comes from Western Africa.

If I could stop all child abuse on these plantations by never eating another piece of chocolate again as long as I live, I would do it. It would be hard, but not nearly as hard as what these children are forced to endure. But as with all important changes in the world, it’s going to take more than just me. As individuals, making smarter chocolate purchases is the very least we can do.

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