Captive labor keeps prisons in business

State reliance on inmates for money undercuts care, threatens public safety, critics charge
      Sunday, August 22, 2004
      News staff writer

      Tony Dexter makes his way through the noisy factory at St. Clair Correctional Facility with help from a cane. It's hot inside, and dusty. Workers wear masks as they mix cleaners, polishes and disinfectants used in prisons and jails.

      Dexter is paid 25 cents an hour, top scale in prison. He's the lead inmate clerk, keeping track of billing and inventory.

      The 56-year-old hemophiliac prefers work over doing nothing, despite his poor health. "I don't want to sit up in the (prison) camp all day," he says.

      Prison laborers such as Dexter make cleaners, build furniture, grow vegetables, repair vehicles, herd cattle and, of course, hammer out license plates throughout the Alabama prison system. The state depends on their labor to help make up annual Corrections Department budget gaps of $50 million or more a year.

      Last fiscal year, the state made $26.4 million directly from inmate labor: $14 million from its cut of work release salaries, $2.6 million in fees those inmates pay for transportation to their jobs, $7.7 million in sales of prison industries goods and services, and $2.1 million in sales of crops and livestock.

      This year, the department's shortage is $58 million.

      No other state agency is required to raise part of its own budget, prisons spokesman Brian Corbett frequently points out.

      "Not only is Alabama the lowest-funded system in the country, it's also the strangest funded," said Mike Haley, former corrections commissioner who now runs the Mobile jail.

      "Maybe a better idea would be to receive enough money to operate to begin with, and then defer that money that you generate back to the General Fund," Corbett suggested.

      Prison officials, prisoner advocates and many prisoners themselves say they support prison job programs as a way to help prepare inmates for the free world and keep them busy while they're incarcerated.

      But the unusual funding arrangement has forced officials to cut corners and make decisions based on making money, not on rehabilitating the inmate or protecting the public, former and current prison officials said.

      Prisoner advocates worry that the system leaves the door open to exploitation. They complain that wages paid to inmates are exceptionally low. And they note that, although inmates are a crucial source of funding for the prison system, they are packed into crowded, decaying prisons and required to pay some costs of their own incarceration.

      "We say we're providing people work release and these other programs to help them re-enter society, it's not supposed to generate income for the state," said Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery-based nonprofit law firm.

      There are industries and farms at 16 of the state's 19 major prisons, not counting work release centers. About 6 percent of all state prisoners work in these jobs.

      The largest chunk of prisoner-raised revenue comes from work-release inmates. They return nearly as much money to the state as it costs to feed and house them. The workers handed over $5,200 each last year, on average, and the state spent $6,200 per inmate to lock them up, according to corrections figures.

      Haley said the money-making potential of work release leads the state to place "marginal" inmates in jobs, people many states would consider too dangerous for jobs outside prisons. Under his tenure, an inmate escaped from a work-release center in Barbour County and killed a woman.

      "We should not be responsible for generating revenue to operate this department," said Corrections Commissioner Donal Campbell, who took over Haley's job.

      "That's when you get into putting inmates out there that should not be out there," Campbell said. "It creates risk to the department."

      He insists prisons carefully screen inmates for work release; factors such as prison behavior, parole date and prior record are taken into consideration.

      Most work low-wage jobs in catfish and chicken plants, telemarketing offices, farms, furniture factories and construction sites. Nearly $1 million from work-release salaries went back to the Corrections Department in June. The workers kept $355,000.

      Former prisoner Jimmie Beavers served most of her manslaughter sentence at the Birmingham Work Release Center. She had a good job at a Pinson manufacturing company, earning $9.50 an hour toward the end. Of her pay, 40 percent went to the Corrections Department and 25 percent went toward her restitution. The state also charged her $5 a day for the ride to work.

      "I brought probably $2,500 out of there, and I'd been there seven years," she said.

      The prison system hung onto the interest on her small savings, as it does with all prisoners. Over the last three years, interest on 
prisoner accounts has generated $260,500 for the department, according to state records.

      Beavers had to spend part of her wage for essentials such as clothes, toiletries, lunches, dental care and laundry.

      Dexter's wage is whittled away by even more essential charges. His disease causes painful bleeding episodes, and the state charges him a $3 co-pay every time he sees a doctor. "They will $3 you to death if they have a chance to," said Dexter, who is serving time for drugs and distributing obscene material.

      Brutal history:

      Advocates for inmates say the prison labor set-up retains elements of the brutal convict leasing system of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

      For decades, the state, and counties leased prisoners out - first to plantations that had lost their slaves, then to the iron and steel industries for work in mines where they died by the hundreds. Most of the convict laborers of that era were black.

      "I do think that there are troubling echoes of the past with regard to prison labor," said Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, a law firm that has represented Limestone and Tutwiler prisoners. "Prison labor was brutally exploited during the time of convict leasing and it remains subject to exploitation today."

      In the 1990s, federal courts intervened to stop Alabama's practice of chaining convicts to a "hitching post" for refusing to work.

      Now, Stevenson is troubled that the prison system refuses to release names of the companies that hire work-release inmates.

      The state considers that information confidential, said Corbett.

      "Given Alabama's horrible history with convict leasing and abuses involving prison labor, the whole question of how contracts are being developed with private business with regards to prison labor needs to be public," Stevenson said. "The state needs to explain how these programs are developed, managed and coordinated, or there's a high risk of abuse, of prisoners especially."

      Thousands of other inmates live at prisons and work release centers but are assigned jobs that pay nothing. They collect trash, 
clean public buildings and perform similar tasks for the government. In 2003, prisoner labor saved city, county and state agencies $12 million, according to department stats.

      "The city of Wetumpka would shut down if we withdrew their inmates," said Andy Farquhar, director of Alabama Correctional Industries, the division of the Corrections Department that oversees prison labor. There are four prisons near Wetumpka in Elmore County.

      At the state prison cattle ranch outside Greensboro, Warden Sonny Free not only uses prisoners to raise cattle and catfish, he sends men to work throughout the region. They've built bookcases and filing cabinets at the Hale County courthouse and worked maintenance for Uniontown. "If you give them something to do that's productive, they love it," Free said.

      Racial imbalance:

      St. Clair, outside Springville, is one of the main prison factories. Behind rows of chain-link fencing and razor wire, it looks like a typical plant - metal buildings, concrete floors, roaring industrial fans - except the workers wear prison whites.

      And most of them are black men.

      That's because the majority of Alabama prisoners, about 61 percent, are black, while blacks comprise 25 percent of the state's population. The white inmates at St. Clair tend to be in drug rehabilitation or college classes, instead of prison labor, because their families send them money, said Milton Works, production manager at the St. Clair plant.

      Labor assignments on a recent summer day included upholstering dozens of office chairs for the Dale County Department of Human Resources, building cubicle-style work stations for the Center Point Fire Department, and rebuilding parts for state vans. The prisoners can get 400,000 miles out of a Dodge Ram. Their products are sold to government offices at about half market value. By state law, private entities cannot purchase prison products because it would create unfair competition.=20

      In the cavernous furniture refinishing area, inmates Donnie Evans and Daryl Lewis bend down on their knees to apply long brush strokes of walnut stain to a conference table on its way to the City of Tuscaloosa. 

      "I enjoy it. I like working with wood," said Evans.

      Added Lewis, "I wish we could get more than a quarter for the kind of work we put into it."

      The prisoners don't complain much, though. More than 500 other inmates are on a waiting list hoping for their jobs.

      The men waiting for paying jobs are assigned non-paying duties, taking care of laundry, trash, floors and the acres of prison grounds. But as the prison population has ballooned over the last decade, there are not even enough non-paying jobs to keep everyone occupied.

      Alabama handles these jobs differently from many other states and the federal government. In Tennessee, North Carolina and Louisiana, for example, inmates working inside, non-factory, jobs such as cleaning and cooking earn a little. Pay ranges from 2 cents an hour in Louisiana to 50 cents an hour in Tennessee.

      Federal prisoners can earn up to $1.15 an hour. For those with debts, half their earnings go toward paying off court fines and 

      Alabama also sells the labor of inmates incarcerated in its prisons to a few private companies.

      Prisoners at Limestone and Draper prisons pick and sort grape tomatoes for Chu Farms.

      "They usually come out in squads under shotgun," Farquhar said.

      At Fountain, a medium security lockup in the complex of prisons outside Atmore, up to 200 prisoners, primarily black men, pick purple hull peas for Wright's Produce in temperatures that hover over 90.

      The farm workers are paid the same as the factory workers, 15 cents to 25 cents an hour.

      Prison officials also tried contracting with Wilson Sporting Goods for prisoner labor to inflate and package basketballs, footballs, soccer balls and volleyballs. Wilson paid the state about 10 cents a ball.

      An inmate filed a lawsuit claiming the contract illegally allowed the state to profit from inmate labor, and the state halted the contract pending outcome of the case.

      Occasional deaths:

      Prisoner advocates have questioned the safety of inmates working in the various labor programs. But the Corrections Department does not keep track of prisoners who have been injured or died on the job.

      "Given the nature of work we do, inmates do incur minor injuries - cuts, bruises, strains - on fairly frequent basis," Corbett said. "A serious injury or death, however, is pretty rare."

      Serious accidents do happen occasionally. The prison system temporarily stopped inmate trash crews after two men were struck by cars and killed in April 2003.

      Dexter, the hemophiliac at St. Clair prison, has never worked on a road crew.

      In addition to his clerk job in the cleaning supplies factory, he's worked at the printing plant at Kilby Prison.

      "I begged and fought to get a job," he said.

      Without it, Dexter said, he would have to depend on his 84-year-old mother for money for extras, like stamps, snacks, comfortable shoes and his medical co-pays.

      His condition has left him with "background pain" on the best of days. Still, he tries not to miss work.

      "None of us are really happy about the work that we do for a quarter an hour," Dexter said. "But the alternative of being up in the camp for the day and not having any spending money is worse." Prisons' reliance on inmate labor undercuts care, critics say.

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