A local government stops using prison labor, saying it’s morally wrong

Photo by Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, Gainesville Chapter

(UPDATED)

Florida’s Department of Corrections has nearly 600 “work squad” agreements with  municipalities, organizations and colleges across the country to use prison labor, but no longer in Gainesville and Alachua County – local officials voted to end the contracts last week.

Gainesville City Commissioner Gail Johnson says the issue has been a topic of conversation since she joined the commission  last spring, but she had already formed a negative opinion about paying for prison labor, she says, after reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, the 2010 best-seller that discusses the issues faced by black American men and mass incarceration.

“I think that it is our moral duty as people and as leaders to take a stand against what is wrong, even if it is supposedly legal,” she told the Phoenix. “Because we understand that just because it’s legal doesn’t mean that it’s right. And it’s not right for us to profit off the labor of incarcerated people.”

The Gainesville City Commission voted 5-1 to end its contracts with the Florida Department of Corrections, and the Alachua County Commission voted unanimously last week to end its road and bridge labor contract with the state corrections department.

The grassroots campaign has been led by the Gainesville chapter of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, which decided last fall to advocate for local officials to stop using prison labor.

“Right off the bat, we showed up at a City Commission meeting that had a public comment portion and we expressed our desire to pursue to have our community cut ties with the state corrections department, and they responded to it immediately and positively,” said Karen Smith, Secretary of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee’s Gainesville chapter.

Activists now say their next target is the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ partnership with the Florida Department of Corrections.

According to state corrections officials, there were more than 570 separate contracts among local governments, organizations and colleges at the end of 2018. Work squads perform various duties including grounds maintenance, litter removal, debris clean-up, building maintenance, painting, and construction projects.

In nearly all cases, prison inmates don’t make any money working in government-run facilities. That’s considered legal because of a clause in the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery but allowed those convicted of a crime to be forced to work for free.

Among those who do get paid include canteen operators, barbers and shoe shine and car wash workers. Except for inmate canteen workers who can be paid up to $75 per month, inmates are paid up 50 dollars per month for these services, according to a Dept. of Corrections spokesman.

There are approximately 1,800 inmates working in PRIDE Enterprises, which the Legislature founded in 1981. It operates 41 training centers that work with inmates in 29 state correctional facilities throughout the state. Those inmates make between 20 to 55 cents per hour, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Working through PRIDE, prisoners create driver licenses, retread tires, repair vehicles, sew clothing, and build or assemble beds, furniture, and fencing – all for pennies-per-hour wages.

Manderfield adds that the work squads offer inmates important job skills and provide “valuable assistance to the state and local communities and significant cost savings to Florida taxpayers.”

Gainesville had three separate contracts with the state corrections department which will soon be terminated.

“We wanted to see our governments cut ties not only with this abusive and exploitative agency, but also to invest in our community with those jobs and give them to people who can unionize and have rights and can receive benefits — who they have to treat as workers with rights,” says Smith from the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.

Staffers with the city of Gainesville said last week that the decision to end inmate labor will cost $654,000 per year. In Alachua County, it will cost $500,000 the rest of this fiscal year, and $1 million next year to pay 20 workers to perform the same workload.

A number of state agencies currently have contracts with the state corrections department to employ prison labor, including the attorney general’s office, the Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Secretary of State’s office. Large Florida cities with contracts for prison labor include Orlando, West Palm Beach, St. Petersburg and Tallahassee.

Backing away from prison labor contracts is part of nationwide movement among activists to demand human rights for incarcerated people.

The state corrections department’s Patrick Manderfield says that the state doesn’t profit off contracts for inmate work squads.

“Their payment covers the cost of transportation, staff supervision, safety equipment and communication devices,” he said.

(The original version of this story failed to note the various duties that prisoner work squads perform, and the pay that they receive).

Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry has spent the past 18 years covering news and politics in the Sunshine State, most recently with FloridaPolitics.com. He worked for five years as the political editor of Creative Loafing in Tampa, and before that he was the assistant news director at WMNF radio, where he served as creator/anchor/producer of the hour-long WMNF Evening News. A San Francisco native, Mitch began his career at KPFA Radio in Berkeley in the 1990's.

1 COMMENT

  1. The average cost for incarcerating one inmate per year is around $32k. That’s a decent base salary for most hard working people. It seems as though allowing an inmate to work and contribute to their housing, food and security costs would give them a sense of pride and accomplishment. Not to mention it gives them time outside of retention walls and a feeling of purpose. It could also provide hope for a brighter future.
    Let them work.

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