Just because a County Commissioner won’t call it slavery, doesn’t mean it isn’t…
[This FAQ document is a work in progress, as part of an organizing collaboration which has grown out of #OperationPUSH. You can TAKE ACTION here. Please share your suggestions on the FAQ at GainesvilleIWOC@gmail.com]
1.What is prison slavery?
(n.) bondage, servitude, human-trafficking and/or unpaid labor associated with the modern prison system. When the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution ended chattel slavery, it included an exception clause for prisoners which indicated that people convicted of crimes could still be subjected to state-sanctioned slavery (i.e. confinement and forced labor.)
2.Why does this slavery still exist?
The State of Florida also views state-run slave labor as justified by criminal convictions, similar to how it views state executions as justified by criminal convictions, or how it has viewed disenfranchisement as justified by criminal convictions (and still does for certain convictions). The State presents prison labor as part of rehabilitation, but in reality it is just utilized as a cost-saving measure for government agencies, universities and private companies who enter into the contracts. Rehabilitation involves dignity and respect. These contracts are simply exploitation of desperate and vulnerable people, many who were dragged into the criminal justice system as youth as a result of poverty, lack of basic services and ineffective legal council.
While Florida doesn’t have an explicit “exception clause” in its constitution, there is language in State Statutes which can and should be changed to address the matter of prison slavery. For example Ch. 946 which excludes working prisoners from basic labor protections, or Ch. 787 which excludes prisoners from human trafficking protections.
Last year, the State of Colorado set an example by passing a constitutional amendment to remove the slavery exception clause, which can and should be applied to prisoners.
Even Wal-Mart has a pledge to distance the company from the “forced or prison labor.”
“Prison jobs are still entirely unpaid in five states, except for in rare exceptions—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and Texas—all of which dubiously rank in the top 10 in state imprisonment rates per 100,000 residents.” Source
3. Don’t the prisoners like going outside?
Yes, and they should be able to. But prisons are supposed to be about rehabilitation and public safety, not cost-saving tools for government agencies, universities or private companies. The fact that prisoners prefer doing work to being warehoused is not evidence that they love the work assignments but instead speaks to how bad things are behind those walls. People in prison are desperate to just feel like a human being again. Stealing their labor doesn’t accomplish that, even though it’s nice outside.
4. Aren’t the jobs given on a volunteer basis?
Prisoners can and often do request transfers to the lower security, smaller facilities which house the state’s convict leasing program, but the decision to move is not theirs, just as the decision to call in sick or file a workers compensation complaint does not exist. Work orders are mandatory and enforceable by physical punishment and psychological torture.
5. Does this cost the City or County?
Yes. Most all FDOC contracts require paying the cost of overseers. This alone amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars locally, in essence subsidizing the prison system rather than paying free workers. In the case of the FDOT road work contracts with FDOC, one state agency pays the other a per-hour rate, per prisoner, but the prisoners see none of this money. FDOT paid FDOC over 19 million last year alone. Florida taxpayers cover the 2.9 billion it takes yearly to keep FDOC running and then pay again on the local level for these contracts.
6. What about the skills they learn at work?
Training is negligible. Though the state uses prisoners for jobs involving skilled trades, such as painting, plumbing, building maintenance, etc., the prison laborers are used primarily for grunt work, and what training exists is generally regarded as pitiful. One former prisoners explains, “I received a cabinet making certification and was even made a teacher’s aide. I couldn’t build you a cabinet to save my life. I learned nothing. The “skills” are just something that looks good on paper for the DOC.” Even if skills were to be learned, prisoners are often denied the chance to put them to use once released because of felony convictions. Like the prisoners in CA who are used to fight fires but will never be allowed to work as firefighters in our world.
7. Don’t the prisoners earn time off their sentence in exchange for their labor?
Prisoners get “good time” off their sentence regardless of work. Current policy mandates doing 85% of a sentence. Many prison slaves enter work camps after maxing out their good time. So they receive no compensation.
8. Shouldn’t prisoners be required to work to pay off the cost of housing and feeding them?
The work done by prisoners through FDOC does not offset the cost of their food and housing. As it stands, people imprisoned in FDOC are not served enough calories in a day, let alone useful calories, to sustain an adult and the food if oftentimes spoiled or not fit for human consumption. Prisoners already must supplement the poor nutrition provided by FDOC with commissary items. Because they earn no money, they must hustle or depend on family for these supplemental items they are overcharged for, sometimes as much as five times what we pay out here. Prisoners with outside work assignments rely even more so on commissary food because they are only given a small bag lunch while working all day. At Gainesville Work Camp, officers are notorious for keeping the commissary closed as punishment and these workers go hungry as a result.
9. How will the city/county get this work done without prison labor? Won’t it cost the taxpayers more money?
Just like the majority of the work that happens in our city, from street cleaners to accountants, we will pay people to do it. Why reserve a handful of positions for slave labor when we can take a sweeping moral stand against this dehumanizing practice?
10. But they did the crime, isn’t this just part of their punishment?
No. These labor contracts are a relic from our ugly past. It is the same convict leasing that sustained the southern economies after the 13th Amendment limited slavery to people convicted of crimes in 1865. FDOC was created just a few years later in 1868 to manage the workers and the leases – the same year felon voter disenfranchisement was written into Florida’s constitution.
Being removed from society and abused daily is punishment, the labor they perform is just another way to exploit poor people and we, as the benefactors, are complicit. If these people are safe enough to work in our parks, playgrounds, and campuses then they are safe enough to live in our world.
11. How will this help the movement to change the prison system
Ending these contracts is one major step in removing moral authority from an inherently corrupt and abusive agency of the state. Other city, counties and agencies can follow this example, costing FDOC much more than money. This is part of a national prisoner-led movement, which FL prisoners have been very active in. Eroding public support and sympathy for this agency will make increasing space for needed changes to come to the surface, from daily improvements to conditions of confinement to fundamental, systemic changes in criminal justice policy.