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As COVID-19 Ravages Florida, Incarcerated People Are Still Doing The State’s Hard Outdoor Labor

Despite risks to incarcerated people and the public, Florida is sending prisoners to perform hard labor.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo by Mike Simons/AFP via Getty Images.

Brenda Mills and her husband assumed it would be a long time before they were able to visit their son in prison again. Thanks to the novel coronavirus outbreak, the state of Florida, like most others, has suspended all in-person prison visits. Mills’s 24-year-old son is incarcerated at Putnam Correctional Institution, a minimum-security prison in East Palatka, a small city that sits between Gainesville and St. Augustine. Mills asked that her son not be named out of fear of retaliation inside the prison system.

But on March 17, as Mills’s husband drove on State Road 16 through the city of St. Augustine, he saw a man clearing debris “a few blocks” from a McDonald’s near the exit to I-95.

“My husband sees this man looking at him and making a strange face,” Mills told The Appeal. “And it happened to be our son.”

With nearly 95,000 prisoners, Florida has the third-highest state prison population in the country, and it is one of numerous southern states that rely on unpaid prison labor for tasks including road maintenance, sewage treatment, and moving services for government buildings. In May, the Florida Times-Union reported that 3,500 unpaid prison laborers subsidize governments in virtually all of the state’s 67 counties every year. Florida’s Department of Corrections (DOC) operates 34 “work camps” in which prisoners are sent out daily in packed buses to perform hard manual labor in unrelenting heat, typically with few or no labor protections. 

Although these incarcerated workers are unpaid, the agencies contracting them out pay fees to the DOC, which means that the practice is a vital source of funding for many Florida prisons. According to the Times-Union, more than 100 state agencies pay the DOC $2 per hour per person to use prisoners for labor. Critics have long likened the practice to modern-day slavery.

But with COVID-19 ravaging both Florida and the nation’s prison systems, reformers and the families of the incarcerated say they’re terrified that prison laborers could carry the virus into the state’s crowded, unsanitary prison system, where COVID-19 is spreading rapidly. Prison laborers could also bring the coronavirus into the communities in which they’re working. 

“I mean, this is not safe for the people in prison—or for the surrounding communities,” Alison Wilkey, director of public policy at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Prisoner Reentry Institute, told The Appeal. She added: “Using people in prison for low-paid labor is a horrific practice in normal circumstances—it really is akin to slave labor. But there’s a very particular risk in this situation where there’s a highly infectious virus circulating.”

Florida is already struggling to contain the coronavirus: as of April 7, the state reported nearly 15,000 cases of COVID-19, the seventh-highest total in the country. While the DOC says nearly 30 corrections staff members have contracted COVID-19, the department said as of April 5 only two incarcerated people had been stricken with the virus in any part of the state. As of April 7, St. John’s County, the area where Mills says her son was working, reported 154 COVID-19 cases.

Other states have also been criticized for sending imprisoned people to work during the outbreak. In New York City, the current epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., the Department of Correction is offering incarcerated people at the Rikers Island jail complex $6 per hour to dig mass graves on Hart Island, the largest public burial ground in America. Governor Andrew Cuomo was also criticized for using  prisoners to manufacture hand sanitizer despite the fact that until last month they could not  possess the product because it contains alcohol.

Florida has limited some prison labor practices during the outbreak, but the DOC has so far declined to explain what, if any, precautions have been taken to ensure the health or safety of workers during the pandemic. On March 17, the department issued a press release stating that “outside inmate work squads have been restricted” during the crisis —with the exception of incarcerated people sent to perform road and highway maintenance for the state Department of Transportation. From 2015 to 2019, the DOT  reportedly paid the state corrections department $67 million for prison workers.

The Appeal asked the DOC to provide any further information regarding restrictions that have been put in place to limit outside work by incarcerated people or protect prisoners sent out into infected areas to perform hard labor. But both the DOC and the DOT did not provide any statements or information about prison labor practices in the COVID-19 era, despite multiple calls, texts, and emails from The Appeal sent over the course of a week.

The University of Florida also relies heavily on unpaid prison workers to trim and cultivate its large network of state-owned farms. A university spokesperson told The Appeal that prison labor has “stopped at our farms in conjunction with UF’s no-visitors policy.” 

Although the state may believe that outdoor work is safe during the COVID-19 outbreak, critics and family members disagree. Wilkey noted that regardless of the work that is being performed, imprisoned people are still packed closely into buses or vans to travel inside or out of state prison systems.

“We need to be asking, ‘Is this something that you would think was OK if your family member was doing it?” Wilkey said. “Would you approve of this practice if it was your family member doing it? If the answer is no, then we shouldn’t be doing it, because these are people’s family members.”

Mills, too, says she waits by the phone now to hear about her son’s daily work schedule. Mills lives in Clay County, which, as of April 7, reported 88 positive COVID-19 cases. 

“Statewide, all visitation was stopped immediately when the virus hit,” she said. “ So what right does the DOC have to put these people at risk?”