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Florida Locales Vote to Stop Using Prison Labor—and Others May Follow

One commissioner wants the state Department of Corrections to show proof that his county isn’t just using prisoners as ‘slaves.’

Photo Illustration by Anagraph / Photo by Cavan Images/Getty Images

While serving time in prison in Central Florida, Mark (not his real name) worked as a recreation orderly, checking out sports and music equipment to other prisoners. He used his connections on the outside to bring in instruments for them.

“I’m a musician. That was part of my livelihood before I went in,” Mark told The Appeal. “I had a bunch of stuff donated from bands I know on the street.”

But, like all state prisoners in Florida, he was never paid for his work in prison.

“Everyone has a job and you get zero cents per hour,” said Mark, who was released in 2016 after serving roughly three years for a sexual battery charge he denies. “You get nothing. And when you get out, you have all these bills.”

Mark, who pays about $100 per month in court and probation fees, is now working with fellow activists from Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) to end what they call “slave labor.”

Last week, IWOC earned a significant victory: The city of Gainesville announced it would terminate its contract with the Florida Department of Corrections after a 5 to 1 vote of the city’s General Policy Committee, which includes Mayor Lauren Poe.

Prior to the vote at the Jan. 24 meeting, Mayor Poe thanked local advocates for shining “a light on a very serious issue.” Terminating the contract is a “moral imperative,” he said.

City Commissioner Gail Johnson echoed that sentiment. “We’re talking about human lives here and systemic issues that we take part in,” she said at the meeting. “I’m willing to take a stand for this.”

The Gainesville vote followed a related one earlier last week in Alachua County, Florida. The County Commission voted Jan. 22 to hire a full-time staff to perform work previously done by prison laborers after ending its contract with the state Department of Corrections in December. It was the first county in Florida to do so, according to IWOC.

We’re talking about human lives here … I’m willing to take a stand for this.

Gail Johnson Gainesville city commissioner

Alachua County Commissioner Ken Cornell told The Appeal that he hoped the commission’s vote sent a message. “It’s important that the Department of Corrections explain to the policymakers why using prison labor is a good use of taxpayer dollars,” he said. “But more importantly why it’s good for the prisoners who ultimately they’re responsible for.”

Work programs should result in job placements and reduced recidivism, said Cornell. “That’s the kind of data you would expect to see unless we’re just using them for slaves.”

County officials are also investigating whether the county could somehow pay incarcerated workers or their families the local government minimum wage, Cornell told The Appeal. Alachua County’s government minimum wage, mandated for certain contractors and subcontractors, is $13.50 per hour with health benefits and $15.60 per hour without health benefits.

“Many of the folks who are in jails and prisons, they have other dependents that they no longer can provide for,” Cornell said. “So I’m all for paying a fair wage for a fair hour of work.”

More than 500 public entities—mostly cities and counties—have arrangements with the Florida Department of Corrections to use incarcerated workers. The work crews are typically dispatched to do grounds maintenance and pick up litter in the community, according to Patrick Manderfield, press secretary for the department.

I’m all for paying a fair wage for a fair hour of work.

Ken Cornell Alachua county commissioner

The department does not “maintain data on job placement rates for former inmates,” according to Manderfield. The recidivism rate for those incarcerated at the work/forestry camps—where those who serve on community crews are held—is 23 percent versus 26 percent for prisoners at a “major correctional institution,” according to “Florida Prison Recidivism Report: Releases from 2010 to 2016,” which the department published in August 2018.

“Work squads allow inmates to learn valuable skills and attain job experience that can be utilized upon their release,” Manderfield said. “Inmates receive gain time [sentence reduction] in accordance with Florida law for each month they work diligently, participate in training, use time constructively, or otherwise engage in positive activities.”

Cornell hopes other counties and the University of Florida will examine their Department of Corrections contracts as well.

“We would like to see if we can be a catalyst for change throughout the state to help kind of fix this system of prison labor,” Cornell said. “Whenever county government either relies on or depends on free labor, it diminishes the value of paid labor.”

The University of Florida is “currently reviewing its program” with the department, according to Ruth Hohl Borger, assistant vice president of communications for the university’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “We wish to wait till that review is complete to discuss it publicly,” Borger said in an email.

I completely understand the concept of ‘Holy shit, I just want to get on the other side of that fence and if I got to go pick up garbage for three hours, hallelujah.’

Mark formerly incarcerated person

For some incarcerated workers, jobs offer a sense of purpose and a connection to the outside world—especially for those on work crews in the community, according to advocates.

“I completely understand the concept of ‘Holy shit, I just want to get on the other side of that fence and if I got to go pick up garbage for three hours, hallelujah,’” Mark told The Appeal. “What’s happening is so terrible that I will volunteer to be a slave for you if I can just have a few moments of reprieve from this nightmare that you’ve put me in.”

The choice should not be between denying prisoners jobs or denying them pay, said Amani Sawari, a spokesperson for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, one of the organizations behind last year’s national prison strike. Instead, she said, incarcerated workers should be fairly compensated for their work—with funds that can be used to pay for phone calls, emails, food, and hygiene products, or that can go toward housing costs once they are released.

“We never want to take away jobs from prisoners,” Sawari said. “Their time is valuable enough for us to pay for because we want to invest in them and invest into their future.”

In states where prisoners are paid, they typically earn pennies for their work, according to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative. In Louisiana, for instance, they earn 4 cents to $1 per hour, the report states. This system is not inevitable, Amy Fettig, deputy director for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told The Appeal. States can change their minimum wage and labor laws so they apply to incarcerated workers, she said.

“There’s no reason we should not treat prison workers the same way we treat workers on the outside,” Fettig said. “There’s nothing keeping us from doing that except for political will.”