Kia Jones says her brother would stop working at Louisiana’s meatpacking facilities if he could. Earlier this month, Jones’s brother sent her a video from the poultry plant where he’s working—and she says she was horrified at what she saw. The clip, which Jones shared with The Appeal, shows workers at the DG Foods poultry plant in Bastrop, a small town of about 10,000 people in Morehouse Parish, using a dirty bathroom with standing water on the floor, soap missing from dispensers, and seats ripped from toilets and thrown onto the floor.
But Jones’s brother—who she asked to not be named out of fear that prison guards would retaliate against him—can’t quit. He’s imprisoned at the Ouachita Parish sheriff’s office Transitional Work Program facility in Monroe; every day, Jones says, her brother is bused about 25 miles north to the DG Foods facility, where he works an eight-hour shift alongside members of the public.
“This is where they’ve got us working during the COVID-coronavirus spread,” he says in the video.
Despite the fact that prison visitation and most visits for jails have been halted statewide during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ouachita is one of several Louisiana parishes that has not shut down its work-release program.
“He’s there for eight hours a day cutting up chickens,” Jones told The Appeal. “These people are forced to work—if he complains, they might send him back to regular jail. He might lose his good-time credit.”
In an email statement to The Appeal, Glenn Springfield, a Ouachita Parish sheriff’s office spokesperson, said the Transitional Work Program sends an “average of 40 to 44” people per day to various jobs. Springfield confirmed that two Transitional Work Program prisoners are working at DG Foods. To limit the virus’s spread, he said, workers sent to DG Foods are housed in the same dormitory, where they are given hand sanitizer before meals and after work shifts, and transported in buses that are “sanitized” daily. Springfield also said masks are provided to workers.
But Jones said the sheriff’s office isn’t doing enough to keep her brother safe.
“Some days they get masks, some days they don’t,” she said. “I work in healthcare—I had some friends who worked at hospitals help get him his own masks just so he could work.”
Jones’s concerns about her brother’s health are rooted in the troubled history of Louisiana prison labor during this pandemic. She said that until at least late March, her brother worked at the Foster Farms poultry plant in Farmerville. On March 26, two civilian workers at the plant tested positive for the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. In response to the positive tests, the Ouachita and Union Parish sheriff’s offices announced that they would temporarily stop sending imprisoned workers to Foster Farms. Also on March 26, Union Parish also announced it isolated five people imprisoned at its facilities who’d worked at the plant. (Foster Farms, which has experienced coronavirus outbreaks at multiple facilities around the nation, did not respond to a request for comment from The Appeal. In a statement posted on its website, Foster Farms said “we have begun daily Wellness Checks—monitoring employees for fever and other symptoms of COVID-19—to reduce the possibility of an infected individual entering our plants and offices. Protective face cloths are now mandatory for plant employees.”)
“We quit sending workers to Foster Farms when the virus was discovered,” Springfield said. “We have not sent any there since then and none are working there now.”
But many Louisiana sheriffs have kept their work programs active. As The Appeal reported last month, Bradford Skinner, one laborer housed at the East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s office work-release facility, asked for medical care when he said he developed flu-like symptoms. The next day, an East Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputy and two guards who work for prison contractor Louisiana Workforce were filmed choking Skinner until he seemingly lost consciousness. Earlier, while COVID-19 swept across Louisiana, Skinner had been working at a Baton Rouge Wendy’s.
The Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections did not respond to requests from The Appeal to comment on any limits they’ve imposed on work-release programs during the pandemic.
Since coronavirus began spreading more widely in March, public health experts and criminal legal reform advocates have warned that prisons would foster community spread and that social distancing is impossible in carceral environments. Indeed, because of the people who have traveled to and from the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Tennessee, Trousdale County now has one of the highest per-capita coronavirus infection rates in America.
Social distancing is also nearly impossible at the nation’s meatpacking facilities, where often low-paid workers labor in close proximity to one another. As of May 27, 43 of the 50 largest coronavirus clusters in America were tied to either meatpacking or prison facilities, according to the New York Times.
Jones said she’s worried that as civilian workers continue to call in sick around the country or skip work to avoid infection, prisoners may be stuck working meatpacking jobs to curtail a meat shortage nationwide.
In the video her brother shared, he walks through a DG Foods bathroom. “No soap,” he says as he presses an empty dispenser. Standing in a stall with standing water, broken toilets and empty toilet-paper rolls, he adds: “No tissue.”
In an email statement to The Appeal, Michael Moss, DG Foods’s corporate safety manager, said the video “is not an accurate portrayal of our facility.” He added that the company has “addressed and identified issues in our restrooms” and that the Bastrop facility is cleaned and sanitized daily according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. And he confirmed that prisoner and civilian workers labor together at the plant.
“As the COVID-19 virus continues to have a substantial impact on all our communities and families,” Moss said, “we at DG Foods want to assure our neighbors that we are taking all necessary steps to preserve the health and safety of all consumers, customers, and employees as we continue operations to provide products into our nation’s food supply.”
As of press time, DG Foods has not reported any COVID-19 cases among its employees. But sheriffs have begun debating when they can send people back to work at the Foster Farms plant. Union Parish Sheriff Dusty Gates told The Appeal that his parish is still deciding when its incarcerated laborers can return to Foster Farms “on a limited basis.”
“We are in talks with Foster Farms concerning an appropriate time and conditions for their return,” Gates said.