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Prison Labor Is on the Frontlines of the COVID-19 Pandemic

States like California, New York, and Arizona have relied on prisoners to continue working, with little pay and in precarious conditions, during the coronavirus pandemic.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

As record-shattering wildfires rage throughout California, the state’s incarcerated population is doing the backbreaking work at the front lines. They plow fire lines and battle blazes, for $1 an hour, plus reduced prison time—a program that saves the state tens of millions of dollars annually. While the state’s prison authority promotes the program as a cost-saving measure that benefits prisoners, criminal justice advocates have long said the program exploits incarcerated labor while offering them little in return.

But California’s prison firefighters are just one example of the essential work prisoners are doing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Roughly half of the 1.4 million people in state and federal prisons work behind bars, and many of them are doing the jobs that are keeping prisons afloat during the pandemic—mopping, serving food, and sanitizing cells. Another 6 percent of incarcerated people work in state-run prison industries, which have undergone a nationwide shift to supplying government agencies with essentials to battle the coronavirus, like hand sanitizer and protective gear. 

Meanwhile, many of these same prisoners often lack protective equipment and face widespread prison lockdowns. According to data collected by the University of California, Los Angeles, COVID-19 has killed more than 1,000 people behind bars nationwide and infected over 140,000.

In July, Adnan Khan, a formerly incarcerated person who heads Re:Store Justice, a criminal justice reform organization, shared audio on Twitter of a man in San Quentin State Prison who said he was forced as part of a “strike team” to clean hospital areas of fellow prisoners infected with COVID-19. The man said he later tested positive for the disease.

“I’m being treated as though I’m not a person, I’m not a human being,” he said during a phone call with Khan. “That’s how you treated slaves.” 

In Arizona, the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry has housed roughly 150 women from the Perryville Prison at a temporary labor camp at a farm since March, helping to ensure a “stable supply of eggs” while protecting the general prison population from COVID-19. Since then 28 women stationed at the farm tested positive—nearly half of the confirmed cases at Perryville. All have since recovered, according to the corrections department. Meanwhile, in-person visitations have been suspended at all the state’s prisons for over six months. 

“We have gotten reports of the AC not working for many of these working stations for months,” Isis Gil, development director of Puente Human Rights Movement, said about the farm, which is operated by Hickman’s Family Farms, one of the largest egg producers in the United States. Despite facing Arizona’s over 110-degree summer weather and acrid fumes on the farm, the incarcerated women did not want to return to a prison facing lockdown conditions, said Gil. 

“They are just kind of desperate for anything that can give you an outside feeling,” Gil added. “Frustration, boredom, exhaustion of being inside of the prison, inside of those four walls and not having anything to do.” 

Hickman’s Family Farms did not respond to a request for comment. The corrections department said the prisoners at Hickman’s are housed “with all necessary accommodations, including air conditioning, and reasonable security measures.” 

“If they no longer want to continue working there, they may return to the Perryville Prison and seek different employment opportunities,” the department said in a statement, adding that the women are provided with two masks and undergo medical monitoring. 

Over 40 states have used prisoners to make hand sanitizer and protective equipment, according to Worth Rises, which works to end profiteering in the prison system. Meanwhile, incarcerated people in the federal prison industry, UNICOR, are manufacturing essential products for the Department of Defense. 

Megan French-Marcelin, director of campaigns at Worth Rises, said the pandemic has highlighted the dependence on incarcerated labor throughout the country. She points to data her organization obtained showing that nearly every municipality in New York State has bought pandemic-related products made by prisoners. “We have tacitly agreed to slave labor, upon which we all benefit,” French-Marcelin said.

I’m being treated as though I’m not a person, I’m not a human being.

Incarcerated man San Quentin State Prison

In March, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo faced intense criticism for unveiling a prison-manufactured hand sanitizer program, while those same prisoners were barred from using the product because of the alcohol content. Cuomo touted the hand sanitizer’s “floral bouquet” and cost-effective pricing, without mentioning that incarcerated people would be bottling the gel for far below the state’s minimum wage. New York has since lifted its ban on hand sanitizer in prison, but advocates say access to antibacterial products—along with access to masks and the ability to socially distance— is severely lacking. 

Roughly 3,000 prisoners are working in California’s prison industries. The state has approved overtime wages—up $1.50 an hour—but those wages can be garnished by 40 percent for victim compensations or parole violation fines. 

In California, the massive wildfires combined with the pandemic have exposed how essential prison labor is to the state. Nearly 1,900 prisoners worked fighting fires pre-pandemic, but California is struggling to cope with 1,350 incarcerated firefighters because of  coronavirus-related early releases and scheduled releases. 

Cheap prisoner labor saves prisons so much in labor costs that authorities have in some cases called for keeping people imprisoned to maintain a cheap labor pool. In 2017, a Louisiana sheriff said sentencing reform would release “good ones” including those that “we use every day to wash cars, to change oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchens, to do all that where we save money.” 

California’s prison firefighter program, the largest in the nation, has also incentivized incarceration. As part of a court-ordered process to reduce the state’s chronically overcrowded prison population, the office of then-Attorney General Kamala Harris argued against expanding sentence reduction credits for many working nonviolent offenders. Harris’s office said in 2014 that the expanded program would undermine the fire camps, which offers the “good time” credits, because incarcerated people would choose other jobs “rather than endure strenuous physical activities and risk injury in fire camps.”  A three-judge panel ultimately ordered California to expand the credits as long as the expansion did not deplete the firefighting crews.

Proponents for prison work programs say labor during incarceration will help smooth the transition back into society by teaching skills. “We believe in second chances and our goal is to provide real-world job skills, good work habits, basic education, and job support in the community so that when a person is released from prison they never return,” the California Prison Industry Authority, California’s prison industry, said in a statement. 

But prison reform advocates say intensive skill-based programs behind bars are few and far between and in some cases incarcerated people are prohibited from working the same jobs they had inside prison. 

Until mid-September, California prison firefighters were unable to obtain the certification to become a firefighter once released from prison, because of their criminal record. Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation giving courts the discretion to expunge some formerly incarcerated firefighters’ criminal records, but many felony charges are still excluded. 

That includes Rasheed Stanley-Lockheart, who served 18 years in prison for an armed robbery where he stole $80. Stanley-Lockheart said he found transformative work on a fire crew at San Quentin State Prison for over two years. 

“They know I will willingly volunteer for this job, this life-changing opportunity. They’ll make whatever adjustments they have to make for you to go out there with a violent felony [while incarcerated],” said Stanley-Lockheart, who now works for Planting Justice, an Oakland-based food justice program. “But what happens when I’m released?”

Prison reform advocates have long sought changes to the incarcerated labor system, saying that people behind bars should be paid prevailing wages and granted other protections afforded to workers outside prison, including the right to unionize. In 2018 prisoners across the country launched a strike, including work stoppages, that in part sought to raise their wages and abolish the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery and indentured servitude except “as punishment for a crime.” 

According to David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, the labor system is ripe for abuse. Even during a pandemic prisoners may face punishment for refusing to work a job they previously volunteered for, he said.

“The inherently coercive nature of the prison environment means that there is very little that is truly voluntary in prison,” he said. “So we just have to be extra careful to make sure that there is no coercion.”

Stanley-Lockheart echoed the sentiment of reform advocates who say the end goal of incarcerated work should be to help incarcerated people transition back into society, not exploit a cheap labor pool to save prisons hundreds of millions of dollars. That means equal pay, worker protections, and a real pathway to employment after release. “The incarcerated firefighter population wants to do this job,” he said. “But what needs to also happen is we need to have equality in pay for putting our lives on the line.”