Rapid response efforts to quell the spread of the novel coronavirus are revealing deeply embedded structural inefficiencies within countless institutions in American society—the criminal legal system being no different.
Earlier this month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the state’s new hand sanitizer would be manufactured by incarcerated laborers at New York’s Great Meadow Correctional Facility. The announcement made visible just one of the ways prison labor is typically used to address the needs of the public, and drew outrage both within New York and nationally. More often, though, labor performed by incarcerated laborers goes unnoticed and unreported, even as it supplies goods and services critical to the operation of our society, from license plates to laundry.
However, as the novel coronavirus pandemic makes labor performed by the incarcerated increasingly urgent and risky, it has also introduced the issue of prison labor into more public conversations, raising questions about how incarcerated laborers ought to be compensated both during and outside of national crises.
Pressed into emergency service during the pandemic
While the majority of prison jobs are those that allow facilities to save money on maintenance costs like groundskeeping or food service, manufacturing and externally-facing service jobs comprise a far smaller but robust portion of jobs. State correctional industries—business divisions of the state’s Department of Corrections that contract with other state agencies—assign jobs to about 6% of incarcerated workers. In these jobs, workers perform services or manufacture products with which the public is likely to interact, from church pews to license plates to furnishings at state universities. During the coronavirus pandemic, state correctional industry jobs are where prison labor plays the most significant role in helping to respond.
For example, shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) nationwide have led government agencies to look to prison labor to fill in the gaps. This week, incarcerated workers in Indiana began manufacturing both hand sanitizer as well as personal protective equipment, creating 200 masks and 200 gowns per day for use by law enforcement and first responders. This plan, crafted to conserve higher quality equipment for medical professionals, is also being employed in Tennessee and Washington. In Ohio, incarcerated workers are set to produce 2 million masks and over 40,000 gowns, though this equipment will only be used internally within the state’s correctional facilities.
In New York, as reported fatalities from the virus continue to rise, there is likely to be increased demand for incarcerated laborers separate from the manufacturing of hand sanitizer. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s team confirmed that, consistent with a preexisting pandemic influenza contingency plan, if the city runs out of refrigerator units to store unidentified bodies, they will be interred at Hart Island, a cemetery managed by the Department of Corrections. The Intercept reported that people incarcerated on Rikers Island will be offered $6 an hour to dig the graves.
New concerns for prison-based laundry services
While the novel coronavirus has generated new manufacturing and service demands, it has also brought other longstanding prison jobs into a new light, like the prison laundry services offered by state correctional industries in states like Oregon, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.
Hospitals, hotels, and universities are among the facilities that make use of prison laundry services, paying for incarcerated workers to transport, sort, wash, and dry hospital linens and lab coats, hotel bedding and towels, and tablecloths from university dining rooms. In Oregon, 75% of the laundry processed by the state’s correctional industry service is from hospitals alone.
Because there remain many unknowns about the communicability of the novel coronavirus, hospital laundry contracts now pose questions about potential risks for contamination. Officials at Oregon Correctional Enterprises (OCE) and Pennsylvania Correctional Industries (PCI) have told Prism that there are no plans to cease or change their laundry operations, citing the fact that the CDC has not yet recommended any changes in standards for the commercial laundry industry in the wake of the pandemic. The OCE, which services 33 customers in the health care industry, has also said that they have been increasing the frequency of cleaning and disinfecting their laundry facilities as well as continuing to require their employees to wear personal protective equipment including utility masks, which are of a lower quality than the increasingly scarce N95 marks used by medical professionals. Incarcerated workers in Oregon facilities will manufacture the equipment in-house, with OCE reporting plans to produce 30,000 masks.
John B. worked as a laundry lead at OCE 10 years ago.
“I did not go into working into the prison industrial complex until the end of my incarceration, and that was, I guess, for my personal needs because I did not have any support avenue for gaining funds at the time and the normal pay of working inside the prison was not very much,” said John.
As laundry lead, he says that it was his job to notify other incarcerated workers if they would be receiving potentially infected items. During past outbreaks, he says OCE was more vigilant in ensuring that launderers wore their protective masks and gloves and they required their lead launderers to let other staff know when potentially infected items were being taken in.
Poor working conditions and minimal protections
Even as incarcerated laborers provide vital products and services, they are routinely denied even the most basic workplace protections. There is no retirement age in prison, and people who are medically unfit or unable to work can be denied time off. Overtime for incarcerated workers is not guaranteed and courts have ruled that they are not entitled to protections against workplace discrimination.
The typical tools for demanding better working conditions—like strikes—are often unavailable to incarcerated laborers. While technically prison work is considered “voluntary,” in practice there are varying levels of choice offered to incarcerated people state by state. Incarcerated people who have chosen not to work, such as those who participated in the 2018 national prison strike, can face solitary confinement, physical abuse, loss of privileges, or write-ups about the refusal on their disciplinary record.
“I think that’s the epitome of slavery,” said Paul Wright, director of the Human Rights Defense Center and editor at Prison Legal News. “That you’re being forced to work. There’s no choice in it. I think that’s one of the things—anyone that’s defending prison slavery basically doesn’t get the slave part of it, and the key to that is the involuntary nature of it.”
Lack of competition from other businesses also disincentivizes correctional industries from improving poor working conditions or offering higher wages. In states like New York, governmental agencies are even required to procure services from correctional industries, which exempts them from any competitive bidding process.
Only incarcerated workers enrolled in a national Prison Industry Enhancement (PIE) program are eligible to earn local “prevailing wages,” but even then, up to 50% of these wages can be deducted to pay out fines or fees, unpaid court costs, or victim reparations funds. In 2017, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, the wages at these correctional industry jobs—some of the highest paying jobs that incarcerated workers can have—fell between 33 cents and $1.41 per hour, nationwide.
Longstanding critiques of prison labor suddenly more urgent
Advocates against the prison industrial complex have long raised concerns about the ways specific corporations and government vendors benefit from incarcerated labor. However, the current moment may be bringing the broader public into complicity with that system as incarcerated people are being asked to perform work that will have far-reaching health benefits, and their labor is increasingly visible. Criminal justice advocates are asking that this labor—and the humanity of those performing it—be recognized.
Paul Wright critiques both the use of prison labor and the ways that American society, particularly the media, refuses to condemn it with the same vigor that they denounce other human rights abuses.
“Right now if the governor of Wuhan province said they were going to use prison slave labor in China to make face masks or do whatever, how many people in the American media would think that’s a really good idea?” said Wright. “There’s always almost a suspension of disbelief as well as a suspension of moral outrage by the American media when it comes to the issue of prison slave labor. When it’s done here, it is perfectly acceptable but when done elsewhere, it’s a human rights violation.”
Wright says that hypocrisy is found even in federal law, which holds that importing prison-made goods is illegal but exporting them is not.
According to John, what incarcerated laborers hope for is a more concerted effort to help preserve their dignity through skill development that will serve them upon their release, and fair compensation.
“Now, I think, during this timeframe where the inmates are stepping up and working probably longer hours and under more dangerous environments, should they be compensated for that? Yes,” said John. “To what value? I don’t know if I could put a scale on that. The work that they do behind the scenes is monumental because it’s taking a lot of the stress off of the public.”
While John credits his work in OCE’s prison industries with helping restore some of the self-esteem he says incarceration took from him, he recognizes that was partially due to his choice to approach his work through the lens of personal development rather than just part of OCE’s business model. “If you go into it with the thought of ‘this is a skill that I can hone and I could have a livability with,’ then yes, it could be a good thing, but that’s not the thought process that’s put into the prison industries,” said John. “The prison industries are trying to provide one thing: It’s a service at a cheaper cost to save money. But it’s not used to build up the individual that’s providing the services, because they feel like they have an endless pool of people to fill positions. People should realize that those that have been incarcerated—they’re still people.”