Saturday, February 24

‘It’s inhumane’: how US prison work breaks bodies and minds for pennies | US prisons

yesuse Dokken, who is currently in a halfway house re-entry program in California, worked throughout her sentence in prison, even after she suffered a stroke and required extra help – a request for which was ignored.

“I couldn’t work and wasn’t supposed to, and I couldn’t even talk for a year,” said Dokken, 60.

During the pandemic, she was sent to work at a nearby men’s prison to make lunches, despite not feeling safe doing so and having medical issues that weren’t treated, such as anemia and requiring dentures she never received.

“With my medical issues, I shouldn’t have been made to work at all,” said Dokken. “The pay is so low, and what they make you do, it’s just not right.”

Among over 1.2 million Americans currently imprisoned in federal and state prisons, two out of three prisoners are forced to work while imprisoned. Often referred to as modern day slavery, the 13th amendment of the US constitution abolished slavery or involuntary servitude, but included an exception for prisoners.

Dokken’s pay started at 12 cents an hour and prisoners have the ability after positive reviews to increase their pay to 24 cents an hour, while they’re charged for full price to purchase basic necessities through the commissary.

Dokken explained that if prisoners refused to work, they would have privileges revoked and possibly get written up, which would follow them on their record to parole and probation.

Prior to working at the men’s prison, Dokken sewed clothing for the US military, and if she or other prisoners didn’t reach a productivity quota, 2,500 shorts a day, their pay of just a few cents an hour would be reduced.

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According to June 2022 report published by the American Civil Liberties Union, prison labor generates over $11bn annually, with more than $2bn generated from the production of goods, and over $9bn generated through prison maintenance services. Wages range on average from 13 cents to 52 cents per hour, but many prisoners are paid nothing at all, and their low wages are subject to various deductions.

Sarah Corley was incarcerated in Missouri and Georgia during periods over the past decade, where she worked while imprisoned without any pay in Georgia and with varying pay in Missouri from a few cents to a few dollars a day, depending on the work assignment.

An artist, Corley said she currently sells paintings for a few hundred dollars a piece, but while incarcerated, as one of her work assignments the correctional staff consistently commissioned her to do art work for their personal use without any compensation.

“I was painting very expensive paintings for the staff and they were getting it for free,” said Corley. “The compensation I got was pictures of work afterwards. Realizing how many pieces I just made for free, it was kind of mind blowing, because as most of them are a 16 by 20′ canvas, around 25 pieces. Today I sell them for between $400 to $600, and those officers just got them for free.”

Corley explained that it’s difficult working in prison while basic necessities sold through the prison commissary are so expensive and prisoners aren’t provided adequate food or basic products, making it hard to take care of yourself if you don’t have money already or someone outside is put money in your account. After work, Corley noted you have to fight for a shower or get in line, and don’t have any time to rest and recover from work in prison conditions.

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She also worked for the Department of Transportation while imprisoned, performing lawn care, picking up trash and roadkill, and spraying pesticides, all without any on the job training or adequate safety protections.

“Those are hard labor jobs, especially for women and not getting paid, they’re hard on your body. You’re carrying extremely heavy backpacks with chemicals in them, we were chopping down trees, stuff you wouldn’t voluntarily do. It’s a lot of work for no money,” she said.

The ACLU report said 76% of workers surveyed reported they were forced to work or faced additional punishment, 70% said they could not afford basic necessities on their prison labor wages, 70% reported receiving no formal job training and 64% reported concerns for their safety on the job.

Prison workers are also excluded from basic worker protections under federal and state laws, from workers’ rights in regards to safety protection, to union rights, or basic wage laws.

The type of work varies, from workers performing prison maintenance duties such as janitorial, food preparation, maintenance and repair, or essential services, to public works assignment such as construction, working for prison industries that produce goods and services to other government agencies through a state owned corporation, or producing goods and services for a private corporation.

James Finch first worked outside doing landscaping work while in prison in Florida about 10 years ago and claimed he was sent back to work after going to the infirmary for heat stress.

He later worked at a recycling plant while in prison, without supervision or training, and while working there started experiencing Bell’s Palsy symptoms, partial paralysis of his face, and didn’t seek proper treatment because it required taking a prison van to the hospital several times a week while shackled.

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“I never received a bit of pay for any of the work that I had done,” Finch said. “I thought my face would return to normal, in most cases it does, but mine didn’t.”

Aisha Northington, who was released in 2011 from prison in Georgia, worked throughout her sentence for no pay at all for whatever work was assigned.

“I’ve even seen some people who refused, and they were sent to solitary confinement,” said Northington. “It’s very disheartening. It needs to stop. It’s inhumane.”

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