“In a given year, some 3,500 unpaid prisoners make up Florida’s shadow economy. State road crews and “community work squads” incarcerated by the Department of Corrections subsidize local governments from the Panhandle to Miami-Dade: powering waste and public works departments, grooming cemeteries and school grounds, maintaining and constructing buildings, treating sewage and collecting trash.”
Take Action: Stop Forced Labor of Detainees
It’s a massive finding out of an investigative report by the Florida Times-Union. The report looked at the systemic use of prisoners as cheap or free labor across the state. The only alternative these prisoner have to working for free is often solitary confinement.
These “community work squads” perform all types of work. They have logged 17.7 million hours in the last five fiscal years. The Department of Corrections estimates the value of this labor at around $147.5 million. However, the Florida Times-Union says the real value is likely double or triple that once actual wages and benefits are factored in.
Key findings from the Florida Times-Union investigation include:
Prisoners are forced to work. In at least some instances, that includes those who have medical issues. Those who don’t go out with their squads receive a disciplinary report, which can lead to up to 60 days in confinement and the loss of time earned off their sentences. Florida corrections officers write an average of 1,750 disciplinary reports per year for “refusing to work.”
Eleven prisoners from work camps — nine of them who had been on squads that went outside the gate — said they did not get enough food to sustain them through a full shift of hard labor. They complained of excessive heat in the summer and all but one said they were often made to spread the filth of their uniforms onto their beds before showering, posing health risks.
Community and Department of Transportation work squads are unpaid, and whatever money prisoners have on their own is subject to fines and fees associated with the private vendors running their bank accounts. Work squads assignments don’t lead to vocational degrees or certificates to help prepare former prisoners to re-enter society.
Florida isn’t alone in its reliance on prisoner labor. It’s one of a few US states that use unpaid prison labor. “All of them are Southern and have disproportionately black prison populations,” notes the Florida Times-Union. Forty-three percent of men on “community work squads” are black.
Prisoners are also not protected by federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines. “You can tell an incarcerated worker to go down in this bog that you know has an alligator in it, or you can make them clear brush that has snakes in it,” explained Jeremiah Tattersall from AFL-CIO. “A free worker might call their supervisor and file a complaint. Those options aren’t there for incarcerated workers.”
And it’s not just local county and municipal agencies that are sourcing prisoners from the Department of Corrections. State departments, colleges and universities use a “$2 work squad contract.” The term is a reference to the hourly rate they will pay back to the Department of Corrections for giving them prisoners to work. The prisoners performing the work don’t see any of this money.
The University of Florida uses more prison labor than any other college in the state. The university has used 156,684 hours of state prison labor on the university’s agricultural centers since 2015.
Susan Evans, the university’s vice president and chief of staff, said, “The inmates provide an important service to the university while allowing us to save significant dollars that can be used instead for academic and student support programs.”
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