This is the final part in a three-part blog series authored by Polaris to introduce the issue. The first two blogs focused on how human trafficking and prison labor are connected and the different types of prison labor that exist.
As COVID-19 spreads across the United States, every state and the federal government have declared an emergency which allows for resources to be directed toward the fight against the virus. One human resource that is being utilized is incarcerated individuals. Incarcerated workers are being put to work manufacturing protective equipment, disinfecting cleaning supplies, manufacturing hand sanitizer, and digging mass graves. However, detention facilities (jails, prisons, and immigration detention facilities) are particularly vulnerable to the risks of COVID-19 as social distancing policies cannot be followed due to the crowded environment that exists behind bars. Already we are seeing concentrations of COVID-19 cases in jails and prisons across the country. A single Ohio prison has become a top hot spot for the United States, with 1,950 inmates — 78 percent of its population — testing positive for the virus.
Incarcerated people do not have a constitutional right to refuse to work and the federal government and most states mandate that incarcerated individuals work unless medically unable. Polaris discussed in detail the types of force and coercion that exist in the current prison labor system in their first blog on how human trafficking and prison labor are connected. Inmates are also reporting during this crisis that they are threatened with disciplinary action if they refuse to work even if they are sick themselves and may risk getting others sick. Incarcerated individuals also lack any control over their working conditions. Incarcerated workers are not considered “employees” in the traditional and legal sense and therefore are not protected by the Equal Pay Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the National Labor Relations Act, and U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
While incarcerated individuals are working to make masks, gowns, and other protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers, they are without many of the safety precautions they themselves need to keep from getting sick. On April 3rd, the Arkansas Department of Corrections posted a picture of incarcerated workers making masks while sitting next to one another against the social distancing guidelines laid out by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). A video was posted on April 7 from an Arizona facility showing incarcerated women making masks also in close proximity with others. At least in this video the women were given masks. Some incarcerated individuals have reported not being given any protective equipment such as masks or gloves while they work. In New York, incarcerated individuals are assisting with the bottling and distribution of 100,000 gallons of hand sanitizer a week that they themselves are unable to use as many jails and prisons treat hand sanitizer as contraband due to its alcohol content. Due to the inability to use hand sanitizer and the fact that broken sinks and shortages of soap are common in prisons and jails, it becomes impossible for incarcerated people to follow basic public health guidelines.
Workers are also facing increasing pressure and force to work longer hours for still minimum amounts of money. Polaris discussed in the second blog the average wages that incarcerated individuals earn which tends to be $0.14-0.63 for institutional jobs (cooking, cleaning, etc.) and $0.33-1.41 for industrial jobs (working for a state or federal correctional industry). In Pennsylvania, some prisoners are now working 12 hours a day, six day a week to produce masks, soap, medical gowns, and disinfectant. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, the standard work week for an incarcerated worker is six hours a day, five days a week. In New York, inmates working to bottle hand sanitizer and make other protective equipment make on average $0.65 an hour (wages start at $0.16 an hour). Even if the incarcerated individual qualifies for productivity bonuses they will still only earn a maximum of $1.30 an hour while also potentially compromising their health and safety by working in close proximity with others and without protective equipment. Texas is not paying incarcerated workers anything for their work producing face masks. The highest salary for incarcerated individuals is for those at Rikers Island who are digging mass graves for $6 an hour.
While the COVID-19 crisis is an immediate and present danger that provokes a quick response, it does highlight the vulnerabilities and inequalities that exist especially for those individuals working while incarcerated. Prisons and jails are incredibly vulnerable to a communicable disease such as COVID-19, but current measures by state and federal governments have exacerbated the issue instead of decreasing it. While releases of nonviolent, low level, and vulnerable incarcerated individuals such as those with preexisting conditions, those who are pregnant, or those who are older, has been championed by public health officials, politicians from both sides of the aisle, and even correctional officer unions have been slow to action. In fact, six chronically ill Oakdale inmates sued for their release claiming in a class-action lawsuit that the authorities were unable to manage an outbreak that was “ravaging the facility”.
The COVID-19 crisis also highlights the need for more protections for incarcerated workers. These individuals should be covered by OSHA and other labor laws. Safety and health conditions for incarcerated individuals should be evaluated and in line with guidelines and recommendations laid out by the Centers for Disease Control.
Wage increases for incarcerated workers must also be a priority as state and local governments respond to the crisis. As the federal government disburses hundreds of millions of dollars to local jurisdictions through the CARES Act, incarcerated workers who are making hand sanitizer, PPE, and doing other essential, lifesaving work should be paid a prevailing wage for their work. The COVID-19 crisis is a critical reminder of how we are all one community, dependent on one another for our health and wellbeing. Let’s not forget those who are incarcerated.