Leaked Email Reveals Inmate Labor In Municipal Buildings

Dixon Correctional Institute_Louisiana_Overhead View” by PrisonInsight.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0

An anonymous source from the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) has leaked an email to Big Easy Magazine that details the planned use of inmate labor from Dixon Correctional Institute to clean “state owned buildings […] until further notice.”

The email is signed by a Timothy A. White whose name appears in government documents as the Director of LDH’s Safety/Security and Administrative Services.

The reason for this is, presumably, austerity as it usually is in these matters. Dixon Correctional Institute has been doing inmate contracting with LSU for years, which has previously drawn criticism from students, professors, and lawmakers. Some have described the practice as a form of slavery and a “loophole for the 13th Amendment.” The practice has continually received largely bipartisan support with the notable support of Democrat Governor John Bel Edwards, despite a few dissenting state lawmakers, like Rep. Edmond Jordan and Rep. Ted James.

“Some inmates that work full time while incarcerated don’t have enough money to get an apartment when released from prison,” James told the Times-Picayune in 2018. This is an issue – economic disenfranchisement is a major barrier for former inmates reintegrating into society. Despite this, the legal minimum wage for inmate labor in Louisiana is four cents an hour.

Another long-running practice of inmate labor is the use of inmates from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola at the State Capitol and Governor’s Mansion. They also do agricultural labor at Angola, a former slave plantation.

In October 2017, Steve Prator, sheriff of Caddo Parish, expressed concerns over releasing inmates that the jail used “every day to wash cars, change oil in the cars, to cook in the kitchen.” To this, the ACLU, the New York Times, and multiple other critics argued such an orientation is essentially slavery. Prator was re-elected to a sixth term in October 2019.

The accusation isn’t baseless. Louisiana’s Constitution bans slavery except when used as punishment for those convicted of a crime. This mirrors the language of the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which contains a punishment clause. This clause has come under fire in federal courts and Congress.

Oftentimes, judges have hesitated to call inmate labor a violation of the 13th Amendment because of the punishment clause, but these cases oftentimes conclude in 8th Amendment violations. This is rather curious because if involuntary servitude is a constitutional punishment under the 13th Amendment, but violates the 8th Amendment it’s immensely unclear what the Constitution even means.

Others have observed that because the primary motivation behind these programs is to save money, our economic system incentivizes criminalization for the purpose of labor in this framework. The words of Sheriff Prator and history affirm this concern. Scholars have found that the plantation economy in the South expanded in certain areas following the 13th Amendment’s ratification for this exact reason. Black Southerners were overcriminalized on minor offenses for the purpose of chain gang work on railroads and dangerous coal mining.

On Juneteenth, U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) revived the idea of a constitutional amendment to remove the punishment clause. Such an idea for a 28th Amendment has been suggested before. Given the clearly racialized history of inmate labor, the proposed amendment comes on the back of a wave of civil rights reforms spurred by the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.

Until then, legal advocates fight for the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to cover inmates. Some have argued that since inmates have become “essential workers” in many areas following the pandemic and west coast wildfires, they ought to be treated as such with fair wages. Inmates played a major production role in the production of essential PPE equipment during the pandemic and California inmates extensively helped in fighting the wildfires raging through the west coast.

Advocates of inmate labor will insist that inmates don’t have to take these jobs, not all of them can, and that the process is highly selective. If that is the case, it’s unclear why cases like Mikeska v. Collins or Watson v. Graves exist that show that courts have consistently upheld the practice of placing inmates in disciplinary confinement for refusing labor. In Watson, the court “found an FLSA employment relationship where a Louisiana sheriff farmed out jail inmates to his son-in-law’s construction company at a rate of $20 a day.” The court concluded in favor of the inmate here because of how egregiously clear it was that the prison’s arrangement with the private firm constituted excessive control than what precedent would allow. Such a decision is rare, but does work to display the dark underbelly of inmate labor.

In the eyes of prison officials and those who manage these labor contracts, the main concern about these programs is seemingly managing public fear of inmates. When asked about the LSU program, Tammy Millican, Executive Director of Facility & Property Oversight, said that the inmates only work in secluded areas and mainly on the weekends, “We’re very careful not to put them in the more populated areas of campus.” Lawmakers who support inmate labor have often expressively made clear to constituencies that all working inmates are non-violent offenders.

This sentiment is echoed in the leaked email we received that states in bold: “We ask that you please secure any personal belongings and place your trashcan outside the entrance of your office/cubicle prior to leaving daily.”

The dark irony in the practice of inmate labor is that all too often the inmates are framed as a phobic object when the true inhumanity lies in how society treats inmate workers. Additionally, it creates the notion that all inmates are violent, dangerous figures regardless of the crime they committed. When the question of slavery floats so closely to this behavior, it’s unclear what moral high ground there is to frame these inmates as the ones to be scared of. This rhetoric has become normalized in policy discussions of inmate labor and further prevents efforts to shift away from a punitive model of criminal justice to one that emphasizes rehabilitation and social integration.

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