A century later, unpaid prison labor continues to power Florida
In the spring of 1923, nearly a hundred witnesses testified to the horrific conditions at the state’s convict labor camps before a joint committee of the Florida Legislature.
Some 57 years after slavery had been abolished, a loophole in the 13th Amendment allowed the state to profit off forcing prisoners, most of them black, to work. The men lived in filth and had little to eat. They were arrested on frivolous or petty charges and made to pay off their debts working long hours in the sun. Those who didn’t faced whippings, beatings and torture. Guards could be brutal and needlessly vindictive.
The hearings spanned several days, generating headlines in newspapers across the country. Under the pressure, state lawmakers abolished convict leasing — or the sale of prisoners to private companies. Soon after that, they outlawed the strap as a form of punishment.
Yet, forced labor not only persisted, it remained integral to the Florida prison system. Whippings were replaced with solitary confinement. Convict leasing morphed into prison farms and chain gangs, and the state took custody of the inmates.
Eventually, chain gangs faded from memory, despite a brief revival in the mid-1990s. But to this day, state prisoners are forced to do much of the same work. In fact, they’ve only taken on more responsibilities. And while the whippings and beatings have largely ceased, reports of inhumane conditions at the convict labor camps linger.
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.
Earlier this year, nearly a century after the convict labor hearings of 1923, a different group of people testified, this time before the Alachua County Commission.
They described prisoners forced to work long hours in the Florida summer heat, running weed-eaters and busting up sidewalks. Rest breaks and food were hard to come by. Rules were bent or outright abused. Corrections officers could be cruel. Health and safety concerns were ignored.
Like the chain gangs of a century ago, the men on community work squads remain unpaid. Their only alternative to working: confinement. Work squads are made up of inmates nearing release, but they receive no vocational certificates, and have nothing to show for their work when they get out.
Cote Cunningham was based out of Lancaster Work Camp in Trenton. He said he was forced to mow, paint, weed and pick up trash on an outside grounds crew. Cunningham said prisoners in the camp endured coercion and poor conditions until they were “ground down to nothing,” then released with no work skills applicable in the outside world.
“You’re thrown back into society and you’re supposed to make it and be successful,” Cunningham told the Times-Union, “But you don’t get nothing from being in there at all.”
In Alachua, the commission voted in December to end the county’s labor agreement with the Florida Department of Corrections after two hearings. It was a trailblazing decision that echoed history: Alachua was one of the first counties to end its convict leasing system after the 1923 hearings.
The conditions in Florida prisons — violent and understaffed — drew the commissioners’ skepticism. So did the secrecy of the Department of Corrections, which refused to allow Gainesville Public Defender Stacy Scott to interview inmates about their work conditions at the city’s state work camp.
“The biggest hit on this program is that we are in some way complicit in an unjust system,” Commissioner Hutch Hutchinson said at the hearing.
Florida is one of only a handful of states that use unpaid inmate labor. All of them are Southern and have disproportionately black prison populations.
It is nearly impossible to calculate the value of prison labor across Florida. Hundreds of state and municipal agencies — as well as dozens of state colleges and nonprofits — tap into the forced labor pool.
Some 2,500 prisoners are assigned to community work squads, and another 1,000 to Florida Department of Transportation road squads. Prisoners worked about 17.7 million hours in the last five fiscal years on the community work squads alone. The Department of Corrections estimates the value of this labor at around $147.5 million over the time period, but the real value is likely double or triple that estimate — factoring in actual wages and benefits. The FDOT said it has used about $67 million of inmate labor since July 2015.
The Times-Union reviewed department policies, analyzed reams of public records and interviewed 11 former inmates to gain a better understanding of the state’s hidden workforce. What emerged was a troubling portrait reminiscent of a century-old practice.
• 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.” It’s not readily apparent how many of those were for people on the work squads.
• 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.
• Prison laborers don’t have the same protections as free workers, and labor practices on some assignments have raised safety and environmental health concerns with inmates. Community and Department of Transportation work squads make up 3.5 percent of the prison population, but account for 20 percent of reported injuries on average since 2016. Those injuries are likely underreported due to prisoners’ fears of retaliation.
• The conditions at the camps allow for what the Department of Corrections terms “costs savings” or “value added” agreements with local governments, offsetting the cost of running cities and counties across the state by providing scores of unpaid men for municipal departments.
• Racial disparities seen throughout the state prison system are mirrored on work squads. Forty-five percent of men in Florida prisons — and 43 percent on work squads — are black, according to the most recent DOC data. Black men make up less than 10 percent of the state population.
The Department of Corrections defended its program.
Secretary Mark Inch told the Times-Union that “work programs are a valuable piece of Florida’s correctional system and are an integral part of an inmate’s rehabilitation and restitution.”
“In accordance with Florida law, the Florida Department of Corrections work programs allow inmates opportunities to provide restitution to communities throughout Florida,” Inch, who did not agree to an interview, said in a statement. “Similar to community service or volunteer work, inmates who are assigned to work squads provide a valuable service to Florida’s communities, reduce expenditures to taxpayers, and receive job skills and experience that will benefit their lives after they are released.”
Former squad members interviewed by the Times-Union didn’t agree. Neither did Alachua County officials.
Alachua County Commissioner Ken Cornell highlighted the state’s recidivism rate, or the frequency at which prisoners cycle back into the system — 33 percent at three years, but doubling to about 65 percent at five, according to the James Madison Institute.
“When they fix the problem, let them come back and sell us on the benefit of using free labor,” he said at a January hearing. “It should include lower recidivism and better job training. I’m not going to hold my breath.”
Other county and municipal departments are reliant on prison labor and incorporate the savings into their budgets. The majority of them are rural and strapped for tax revenue.
“There’s no way we can take care of our facilities, our roads, our ditches, if we didn't have inmate labor,” said Warren Yeager, a former Gulf County commissioner. “We could not tax our citizens enough to replace the value that the inmate labor contributes to our community.”
The city of Jacksonville has no agreement with the Department of Corrections, but Duval County sends more people to prison than any other county in the state, so residents are often assigned to work squads. The most recent Duval County entity to use prison labor was the city of Baldwin in 2017.
‘They’re trying to take your voice away’
Lancaster Correctional Institution, which opened in 1989, sits about 30 miles west of Gainesville. Adjacent to the main unit, the work camp can house up to 280 people in four, open-bay dorms holding about 70 beds each.
Several prisoners interviewed by the Times-Union reported dirty, sometimes moldy and often unsanitary dorms at certain facilities, including Lancaster Work Camp.
Edward Denson, who was once assigned to cleaning duties there, said scabies would spread through the bunks, and sometimes entire dorms had to be quarantined. Denson blamed that in part on hygiene practices, especially around showering.
Men returning to camps from work squads, often covered in sweat and dirt from the work outside, aren’t allowed to shower and change first if they arrive just before inmate count, according to all but one of the former inmates interviewed by the Times-Union.
During count, prisoners are required to sit on their bunks, spreading grime from their uniforms onto their beds.
Cunningham, who was incarcerated at Lancaster Work Camp, described the quality of life there as subhuman. It became a familiar refrain from other inmates released from the institution.
“You’ve got to come back from inspection and sit on the bunk in your filth,” he said. “You don’t have a clean place to live or sleep.”
In general, keeping clean can be a challenge. The Department of Corrections supplies its prisoners with only a small bar of soap every week, so most inmates resort to items sold at the prison canteen, which generates $35 million or more per year for the department. The private-run storefronts charge prisoners about $1 for a single bar of soap and around $4 for deodorant.
“You can get disciplined for poor hygiene,” Denson said. “But if I don’t have nobody sending me no money, how can I keep my regular hygiene up?”
Laundry was a nightmare of its own, Denson said. Washers were overloaded and uniforms came back smelling worse than when they went in. Prisoners complained about laundry at another facility as well.
Denson, Cunningham and another former prisoner said certain corrections officers at Lancaster Work Camp could be physically and verbally abusive: calling inmates racial slurs and sometimes hitting them.
But filing complaints against officers wasn’t an option, the men said. Nine out of 11 former prisoners who spoke to the Times-Union said that inmate grievances were sometimes thrown in the trash or “lost.” The men also said grievances made them more vulnerable to retaliation.
“They’ll write you a [disciplinary report] and lock you in the box just for writing a grievance,” Denson said. “Then they threaten you about writing grievances or put contraband on you for writing grievances … They’re trying to take your voice away.”
The ineffectiveness of the grievance system is a common complaint among Florida state inmates. Claims of retaliation show up often in inmate statements given during disciplinary hearings.
“If you say something, your time gets worse,” Cunningham said.
Christopher Frehse, who was at Gainesville Work Camp, said he and other prisoners were forced to sign paperwork saying they knew how to operate heavy equipment such as chainsaws or heavy packers and saws for concrete whether they actually had experience with the tools or not.
Those who didn’t sign the paperwork were shipped back to the main unit, Frehse said.
Rest breaks were hard to come by on the work squads, according to former prisoners.
Even if officers were to strictly follow the department’s technical manual for work squad supervisors, it mandates only two 15-minute rest breaks: one in the morning and one in the afternoon, as well as a 30-minute lunch. But the manual states that any of those breaks must be interrupted or called off if a civilian shows up in the area.
There isn’t much fuel to be found at lunchtime. Bagged lunches of peanut butter and bologna sandwiches (one each) and a piece of fruit are not enough to power full days of hard labor, according to every former prisoner interviewed by the Times-Union. The Department of Corrections says it employs dieticians who make sure inmates get enough calories each day.
Labor unions have opposed prison labor since the days of convict leasing, citing safety hazards, the devaluing of workers’ rights and unfair competition with free labor.
Jeremiah Tattersall, an organizer with North Central Florida AFL-CIO, helped push Alachua County to terminate its state prison labor agreements.
Prison workers don’t enjoy the protections like those offered by federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines, Tattersall said.
“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,” Tattersall said. “A free worker might call their supervisor and file a complaint. Those options aren’t there for incarcerated workers.”
‘It should be profitable for the state’
Years before lawmakers abolished convict leasing in 1923, public officials had moved on to other ways of profiting off forcing inmates to work.
For one thing, the state was busy constructing a prison farm using inmate labor and profits from the convict leasing of black prisoners. In May 1917, the Florida Legislature approved the Convict Road Force Bill, assigning 300 prisoners to the State Road Department, paving the way for road construction by chain gangs to satisfy growing waves of tourists.
In 1921, Commissioner of Agriculture William A. McRae, who was in charge of overseeing the transfer of prisoners to state custody, summed up the growing sentiment.
“No one can justify the lease system for state convicts,” McRae said. “Besides, if labor for state convicts is profitable for private individuals, it should be profitable for the state.”
But the conditions for chain gangs were not significantly better than those seen during convict leasing. Road prisoners in Florida were housed in portable steel cages with tiers of iron bunks and used a zinc pan as a toilet.
“At night, prisoners were chained together to the bunks and the floor, and as chains clanked with every movement, sleep was oftentimes impossible,” Vivien M.L. Miller, an expert in the history of Florida prison labor, wrote in her book, “Hard Labor and Hard Time: Florida’s Sunshine Prison and Chain Gangs.”
In a pattern that would continue throughout the 20th century, McRae used the auspices of more humane treatment to transform prison labor, but the conditions on the ground didn’t change much.
“What has the state done for the convict? Nothing,” McRae said. “But, we have taken the money from his labor and have appropriated and used same for every known purpose except one — the betterment of his unfortunate condition.”
McRae, however, was ahead of his time. He believed the men should be paid for their labor upon their release.
A good deal of Florida’s history of prison labor used to be published on the Department of Corrections’ website under a timeline titled, “Florida Corrections, Centuries of Progress.” The department took the timeline off its website sometime in the fall of 2017.
Much of the history, however, continues to weave into modern times.
To this day, Florida’s state roads are heavily subsidized by prison labor.
Even after Alachua County and the city of Gainesville divested from their state prison labor contracts, the Florida Department of Transportation has had prison crews working near the University of Florida campus. Prisoners held equipment such as shovels while students brushed past.
The state road department has paid the Department of Corrections $67 million since July 2015 for inmate labor, which it estimates to be worth $10.65 per hour. The FDOT uses state inmates for a wide variety of physically strenuous tasks: repairing and reworking unpaved shoulders, clearing ditches, maintaining bridges and much more.
More than 100 state, county and municipal agencies have formal contracts with the Department of Corrections, meaning they pay the prison system back for the labor. All told, those agencies paid about $36 million since July 2014 to help offset the cost of corrections officers and administrative expenses for the work squads.
State departments, colleges and universities have their own type of contract, known as $2 work squads, named after the hourly rate at which the agencies pay back the Department of Corrections. Those agencies paid nearly $1.3 million to the prison system for 635,725 hours of labor in that same time period.
The University of Florida uses more prison labor than any other college in the state, much of it at its agricultural research centers. The flagship university has used at least 156,684 hours of state prison labor since 2015.
A University of Florida spokesman deferred most questions about the Times-Union’s findings on prison labor to the Department of Corrections, saying it had no knowledge of inmates being forced to work or being sent to confinement for refusing to do so.
“We have no control or knowledge of what happens at the prison after working at a [University of Florida / Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences] farm,” said Steve Orlando, the university spokesman.
Orlando added, “workers get valuable on-the-job experience that could be translated to post-incarcerated employment.”
“We are open to participating in a program that led to a degree or certification,” Orlando said.
Florida Gulf Coast University, the second biggest collegiate consumer at 69,581 hours, has been using state prison labor since 1995, two years before it first opened for students.
Susan Evans, the university’s vice president and chief of staff, said the inmates' "primary assistance has been removing very large amounts of exotic and invasive plants (Melaleuca, and Brazilian Pepper) which threaten our natural and sustainable campus environment."
Evans told the Times-Union that university employees who work with prisoners on a daily basis “hear directly from them that they enjoy being outdoors working at FGCU and that it’s preferable to spending their days in a prison cell.”
“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,” Evans said in an email.
Despite the millions of dollars exchanged between the myriad agencies for Florida prison labor, those who actually do the work don’t see any of it.
Many of the laws governing inmate labor and compensation for contracted work squads date back to the 1980 and 1990s, as the state prison populations ballooned due to “tough-on-crime” sentencing policies.
In 1980, Florida prisons held about 20,000 inmates. That doubled over the next decade.
Many of the new prisoners were sent away on drug charges, making them ideal for the type of lower-custody-level forced labor that could power rural communities. Over the 1980s, the percentage of prison admissions on drug charges rose from about 10 percent to 32 percent.
In 1990, black people accounted for 74 percent of all Florida prison admissions for drug sentences. More than half were 29 or younger. At that time, Broward, Hillsborough, and Dade counties sent the most black men to prison on drug charges.
As it always had, the state prison system used inmate labor to make space for more of it, having prisoners construct work camps across Florida. The camps were considerably cheaper to build than full prison facilities and reduced overcrowding in the main units. So the state constructed 31 work camps over a six-year period in the late 1980s and mid 1990s.
Even today, 19 of the department’s 34 work camps still in operation were built between 1987 and 1995.
‘We need bodies’
By the time of the Great Recession, in the late 2000s, rural Florida counties had become more dependent on state prison labor than ever.
On the heels of that recession, in 2013, budget cuts hit the Department of Corrections. The agency closed a work camp and dialed back prison labor subsidies by 27 work squads, sending rural counties into an uproar.
Yeager, the former Gulf County commissioner, penned a letter to then-Gov. Rick Scott on behalf of the Small County Coalition, a lobbying group for counties with less than 150,000 people.
“The location of state prisons in Florida’s small counties came with a promise of increased employment opportunities and the use of prison labor that saved local communities hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in labor costs,” Yeager wrote in 2013.
In an interview with the Times-Union, Yeager said the promise he spoke of wasn’t abstract.
“It was a direct promise that if you’ll allow us to build a prison in your community, we’ll make sure you get the inmate work crews you need,” Yeager said.
There are hundreds of local prison labor agreements that don’t generate revenue for the Department of Corrections, subsidizing the overhead costs of countless local governments, state agencies and nonprofits. For those agencies, and others that contract with the department, prisoners were forced to work some 17.7 million hours in the last five years.
The department estimates that savings at $147.5 million because it multiples the hours worked by $8.31, near the minimum wage. But local governments would likely have to pay more than that, not to mention benefits, to attract workers that would do the tasks full-time.
Most Florida counties that use prison labor are rural and starved for tax revenue. Three of the top five — Union, Gadsden, and Gulf — have about 77,700 residents combined, or .3 percent of the state population.
Florida counties with fewer than 100,000 people used more than half of the “community work squad” labor in the last five fiscal years, or $79.2 million by the department’s estimate.
In 2010, the Liberty County clerk wrote a letter to the Department of Corrections after the agency tried to pull back its work squads from grooming the cemeteries, which had been the practice ever since the state prison there opened in 1989, according to the The Calhoun-Liberty Journal.
Over those two decades, prisoners on the work squads had built a bevy of local infrastructure, the Journal article noted: Veterans Memorial Park Civic Center, an addition to the county jail, restoring a local church and refurbishing the local courthouse, to name a few.
Despite having rules against prisoners working on private properties, the Department of Corrections allowed the work on cemeteries to continue after intervention by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Democrat, according to the Journal.
Michelle Glady, the Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said she couldn’t explain the policy change because it happened nearly a decade ago. Lawson, who represented Liberty County as a state senator around that time, said he didn’t recall the details about cemetery squads.
Though he supports the work squad program, Lawson said he believes inmates should be compensated for their time. For instance, he said the state should mandate that courts waive restitution debts for those who participate in work programs.
“They’ve already paid it,” Lawson said. “[The restitution] was the labor.”
Deep in the Panhandle, near the Georgia and Alabama borders, Mayor Henry J. Hawkins runs the town of Century, which has a state work camp. Asked what value prison labor brought to his town, Hawkins said “bodies.”
“We need bodies,” Hawkins said.
In Gainesville, City Commissioner Gail Johnson was proud of her vote to end the city’s prison labor contract. Like Hawkins, Johnson discussed the forced prison labor economy in the same terms, but in a very different tone.
“We’re still buying bodies,” Johnson said. “We’re buying bodies and we’re trading labor.”
Johnson said inmate labor in Florida first made an impression on her seven years ago when she moved to Gainesville. She recalled the troubling optics of seeing mostly black incarcerated men working on the side of the road. Later, as a commissioner, Johnson’s resolve to end the practice was strengthened when she said she spoke to men on the crews herself, and heard them describe inhumane treatment by officers.
Momentum for ending the Alachua County and Gainesville prison contracts grew over the course of 2018. Bolstered by prison strikes that drew national attention, local prisoners’ rights activists such as the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee camped out in front of the Gainesville Work Camp. The activists trailed work squads and drew media attention.
During the Alachua debate, local State Attorney Bill Cervone came out in favor of the work squad program. Gainesville-area Public Defender Stacy Scott took no official position, but she did relay concerns to county commissioners, informing them of various reports of substandard conditions by former prisoners and relaying that officials denied her a chance to interview men on the squads to ask them directly about their work conditions.
In December 2018, the Alachua County Commission voted to end its contract with the Department of Corrections. The next month, during a public hearing, the commission revisited the issue and reaffirmed the vote.
Weeks later, the Gainesville City Commission followed suit. Despite incurring significant costs to taxpayers who would now be asked to pay to replace the prison labor, there was little political opposition to the moves.
Johnson told the Times-Union it was the city’s moral obligation to end the contract.
“Benefiting from and taking part in this system is dehumanizing to people,” Johnson said. “I really do believe when we look back at this time period 200 years from now, this will be the issue that people will look back and say, ‘How did we participate in that and why?’”
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‘Refusing to work’
One prisoner on a work squad was sent to confinement because he overslept the previous two meals and said he was too hungry to work. Another was sent to confinement for not working fast enough.
The Times-Union reviewed all 105 disciplinary reports issued for “refusing to work” from July 2018 and identified at least nine that were written for work squad members. Two of those were written by the same officer, Steven Holmes, who policed a Department of Transportation work squad based out of Putnam Correctional Institution.
In his response to an infraction, Derrick Harmon insisted that he wasn’t refusing to work, but that he simply felt unsafe on Holmes’ work squad. For a week, he said, he had been suspecting Holmes and another officer were plotting to set him up with a disciplinary report for refusing to work.
The disciplinary hearing team, made up of other officers, found Harmon guilty based on Holmes’ statement, which quoted Harmon saying, “I ain’t getting in no ditches today.”
“When Officer Holmes asked Inmate Harmon if he was refusing to work, he said yes,” the disciplinary report said.
Harmon spent two weeks in administrative confinement before he was reassigned to a different squad.
Two weeks later, another prisoner on Holmes’ squad, Henry Summerlin, complained of personal difficulties and other safety concerns. Summerlin, who told officials he was distraught after recently finding out his wife had died, complained of being forced to work in the middle of a “very busy intersection at St. Augustine Beach.” A couple of days later, Summerlin said, Holmes denied his request for a new pair of safety glasses and gloves.
“He stated that he already told us that we needed to start keeping up with our equipment better and that he could not keep getting us new ones every day,” Summerlin wrote in his statement.
“You know that I have been taking it real easy on your ass,” Holmes warned the men, according to Summerlin’s statement on the disciplinary report.
After spending a week in administrative confinement, Summerlin lost 10 days of “gain time,” or time earned off his sentence. He was then reassigned to food service.
Sherrod Smith got written up after approaching an officer in the sally port at Polk Work Camp and saying he couldn’t work that day for medical reasons. The exact nature of his condition was redacted.
“I asked him about the nature of the [redacted] and he said he was having difficulty [redacted],” the officer wrote in the report. “This was despite my having observed him approximately 2-3 minutes earlier, in the dining hall, laughing and talking loudly and displaying no outward symptoms of [redacted].”
Smith was placed in handcuffs and taken to confinement.
In the Panhandle, Michael Sparks was assigned to a contracted work squad out of Santa Rosa Work Camp when he was retaliated against using the “refusing to work” infraction, according to his statement.
Sparks said he was told by officers to grab a weedwacker, put on his boots and jump in the middle of a ditch because he “missed a spot.”
“There was no spot missed in the middle of the ditch because it was full of knee deep water and was flowing fast over rocks,” Sparks said in his statement on the disciplinary report.
Prior to the incident, Sparks said, he had a confrontation with the officers who told him that they “had something for me, so I was under the impression that they were trying to set me up with new charges.”
‘As many hours of faithful labor in each day and every day’
Florida prisons and unpaid state inmate labor were shaped by slavery.
Even 50 years after abolition, slavery’s remnants were explicit in the state’s nascent correctional institutions. In 1919, an official state correctional report claimed “the negro constitutes a very large percentage of Florida criminals, and the same is true of other Southern States.”
“The negro as a class has a dull or poorly developed moral sense, and lacks mental activity,” the report continued, “but, as a rule, he is a more docile prisoner than the white man.”
Today, the handful of states that have unpaid prison labor are Southern, with majority black or close-to-majority-black prison populations.
“You can trace all prison labor policies to the period of emancipation,” said Sam Sinyangwe, a data scientist and activist who studies race and prison labor. “Florida was one of the worst states not only in terms of the proportion, but the fact that they’re required to work.”
Sinyangwe pointed to the Florida state law on inmate labor, which mandates that “the department shall require of every able-bodied prisoner imprisoned in any institution as many hours of faithful labor in each day and every day during his or her term of imprisonment as shall be prescribed by the rules of the department.”
The Department of Corrections highlighted the same passage in its defense of the work squad program.
But the community work squad program is also distinct from the general rule that prisoners are expected to work no matter their station. The squads are filled with low-custody prisoners nearing release,not convicted on sex offenses, who go “outside the wire” and work in plain sight of mostly rural communities.
The Department of Corrections has used different reasoning to illustrate the purpose of work squads in the past decade, sometimes describing it as a way to save taxpayer money, and at other times claiming it helps inmates learn work skills.
The stated objective of the latter, however, did not add up for Sinyangwe.
“If [job skills] were the goal, how is the type of work that folks are overwhelmingly doing aligned with that?” Sinyangwe said. “If you are picking vegetables or doing trash pickup, how is that going to reintegrate you into society?”
Departmental policy and state law changes would help achieve that goal, however, according to Sinyangwe. At the state level, lawmakers could help eliminate obstacles preventing people released from prison from getting gainful employment, he said. At the prison policy level, Sinyangwe said inmates should be compensated for their time and Department of Corrections should realign work programs to teach job skills useful in the outside world.
Florida’s state prisons do offer some vocational degrees, but those are taught in lieu of a work squad assignment.
One real incentive for prisoners on work squads is that they can receive up to 10 days of “gain time” reduced from their sentences each month for participating in work programs and good behavior. But that is capped due to a state law mandating all prisoners serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.
“They try to say that you’re working for your gain time, you’re working for your days, but the state of Florida said I have to do 85 percent of my time,” said Jamaal Little, who has also been struggling to get a job since being released from RMC Work Camp.
And while prison work squads don’t provide for degrees or certificates, they do take advantage of skills prisoners already have.
Chad Brown, for instance, had learned how to weld before serving his second prison sentence. He was incarcerated at Reception and Medical Center work camp, where he first welded for the Department of Corrections, then moved to a shop outside the gate, working for Union County.
Brown said he made laundry carts and 600-pound metal doors for the prisons, to be used in the Mental Health Unit. The doors, he said, had to be tight to the point that even a dental floss couldn’t fit through the cracks. Brown and other prisoners spent six months building about a dozen of them, he said. For the county, Brown said he worked mostly on dumpster rebuilds.
Like all prisoners interviewed by the Times-Union, Brown thought he should be compensated for his work. He cited the difficulty in getting a job after doing his time, and the fact that prisoners who had $100 or more on their bank accounts at any point in the last six months no longer get any money upon leaving prison.
“They used to give you $100 and a bus ticket,” Brown said. “Now, they just give you a bus ticket.”
Nicole Cataland contributed historical research to this report.