Editorial: State should end unpaid inmate labor
Nearly a century ago, the state of Florida was supposed to have outlawed the use of state prisoners as forced labor.
As GateHouse Media’s Ben Conarck recently reported, a loophole in the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery had allowed Florida to profit off forcing mostly black prisoners to work for private companies. But after hearings in 1923 revealed that men were being arrested on frivolous or petty charges, and then made to work off their debts in brutal conditions that included whippings and other torture, state lawmakers outlawed the practice known as convict leasing.
Yet today, as Conarck reported, unpaid labor is still an integral part of the Florida prison system. About 3,500 unpaid prisoners make up work crews used around the state by cities, counties, educational institutions and the Florida Department of Transportation. Inmates work long hours in the heat in exchange for some time off their sentences. They get limited rest breaks and food, risk injuries and face punishment if they refuse to work.
Alachua County and the city of Gainesville had used unpaid inmates on jobs such as filling potholes, mixing concrete and mowing grass, until their respective commissions ended the practice in recent months. But the University of Florida uses more inmate labor than any other college in the state, with inmates working at its agricultural research centers, which led to protests by Divest UF members at recent commencement ceremonies.
Florida is among just a handful of states that use unpaid inmate labor, all of which are southern and have disproportionately black prison populations. The practice should be discontinued by local governments and educational institutions as a way of pushing the state to abolish it outright.
Certainly there is a cost in doing so for the communities that have relied for too long on inmate labor. A former Gulf County commissioner told GateHouse Media that the tiny Panhandle county wouldn’t be able to take care of its ditches, facilities and roads without the use of inmates.
Those jobs should be going to local residents at a reasonable wage. At least 49 jobs have been or are being filled in Alachua County and Gainesville as a result of their commissions ending inmate labor contracts, with the money that had been going to the Florida Department of Corrections from those contracts and other parts of their budgets being used to pay for them.
Inmates should not simply be unpaid labor, but instead should be able to gain skills and some money to help them readjust to the outside world once released. Florida’s recidivism rate — 33% at three years and 65% at five, according to the James Madison Institute — shows the need for such programs.
Unpaid inmate labor is a relic of the South’s shameful past of slavery and Jim Crow laws that continued the subjugation of black citizens. Florida should abandon the practice and create a better way to give inmates an opportunity to develop skills that help keep them from ending up back in prison after being released.