Honest labor: Prison work programs have evolved from chain gangs to changed lives
by Laura Camper
Jun 23, 2013 | 4757 views |  0 comments | 225 225 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Every morning, inmates from about 20 Alabama counties leave jail go to work.

And unlike their predecessors of 50 years ago, they may be paid for their labor.

Cleburne County is one of those counties whose sheriff has instituted a program to put inmates to work. That program has been thrust under the limelight because of a request by an investigator from the Alabama Ethics Commission for records of two Cleburne County commissioners’ payments to inmates.

Though the Ethics Commission has declined to discuss exactly what it is investigating in relation to commissioners Laura Cobb’s and Emmett Owen’s employment of inmates at their places of business, the questions delve into relatively new reforms made in the state.

Today’s inmate work programs bear little resemblance to their forebears of just 50 years ago.

Up until the 1970s, the treatment of inmates in America’s prisons had changed very little from the 1800s, according to Robert Johnson, a professor from American University in Washington, D.C.

Johnson, professor in the Department of Justice, Law and Society at the university, said prison conditions were harsh with hard labor and brutality doled out as part of inmates’ punishment.

“The history of prisons in the South is the history of prison labor,” Johnson said. “Work has always been thought of, even when it was virtually slave labor, as rehabilitative.”

The prisons were labor-oriented, from plantation and farm prisons to chain and road gangs. Prisoners were used as a form of cheap labor, with little regard to their well-being, Johnson said.

The South’s chain gangs were a very visible sign of the cruel conditions, he added, and the conditions were similar, but more hidden, in other areas of the country. Because prison communities are so isolated from the public, change happens very slowly, Johnson said.

But in the 1970s, reform came to prisons as an offshoot of the civil rights movement, Johnson said.

In 1976, Alabama enacted its own law to standardize county and state inmate work release programs. The law also lays out the payment and treatment of inmates in the program by their employers and the county.

John Hamm, director of member services for the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, said the law was an effort to protect the inmates and the state’s workers.

“They didn’t want inmates displacing workers and they didn’t want inmates being taken advantage of,” Hamm said.

For that reason, the law states that inmates are to be paid “a wage at least as high as the prevailing wage for similar work in the area.” It also states that exploitation of prisoners in any form is prohibited. To protect workers, the law states that inmates should not displace employed workers or be used as strikebreakers.

Another law allows for community service — unpaid labor — in the jail, county courthouse and public buildings, Hamm said.

Johnson believes that today’s prisoners look at the work release programs as a privilege, he said. It gets them outside and away from the boredom of the jail, he added.

In Cleburne County, the inmate work release program is a mixture of community service and paid work. Kevin Walker, a recently released inmate who went through the program, said that he did community service before he was allowed the opportunity to move into a paying job.

It was like a test to see how he behaved outside the jail, Walker said. He also worked with Heflin City Councilman Travis Crowe, picking up trash in Heflin, Walker said.

“They can’t just let anybody have a paying job,” Walker said.

Then just before Christmas, Walker got a job at the Highway 46 Fuel Center, a gas station where Commissioner Laura Cobb serves as one of the managers. He worked there through the work release program for about five months being paid $7.25 an hour until he was released from jail two weeks ago, Walker said.

Once he was released, the station hired him full-time, he said.

Walker said he was proud to be a part of the program. Meeting people in the community allowed him to build a network of support. The paying job gave him the opportunity to pay off his fines, to support his family – Walker has two children — and to save money for when he was released.

In fact, he might not have been released two weeks ago without the paying job, Walker said.

“They generally like to see a good home plan and without that money that I generated here, I would not have had that,” Walker said.

He was able to pay a deposit on a rental home and get utilities turned on. That enabled him to bring his 14-year-old daughter home to live with him. And he still has a job to go to each day.

Now he is trying to rebuild his life and his relationship with his daughter.

“She missed her daddy,” Walker said.

And the forced separation from her taught him how much she meant to him, Walker said.

Staff Writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.
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