Posts Tagged ‘prison labor’
This book uses the landmark case Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union to examine the strategies of prison inmates using race and radicalism to inspire the formation of an inmate labor union. It thus rekindles the debate over the triumphs and troubles associated with the use of Black Power as a platform for influencing legal policy and effecting change for inmates. While the ideology of the prison rights movement was complex, it rested on the underlying principle that the right to organize, and engage in political dissidence, was not only a First Amendment right guaranteed to free blacks, but one that should be explicitly guaranteed to captive blacks—a point too often overlooked in previous analyses. Ultimately, this seminal case study not only illuminates the history of Black Power but that of the broader prisoners’ rights movement as well.
Previously I noted Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas Blackmon’s book Slavery by Another Name, a history of the convict-lease system in Alabama. When an Alabama inmate, Mark Melvin, tried to read the book recently, officials at the Kilby state prison seized it, calling the book “incendiary.” Melvin is now suing in federal court with the help of the Equal Justice Initiative. From the New York Times:
Mr. Melvin never received the book. According to his lawsuit, he was told by an official at Kilby that the book was “too incendiary” and “too provocative,” and was ordered to have it sent back at his own expense.
He appealed, but in his lawsuit he says that prison officials upheld the decision, citing a regulation banning any mail that incites “violence based on race, religion, sex, creed, or nationality, or disobedience toward law enforcement officials or correctional staff.” (Mr. Melvin is white.)
So he sued.
A spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections said officials had not seen the suit on Monday and could not comment.
Mr. Stevenson, who is also the director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, said he considered the lawsuit to be less about the rights of people in prison but primarily about the country’s refusal to own up to its racial history.
As I noted in my post this morning, courts have generally interpreted the Thirteenth Amendment’s punishments-for-crimes exception to bar legal challenges to prison labor requirements. But I should have noted there is an alternative view which holds that this interpretation is a misreading. Law professor Raja Raghunath of the University of Denver has reminded me of his 2009 article in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, which argues that the Thirteenth Amendment has been historically misconstrued by the federal courts, and that many forms of modern prison labor would fall under the constitutional ban of involuntary servitude, properly construed.
Although in some states inmates may still be sentenced to hard labor, in most systems today they labor under a more general requirement that, if they are able-bodied, they must work. Reading the word ‘punishment’ in the Thirteenth Amendment in a manner consistent with the way that same word is used in the Eighth Amendment, and is understood in the rest of the Constitution, reveals that only those inmates who are forced to work because they have been so sentenced – which is not the vast majority of inmates compelled to work in the present day – should be exempted from the general ban on involuntary servitude. …
This article argues that the reason courts have broadened of the meaning of ‘punishment’ in the Thirteenth Amendment, while simultaneously narrowing it in the Eighth Amendment, is because these directly contradictory acts of constitutional interpretation both serve the same end of judicial deference to the actions of prison officials, which has resulted in the general abdication by courts of their constitutional obligations to oversee those officials’ actions. This article also theorizes about the potential outcomes of interpreting the Thirteenth Amendment properly with respect to prison labor, and suggests that the resulting recognition of the punitive purposes that have always driven our prison labor programs may actually lead to an improvement in the overall well-being of prisoners, and perhaps of society as a whole.
An issue raised by the Georgia prison strike is whether and how much prisoners should be paid for their labor. Here’s the first bullet point from the strikers’ list of demands (which I reproduced here):
· A LIVING WAGE FOR WORK: In violation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude, the DOC demands prisoners work for free.
As this is ostensibly a legal blog, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that it does not, in fact, violate the Thirteenth Amendment to require prisoners to work for free. (That, of course, is an entirely separate issue from whether prisoners should be paid as a policy matter, or whether particular prisoners may have constitutionally cognizable challenges to particular work assignments — I’m speaking here at a broad level of generality.) And I’d rather risk pedantic than remiss, so here’s the text of the Thirteenth Amendment, passed and ratified in 1865, with the relevant language bolded:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
This is why states that do pay prisoners can legally pay them well under the minimum wage. From the Prison Policy Initiative, here’s a breakdown of prison hourly wages, ranging from $0 in Georgia and Texas, to 13 cents in Nevada prison camps, to $1.15 in some federal prison industries jobs.
Prisoners also face basically insurmountable barriers to forming unions. As summarized by the Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook:
Prison officials are permitted to ban petitions, like those asking for improvements in prison conditions, as long as prisoners have other ways to voice their complaints. Duamutef v. O’Keefe, 98 F.3d 22 (2d Cir. 1996). Officials can ban a prisoner from forming an association or union of inmates, because it is reasonable to conclude that such organizing activity would involve threats to prison security. Brooks v. Wainwright, 439 F. Supp. 1335 (M.D. Fl. 1977). In one very important case, the Supreme Court upheld the prison’s ban on union meetings, solicitation of other prisoners to join the union, and bulk mailings from the union to prisoners, as long as there were other ways for prisoners to communicate complaints to prison officials and for the union to communicate with prisoners. Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union, Inc., 433 U.S. 119 (1977).
Given all of these legal barriers, not to mention the practical barriers of prison life, it’s all the more remarkable that Georgia prisoners were able to organize and carry out a collective protest of any kind, much less one that lasted almost a week (well, depending on who you ask, the prisoners or the guards) and that attracted national media attention. Hopefully, their demands will draw attention to prison conditions not just in Georgia but around the country.
For those interested in the history of the Thirteenth Amendment, I’ve posted some notes and recommended reading after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »
The Georgia prison strike appears to remain ongoing, with my old hometown paper the Atlanta Journal-Constitution now picking up the story (though not actually using the word “strike”). Here’s coverage from the Chattanooga Free Press, with this response from a Georgia state legislator:
“If they want to get paid, they shouldn’t commit crimes,” said state Sen. Johnny Grant, R-Milledgeville, chairman of the Senate Institutions and Property Committee, which oversees prisons.
Besides, he said, “If we started paying inmates, we’d also start charging them for room and board, as well. They ought to be careful what they ask for.”
The Free Press article notes that while Georgia does not pay anything for inmate labor, its neighboring state of Tennessee pays between 17 cents and 54 cents an hour. If you want to write to Sen. Grant about his implication that it doesn’t matter how prisoners are treated since they’ve committed crimes, here’s his contact info. Finally, here’s this morning’s Democracy Now! interview with Elaine Brown (which I haven’t had a chance to listen to myself, but pass along in case you’re interested).
Louisiana Prisoner Sentenced to Eight Years of… Barbecuing Chicken, Waxing Floors at the Mayor’s Church, and Renting Moon Bounces for the Police Chief’s Side Business
The Fifth Circuit recently ruled on a case out of Louisiana that is, well, not your typical conditions of confinement lawsuit. In 1996, John D. Williams pled guilty to simple burglary and was sentenced to eight years of hard labor:
His duties largely included maintaining city property and facilities such as City Hall, the railroad museum, ball parks, and even the police station. Williams was a trusty and the only inmate at DeQuincy [City Jail] who performed work of this nature. As a result, Williams also enjoyed certain privileges unavailable in most prisons. [Footnote: Williams was permitted to wear civilian clothing often purchased at town expense. He had his own room in which he was allowed to have private visits with women. He had a telephone, internet access, and access to a washing machine and cable television. It was common for Williams to be driven to the store to purchase personal items like food, cigarettes, and magazines.]
Williams asserts that Buddy Henagan, then the mayor of DeQuincy, and Michael Suchanek, DeQuincy’s Chief of Police, forced Williams to work additional hours beyond the regular work week and sometimes for their private gain. Henagan had him wax the floors of Henagan’s church; work 20 hours a day during the city’s railroad festival and cook barbecued chicken continuously for over 26 hours at various local fundraisers. Up to twice a month, he was required to ride around the city with Henagan between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. to count burned out street lights. Henagan took Williams to Texas once to transport furniture Henagan had been given. Suchanek required him to work off-hours for Suchanek’s private businesses, sometimes until midnight or later and often on weekends. These ventures included Suchanek’s space jump rental and his grass cutting business. Williams admits he was paid occasionally for work he performed for Henagan and Suchanek.
(Williams v. Henagan, et al., 07-30997, 5th Cir., Jan. 28, 2010, pp. 2-3)