Sen. Cory Booker questions US prison labor policies, calls for change

Prisoners should be learning professional skills that help prepare them for their release instead of being forced to work, sometimes picking crops in triple-digit heat for pennies an hour or nothing at all, Sen. Cory Booker said at a Senate judiciary subcommittee hearing on prison labor Tuesday.

America locks up more people than almost any other country in the world — nearly 2 million — and they are disproportionately people of color. Those who refuse to work can be punished, including being thrown into solitary confinement, Booker noted. And those injured or killed often do not have access to most basic rights and protections guaranteed to other American workers.

“Our prisons should reflect the best of who we are, they should reflect our values,” the New Jersey Democrat said. “And they should, in my strong opinion, be places that are not just for punishment, but for rehabilitation and for creating roads of redemption.”

While most incarcerated workers today help maintain correctional facilities, others are leased out to private companies or take part in work-release programs. Companies such as McDonald’s, KFC, Walmart, Cargill and Tyson Foods have benefited from the multibillion-dollar industry, The Associated Press found as part of an ongoing two-year investigation into how prison labor is quietly entering the supply chains of some of America’s most recognized companies and brands.

Booker, chair of the Senate’s subcommittee on criminal justice and counterterrorism, was speaking during a hearing aimed at looking at ways to rethink prison labor, from making jobs voluntary and boosting wages to protecting workers against injuries and abuse.

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas pushed back, saying prisoners are dangerous people housed in dangerous facilities where “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” He added that prison labor is a way for inmates to give something back to the society they wronged.

“And if that means scrubbing toilets, mopping floors or picking up the garbage," he said, “then so be it.”

American prisoners were being put to work in the early 1800s, but the practice ramped up after the Civil War with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which contained a loophole. It ended slavery for everyone except those convicted of a crime. For decades after emancipation, Black men were rounded up — often for petty crimes — and put to work under brutal conditions during the convict leasing era. It lined the coffers of industrial giants such as U.S. Steel and Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, while helping to rebuild the South’s broken economy.

Andrea Armstrong, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, said incarcerated workers are sometimes given dangerous assignments with little or no training, leading in some cases to painful and lifelong, debilitating injuries, and even death.

That, she said, was never intended to be part of their sentence. She listed a number of prisoners who have died preventable deaths while working behind bars, while also highlighting work by the AP.

“Refusing to work in dangerous conditions could even lead to new criminal charges and new sentences in some states,” she said. “And we, the general public, have no idea because this forced labor occurs in spaces that lack oversight, transparency and accountability.”


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