BP Using Prison Labor in Oil Spill Cleanup

From: The Root

Surprise, surprise. BP is using inmates from the Louisiana prison system to clean up the oil spill. The words “Inmate Labor” are emblazoned on their backs as they toil in record heat, cleaning up the mess that BP has made. Local residents are angry that the company is using cheap labor instead of employing local residents who need jobs. Inmate laborers, aka “trustees,” are paid very little, while BP and subcontractors receive tax credits. We don’t know why people are surprised. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Prison is the only place in the United States where slavery is not outlawed. The inmates are being treated like modern-day slaves because they actually are modern-day slaves. In the infamous words of Nancy Reagan, “Just say no” — to prison, that is.

–Nsenga K. Burton
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More on the story from BV Blackspin:

Soon after a BP wellhead exploded in the Gulf of Mexico spewing a jillion gallons in to the waters off the coast of Louisiana, the British company started the business of cleaning up the worst oil spill United States’ history.

Within days, cleanup workers were spotted on beaches, wearing T-shirts with the words “Inmate Labor” printed in large red block letters (pictured). Coastal residents, many of whom had just seen their livelihoods disappear, took to town hall meetings to express their outrage. The community wanted to know why BP was using cheap or free prison labor when so many people were unemployed?

The short answer is that hiring prison labor is a way for BP to save money while cleaning up their mess. It’s what we call a “two-fer” or a win-win. By tapping in to the inmate workforce, the company and its subcontractors get cheap labor and lucrative tax write-offs. But cheap labor is only part of the story.

In a fascinating story featured in The Nation, Abe Louise Young investigated BP’s use of inmate labor to clean up their mess.

In Louisiana, inmates who have maintained good behavior become eligible for work release in the last three years of their sentences. The Louisiana Department of Corrections calls them “trustees.” This means they can work for private companies on the “outside.” The trustees get to keep a portion of their earnings,
which they can redeem upon their release. Participating businesses receive a tax credit of $2,400 for every work release inmate they hire under a federal program designed to encourage the hiring of risky “target groups.”

The use of inmate labor on the oil spill is a hot button topic on the coast. When Young asks a warden of a South Louisiana jail about this practice, he refused to discuss the matter, exclaiming, “You want me to lose my job?”

A different warden, on condition of anonymity, said that inmates from his facility had been employed in oil cleanup, but declined to answer further questions.

Some officials did speak with Young, though. A lieutenant in the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office stated that three crews of inmates were sandbagging in Buras, La., in case oil hit there: “They’re not getting paid, it’s part of their sentence,” she said. “They’ll work as long as they’re needed.”

Inmates can’t pick and choose their work assignments and may face penalties for rejecting a job, including loss of earned “good time.” The warden of the Terrebonne Parish Work Release Center in Houma explained:

“If they say no to a job, they get that time that was taken off their sentence put right back on.”

This is particularly controversial in that this work could have adverse health implications for those exposed to the toxic chemicals used as dispersants.

The scientific community has acknowledged that while the dangers of mixed oil and dispersant exposure are largely unknown, the chemicals in crude oil can potentially damage every system in the body. The uncertainty regarding the impact of oil cleanup operations on the health of the workers has led many to protest the use of involuntary labor in potentially hazardous conditions.

Now one may wonder why a company would use inmate labor at all instead of giving those jobs to coastal citizens? Particularly when so many residents are unemployed or have been put out of business by the oil spill.

The answer is not so simple. Turns out, these jobs are really sh*tty, and the workforce is not as willing as you might expect.

Young spoke to Scott Rojas of the Jefferson Parish Economic Development Commission, who stated that finding local labor to do oil-spill cleanup jobs is easier said than done. “These are really hard, and really low-paid jobs – I know agencies have put effort in to finding locals to do the work.
But they may not always have an easy time of it.”

The Louisiana state unemployment agency advertises oil spill cleanup positions as “green jobs.” At $10 per hour, these jobs would seem like an attractive opportunity.

But Paul Perkins, a retired Angola Prison deputy warden and owner of five for-profit inmate work release centers, told Young that even as the agency is “overflowing with applications for oil spill jobs,” the work force is inconsistent. “They might hire 400 people on Monday, and after one day of work, only 200 will come back on Tuesday.”

And in some cases, residents feel like they shouldn’t have to take these jobs. In a fascinating account of an encounter with some locals at A-Bear’s Restaurant in Houma, Young recalls an elderly man speaking frankly about his son’s financial dilemmas. His son is 40, married with children and was laid off from an oyster shucking factory shortly after the BP leak started. He now walks around with a lawnmower, looking for grass to cut. When asked if his son would be applying for a clean-up position, he responded, “Maybe, no, I don’t think so…that would be hard for his pride, you know? For that little money? No.”

Work-release programs are nothing new. From the businesses’ perspective, you have a group of employees that will always show up and are never late. BP’s use of inmate labor in a potentially hazardous situation, though, smacks of prisoner exploitation.

At the same time, it also forces us to examine our lives in the context of a bad economy. How large a role does pride and entitlement play with regards to the jobs we will and will not do? People say that many immigrants do the work that Americans will not do, and frankly, I always thought that was a load of crap. Now, I’m not so
sure…

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