Describing Modern Day Prison Labor’s Roots in Slavery, Groups Urge Court to Uphold Rights of Incarcerated Workers  

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By Felecia Johnson and Gabriel Johnson 

BALTIMORE COUNTY, MD – A coalition including the national American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), various ACLU state affiliates, and local civil rights and racial justice groups is drawing attention to the case of Marylanders incarcerated at the Baltimore County Jail.

The coalition said its objective is to shed light on the connection between modern-day prison labor practices and the historical enslavement of Black people.

The coalition is urging the United States Courts of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to “declare, as have other courts, that the federal Fair Labor Standards Act applies when incarcerated workers are working alongside other workers in the community; that prisons and jails do not have a blank check to exploit people who are incarcerated; and to recognize the devastating impacts on families, communities and public safety when the government exploits people in its custody for financial benefit.”

The coalition, as indicated above, is requesting the court’s recognition that the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) applies when incarcerated workers are laboring alongside other workers in the community. By doing so, they aim to challenge the notion that prisons and jails have a blank check to exploit incarcerated individuals.

And, as indicated, the coalition seeks to emphasize the devastating consequences on families, communities, and public safety when the government exploits people in its custody for financial gain.

The coalition’s plea is presented in a “friend of the court” brief filed in the case of Scott et al. vs Baltimore County.

The brief traces “the racist history of prison labor in the United States and its continuing legacy of harm to incarcerated workers in Baltimore County and in other work programs at prisons and jails throughout the Fourth Circuit (Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina) — workers who are disproportionately Black in every Fourth Circuit State, and majority Black in Maryland and South Carolina.”

According to the ACLU, the brief was not filed without opposition because “Baltimore County took the highly unusual step of opposing the groups’ friend-of-the-court filing, contending that the racist history of the jail’s prison labor practices is ‘inflammatory’ and ‘irrelevant.’”

However, the Court promptly rejected the County’s contentions, and accepted the groups’ brief for “consideration as part of the appeal.”

The coalition’s efforts aim to expose the undeniable connection between modern-day prison labor practices and the historical enslavement of Black people, noting throughout American history, the exploitation of incarcerated individuals has been deeply intertwined with racism and the perpetuation of systemic inequality.

The current system’s reliance on unpaid or underpaid labor from incarcerated individuals mirrors the exploitative practices of the past, where Black individuals were forced into uncompensated labor during slavery and the Jim Crow era, said the coalition.

By highlighting this connection, the coalition is “challenging the dehumanizing assumptions surrounding incarcerated workers, and advocate for equitable treatment, fair compensation, and the “recognition of their inherent human dignity.”

The coalition also emphasizes the profound impact of exploitative prison labor on families, communities, and public safety, arguing when incarcerated individuals are exploited for financial gain, their ability to support their families, reintegrate into society, and contribute positively to their communities is severely hindered.

By urging the court to address these pressing issues, the coalition said it hopes to rectify the ongoing harm caused by exploitative prison labor practices, and foster a more just and equitable system that respects the rights and dignity of incarcerated individuals while promoting the well-being of their families and communities.

The President of Maryland CURE, Lea Green, who has a son who is an incarcerated worker, said,My son is serving a life with parole sentence and works in a sign shop.”

Lea thinks prisons should be run like businesses for profit, adding, “The idea that you can work people like this, pennies on the dollar, treating them as less-than, it’s nothing but modern-day slavery. Living wages aren’t wrong to ask for when you’re behind walls, so people can help take care of their families.”

The brief stated, “Modern day prison labor descends from the enslavement of Black people. After the Thirteenth Amendment abolished race-based slavery, the criminal legal system was used to replicate its oppressive structural framework, through convict leasing, chain gangs, and forced ‘public works’ projects. Today, Black people are disproportionately represented as incarcerated workers in this Circuit, and in some places represent the majority of such workers.

“They engage in work within and outside of prison walls, for public and private employers, in often hazardous conditions. They receive little or zero pay, despite having to purchase basic necessities like food and telephone calls with family. The justifications for this system echo the rationales used to justify earlier forms of racial oppression, dehumanizing people by insisting that exploitation illegal in any other context is for their own good.”

The convenor of the Caucus of African American Leaders, Carl O. Snowden, said people should remain aware of our nation’s history, noting “even more when it can be hard to face, because the legacies of injustice and racism time and again influence unfair policies today.” He encourages “…leaders to embrace this opportunity to ensure the rights of all workers are protected.”

According to the ACLU, “The county argues that people who are incarcerated don’t need money because jails and prisons provide for their every need.” But the ACLU adds “that is completely at odds with reality—people inside often must purchase basic necessities like food and hygiene items in order to survive, pay to have contact with their families, and save to be able to pay fines, fees, and for housing and other immediate needs upon their release.”

The ACLU then points out why the FLSA should apply because “…incarcerated workers and their loved ones are forced into the very economic vulnerability that the FLSA was intended to protect against.” And they then cite statistical burdens on the families of those incarcerated: “Nationally, families spend an estimated $1.6 billion per year on commissary accounts and $1.3 billion on phone calls alone.”

Martina Hazelton, co-founder of the Lifer Family Support Network, agrees that incarcerated workers should be paid a living wage because neither “[j]ails nor prisons provide what a person needs to meet their daily needs. The pandemic exposed the lack of soap, laundry detergent, food and the like as it was clear that some folks simply go without. This burden is shifted to the families and when those on the inside are not paid a decent wage the loved ones must stand in the gap. Black women are overwhelmingly shouldering this financial hardship, oftentimes at the expense of their own needs.”

The ACLU points out “the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not exempt incarcerated workers from coverage,” arguing, “that there is no categorical exclusion of incarcerated workers from FLSA protections.” and “ask(s) the court to rule that Marylanders who worked at the recycling center alongside ‘free world’ employees are covered by the FLSA.”

Counsel for various ACLU organizations contributed to the brief: the ACLU of Maryland; the ACLU National Prison Project; the ACLU of North Carolina; the ACLU of West Virginia. the ACLU Human Rights Project, the ACLU of South Carolina, and the ACLU of Virginia.

About The Author

Gabriel Johnson is a system impacted first generation University & Law School student who graduated from McGeorge in 2022 With Distinction. Gabriel is a long-term vegetarian who hopes to make a difference fighting for both Human and Animal rights.

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