Arizona’s prison labor system resembles modern slavery

Renting out human beings to profiteers is morally wrong.

This is no less the case when the lease is made by the government and the human beings are prisoners.

In fact, it is like slave labor.

It raises serious questions about our public institutions and the people we entrust to guide them.

That’s the focus of a 15-month series of joint The Arizona Republic and KJZZ investigations. What reporters uncovered was a Department of Corrections labor program that exploits prisoners for the benefit of private companies and municipalities.

Arizona has a large captive labor force

It does this under the guise of prisoner rehabilitation and job training, though as the series has revealed there is no evidence to support the former and little demonstration of the latter.

Yet the program has expanded over the past decade, and its ties to its beneficiaries have deepened so much that the top Arizona Corrections official told lawmakers some communities would “collapse” if the hand -cheap labor was disappearing.

In other words, the program works for profiteers and the government that facilitates captive labor. For the men and women who do the work, the benefits are much more uncertain.

Who benefits? Database shows who uses prisoner labor

Arizona houses more than 37,000 prisoners at taxpayer expense, to the tune of $1.4 billion this fiscal year. This places us among the states with the largest prison population per capita.

From this rotating population, prisoners are questioned about their interest in working. A number of them are given duties within the prison, earning 10 to 35 cents an hour for doing tasks such as cooking, laundry and cleaning bathrooms.

Prison officials see it as a way for inmates to earn money to buy basic hygiene items or snacks, and to pay for their incarceration.

ACI pockets most prisoner wages

The city or town where you live may hire prisoners to clean up the streets in the neighborhood.

About 1,000 prisoners are sent by the Department of Corrections to work for state agencies and municipalities, earning 50 cents to $1.50 an hour for their work. About 2,000 prisoners are selected for more elite work for the state agency Arizona Correctional Industries. ACI in turn leases them to some 20 to 30 private companies.

It’s a big win for all parties except the captive workforce. Companies benefit from a constant supply of cheap labor and avoid having to pay benefits, insurance and taxes. Municipalities can maintain and clean government grounds and reallocate their savings to other services. Arizona Correctional Industries records millions in revenue.

According to the series of surveys, most prisoners are given tedious, repetitive and sometimes dangerous jobs. Journalists found dozens of prisoners who suffered injuries on the job, for which they receive no workers’ compensation. The numbers are believed to be higher, but as prison officials refuse to release medical grievances for privacy reasons, there is no way of knowing.

Complaints about working conditions, many prisoners told reporters, are futile.

Even those who get quality jobs at up to $12 an hour have most of their wages taken away for fees and incarceration costs. The lucky ones who save and keep going for years leave prison with several thousand dollars for a fresh start.

To be clear, working for ACI is technically voluntary, and the people in question have been tried and convicted for their crimes. The diehards see no reason for pity: if they commit the crime, they should do the time.

Arizona Work Program Falls Short of Mission

The problem, however, goes beyond this simple argument.

Reasonable people would agree that the price criminals must pay is losing their freedom, not being forced into indentured servitude. And, certainly, without losing their dignity.

Prisoners, in essence, can choose to work for next to nothing in potentially bad conditions, get stuck in worse jobs inside prison walls, or even be punished if they refuse.

A few choices.

Prisons are able to do this thanks to the 13th Amendment, which prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude but allows states to force prisoners to work without having to pay them a penny. Eight states, including neighboring Texas, mandate free labor.

That Arizona pays prisoners does not justify the practice.

The work program as designed and executed by Arizona Correctional Industries falls far short of its stated mission.

Prisoners lack services to help them reintegrate into society

The series of surveys debunked one of ACI’s key selling points: that it significantly reduces recidivism among those who participated.

Republic and KJZZ reporters, blocked by the Department of Corrections, created their own computer program to download information from the department’s website for analysis and found that the recidivism rate was, in fact, hardly any different for inmates in the ACI program than for those who were not.

Corrections data also belies the boasts of rehabilitation. Over a nearly two-year period ending in November 2019, 71% of the prison population needed drug treatment, but only 17% could enroll in a program for it.

The report revealed near-universal condemnation by prisoners against the state, claiming, among other things, inadequate training and unsafe working conditions.

“It’s really hard to be used and used and used,” Marlo Kobylarek, a prisoner who worked for ACI for a year, told reporters. “And that sucks because it should be for a greater good than a greater profit. But that’s it. It’s just a profit.”

Is it really in the service of Arizona?

ACI trades a captive labor market with profiteers under a system that encourages labor exploitation and incarceration.

The Republic/KJZZ series should provoke scrutiny by policy makers both inside and outside the prison system.

Our leaders should ask themselves if Arizonans are being served when the department, of which Arizona Correctional Industries is emblematic, does little to successfully rehabilitate or prepare prisoners for reintegration into society. Or when its greatest successes are rather those of ACI’s income and its customers’ access to a stable and cheap workforce.

Are the focus and its results worthy of an institution that in recent years has renamed itself the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry?

Forced labor, legal or not, is wrong. No human being should be forced into de facto slavery – not in the 21st century, not in Arizona and not anywhere.

This is an opinion of the editorial board of The Arizona Republic.

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