‘It’s a drain on our humanity’: New report details forced prison labor in Texas
Texas is one of seven states, all in the South, that does not pay people imprisoned for their work. A new report from the University of Chicago Law School’s Global Human Rights Clinic and the American Civil Liberties Union estimates that about 800,000 people in prison are doing work, many of them in dangerous conditions.
Michael Barajas, editor of Bolts — a digital magazine covering criminal justice and voting rights — explains how Texas agencies profit from goods and services produced by people in prison. David Johnson, activist and former prison worker, is part of a growing movement to end forced prison labor. They joined Texas Standard to talk about the report’s findings and what activists are trying to accomplish in the state.
This transcript has been slightly edited for clarity:
Texas Standard: Michael, what has been learned from the report by the Global Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School and the ACLU? What did he find out about prison labor in Texas?
Michael Barajas: This report was really a kind of deep dive into available data, but also surveys of the incarcerated workers themselves. The dynamics are different in different states, but the central theme is that it is largely a system of forced and unpaid or radically underpaid labor that largely benefits the state prison systems themselves – some sort of maintenance related jobs or kitchen or janitorial or repair work. work, any kind of those things.
But also, as the report details the dynamics here in Texas, there are individual, state, and local government agencies that are also realizing cost savings by using cheap or very low-cost contracts through the state prison system for labor. labor or property. And that has changed over the course of history, to whom exactly you are authorized to sell these goods and services. But right now it’s mostly local government agencies, so cities, school boards, things of that nature.
David, while you were incarcerated, you worked on what was described as a “prison farm.” Where was it, and what was your experience?
David Johnson: This experience happened in Midway, Texas, in the Ferguson unit, aptly named after a discredited and deposed governor. But to describe it: it was torture. This has happened in all types of weather, especially blistering heat. It is expected to work with minimal water. And really, it spoke of the slavery it’s meant to replicate – recognizing that the only reason forced labor is still allowed in the prison system is as a result of the well-known loophole left in the 13th Amendment to allow it.
David, what exactly were you doing? Is a “prison farm” a literal farm, growing plants?
Absolutely. My specific experience – the imagery you’ve seen in many of the chain gang movies – my experience was being in a line of men in white two-piece suits, holding what they call aggies, but are garden hoes, wearing workwear boots, standing in the fields, counting the slaves. “One two three.” And we swing on it while we cut grass that isn’t even there, just to make us work, while armed and uniformed individuals sit on horses watching us, making sure that we know that if we are wrong in any way, we are at their mercy.
If that doesn’t evoke the call of slavery, I don’t know what does. A lot of people believe, because of the programming of our culture, that it’s deserved and that’s what people should do if they’re in jail. Baretta’s theme, “don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time”, when in fact it’s a drain on our humanity.
Michael, David mentioned the 13th amendment. Could you elaborate on how the authorities try to justify not paying prison workers for their work?
Prison agencies will usually justify their use of force and unpaid or drastically underpaid labor by claiming that they provide benefits that go beyond money. They will talk about teaching job skills and helping people succeed after release. I received a statement similar to that from the Texas prison system recently when I was writing the story. It’s just the fact that most incarcerated people, many of their families, many of their advocates on the outside will vehemently dispute these claims.
The majority of people who are in prison will return to their community. And we have research showing that recidivism is reduced when returning citizens have savings and stable employment, and the current prison labor dynamics, as David just described, just don’t prepare people for that success.
In Texas, according to the data, nearly $77 million worth of prisoner-made goods and services were sold in 2019. And yet, I hear what David is describing and it sounds like some kind of bullying. Michael, what is it to make money? Where is this money going?
Agriculture industries in Texas prisons sometimes even lose money. I think sometimes cruelty or hard work is the point. But the prison industry knows who it is selling goods and services to at a radically reduced or low cost. It’s up to your local school districts. I point out in the story how the city of Houston a few years ago got rid of a tire retreading contract because someone in a city council member’s office realized that it was this work dynamic – what David and many others call “slave day labor” – that underpinned this very low offer. And so, they didn’t move forward with it.
David, what are you working towards in Texas? You are part of a growing movement to end forced prison labor. What support do you see and where do you want it to go?
Regarding my work in the Coalition to Abolish Slavery Texas, or CAST, Savannah Eldrige and I work to develop a strong and vibrant coalition of different organizations focused simply on the abolition of slavery in its entirety through a state constitutional amendment or as part of a campaign contribution to the national movement to end the exception through the National Abolish Slavery Network.
And we got a great response. Although the recently approved platform of the Republican Party of Texas names a number of things that directly touch on what we are pursuing, I am actually grateful that things have happened the way they should call attention to the powers that be, so maybe the people who really need to come out and force the decision makers to act differently won’t be able to ignore the truth that stands before them and always has.
Michael, do you see any momentum or desire or interest in change when it comes to forced labor in Texas prisons?
Well, I think there’s definitely momentum thanks to organizers in Texas like David and Savannah. There was a bill in the last session that was introduced to start this state constitutional amendment process that David was just referring to and that hasn’t been heard despite much, I think, mounting pressure on the question. So I guess we’ll see in the future. I think there is potential for movement on all of these fronts, in part because of the awareness and advocacy that people like David continue to do.