BP Hires Prison Labor to Clean Up Spill While Coastal Residents Struggle
Inside the center, men sit around long plastic tables watching TV, or nap on thin mattresses under grey wool covers. The windowless dormitories hold twenty to thirty men each in blue metal bunk beds. Hard hats hang off of lockers, ceiling fans circle slowly, and each bunk has a white mesh bag of laundry strung from one rung. An air of dejection and fatigue permeates the atmosphere, but the facility looks safe and clean. It's surrounded by chain link fence and staffed by former police officers. One long shelf stacked with donated romance and adventure novels serves as a library. GED classes and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings gather weekly. Individuals are free to walk around the halls, use pay phones, shoot pool, or sit and watch cars pass on the highway from a small outdoor yard. A doctor visits once a week. Inmates greet the captain as we walk and jump to hold doors open for us.
Zeringue exudes a certain affection for the workers in his center. "To me, I'm kind of like Dad here. The inmates come to me and talk about their problems. They get antsy and nervous when they're close to getting out—how am I going to survive, how's my family gonna be with me?"
Like all Gulf Coast residents, inmates have good reason to feel anxious about the future. BP has received almost 80,000 claims for lost revenue in the wake of the spill. Scores of people are out of work, the offshore drilling industry is in limbo and the age-old fishing and shrimping professions are looking death in the face. In the towns and bayous of the gulf, anxiety and post-traumatic stress are taking hold.
In some places, the desperation is palpable. I met Randy Adams, a construction contractor from Grand Isle, on the sidewalk outside of a local bar. "This BP spill is turning me into an alcoholic, because I don't have anything to do," he says. "That, that, thing—that thing they did—" He points to the beach. He's unable to say "spill" or label it in any way. He points to the water again and again. "That thing has taken everything away from me. I have a gun under the front seat of my truck, and every day I decide, do I want to put a bullet in my skull? Live or die, that's my choice here, every day. My life is gone, do you understand?"
Scott Rojas of the Jefferson Parish Economic Development Commission suggests that for all the work to be done, finding local labor to do oil-spill cleanup jobs is trickier than it would seem. "These are really hard, and really low-paid jobs—I know agencies have put effort into finding locals to do the work. But they may not always have an easy time of it. As for reports of inmates being hired, I can't confirm or deny. The people down in Grand Isle swear to it, but you're going to have to talk to them."
The Louisiana Workforce Commission, the state unemployment agency, is advertising hazardous waste removal oil spill cleanup positions as "green jobs." They pay $10 per hour, so these jobs might seem like an attractive opportunity. But Paul Perkins, a retired Angola Prison deputy warden who owns and operates five for-profit inmate work release centers, says 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."
Hiring prison labor might prove more reliable, but it evokes understandable rage among Gulf Coast residents. According to Perkins, the Louisiana Secretary of Corrections, James LeBlanc, met with disaster contractors in early June and asked them to stop using inmate labor until all unemployed residents found work. But as the spill has so dramatically demonstrated, in this new environment, the government seems only able to make polite requests. BP calls the shots, and its private contractors, like ES&H, are the sole clean-up operators. From there, subcontractors, such as Able Body Labor, decide whom to employ.
Working for BP: "This isn't what I would like to be doing."
Anna Keller relocated to Grand Isle in May to work with Gulf Recovery LLC, to help develop community-based responses to the oil disaster. Also a member of Critical Resistance New Orleans, Keller says, it is "common knowledge" that prisoners are doing cleanup. "If you talk to anyone working on the beach they'll tell you, yes, prisoners are working here." She describes a shipping container that sits at the turn-off for the Venice Boat Harbor, advertising "Jails to Go." Such containers work as contract labor housing for work release prisoners, with bunks inside, bars on the windows, and deadbolts on the doors.
According to Keller, the use of inmate labor takes recovery one step further away from those people who are most intimate with the ecology, culture and landscapes of the area. In her view, they should be hired first, and not just for the grunt jobs. "Community members should be hired in the planning stages, and paid for their expertise. The local people are the true experts here."
Up the road at A-Bear's Restaurant in Houma, an elderly man in overalls describes his son's financial dilemmas to the room of locals over dinner. The son is 40, married with children, and was laid off from an oyster shucking factory shortly after the BP leak began. He's now walking door-to-door with a lawnmower, looking for grass to cut. The man holds his head in both arthritic hands. The waitress hands him a paper napkin to blot his eyes. I ask him if his son would work for BP in the cleanup and he grimaces. "Maybe, no, I don't think so," he says. "That would be hard for his pride, you know? For that little money? No."
Beach cleanup workers do make the lowest wages in the recovery effort. Others on the BP payroll have it slightly better, but the jobs they are doing are a daily reminder of what they have lost. Chris Griffin is a French-speaking Cajun shrimper whose father and grandfather also captained shrimp boats. After oil contamination closed the gulf waters, Griffin was hired to captain airboat tours of oil-impacted marshlands for BP. Three times a day he steers a slim four-seat boat with a deafening engine into the waters he's known all his life, while Coast Guard officials give media tours and answer the same grim questions again and again.
"This isn't what I would like to be doing," Griffin says, "but I'm glad I have a job so I can take care of my family. I'm not worrying about the money. Not everybody has that. Me, I'm worrying about the years in the future here. Will we keep cleaning it up? Will they take care of everybody?"