Frank Dwayne Ellington showed up at an Alabama chicken factory last October for his weekend shift, expecting to work off another day of his life sentence. As one of the Alabama inmates selected to work in a prison-labor program known as work-release, Ellington might have considered himself lucky to land a job that allowed him to escape the rough, often violent conditions behind bars. He was assigned to a cleaning position at a plant run by the major poultry company Koch Foods. But when a machine he was cleaning ensnared his arm, it pulled him into the machine and killed him on the spot.
It’s not clear why Ellington reached in to clean the “sunflower-wheel” processing machine while it was still on, but he may have been chasing the clock. His factory runs on speed and volume, with production targets typically reaching about 140 carcasses per minute. Injury is extremely common, and for the prison workforce, wide legal loopholes make them one of the country’s most vulnerable workforces.
In an investigation on the use of prison labor in the Alabama poultry industry, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) estimates that in at least seven states, “dozens of poultry companies” have taken advantage of the prison workforce by hiring about 600 people in recent years. State records obtained by the SPLC indicate that hundreds more inmates are employed in other private-sector jobs through a patchwork of contracts and tax breaks.
Work-release employees are generally entitled to some basic health and safety protections on the job, but industry conditions are brutal for all poultry workers. According to federal data, poultry-processing plants like Ashland see nearly twice the national average rate of injury for the general workforce. Workplace-related illness is roughly six times the national average, ranging from repetitive-stress injuries to respiratory problems from chemical exposure.
In Ellington’s case, a six-month investigation by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration revealed evidence that on the plant’s kill and evisceration lines, service and maintenance workers had not received proper training for the electrical equipment, and as a result, according to the SPLC, “Ellington and others might not have known how to correctly turn off or slow down the machines for cleaning.”
About 167 injury cases, including eight deaths and numerous amputations, were investigated officially by federal authorities in 2015. According to state records from Georgia and North Carolina, the SPLC found that “at least two dozen prisoners have been injured at their poultry jobs since 2015.” Many more injuries may go unreported in the industry, as many workers, impoverished, often undocumented, fear retaliation from management. Systematic suppression of union organizing, and rampant crackdowns on immigrant workers by federal authorities in recent years, have further weakened basic protections on the job. The SPLC’s own surveys of hundreds of workers in Alabama, mostly immigrants, showed that nearly three in four workers experienced work-related illness or injury, often with no legal recourse.
The SPLC estimates that the Trump administration could significantly ramp up demand for state prisoners as an auxiliary workforce. Compared to undocumented Latino workers who have been the mainstay of Alabama’s low-wage poultry processing labor, work-release inmates are in some ways even more easily exploited and manipulated, the SPLC says, because “they won’t get arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but they can be sent back to prison, and they can’t move away.”
The major “benefit” of private-sector work for inmates is the ability to earn, at least on paper, an hourly wage. But according to the SPLC, though minimum-wage standards apply, after fees and other deductions skimmed by the Alabama Department of Corrections, workers end up with just 13 cents on the dollar. But in recent years the state has drawn about $11 million annually on average from the work-release program. Participating firms can also benefit from additional government wage subsidies aimed at incentivizing prisoner hires. Many, like Ellington, are simply hoping to work off long-standing debts, which consumed about 25 percent of his daily earnings. He died owing about $4,800 in court debt.
According to the SPLC, “what happens to their wages once deposited in their prison accounts is beyond the reach of employment laws because the deductions made are by the state and are not controlled or directed by the employers.” Though there have been attempts to legally challenge unfair deductions for various prison-related fees, they add, “These deductions are authorized by state statute so unless the state goes outside of what’s allowed in the statute, these attempts usually fail.” So incarcerated people automatically relinquish to the state not only their freedom but their earnings as well.
SPLC researchers observed that prisoner labor would make a particularly convenient replacement for an immigrant workforce that has been thinned out by ICE: Such workers are typically placed in the toughest jobs at the factory, and prison authorities “basically want to bend over backwards to accommodate the poultry plants…so when a worker complains, [the Department of Corrections] is quick to return that person to prison and send out someone who will not complain.”
The link between the poultry trade and the prison system raises crucial ethical questions about any use of prisoners in low-wage private-sector work. Prison labor currently touches many sectors, particularly in manufacturing, telecommunications, and, in particular, food industries. Whole Foods recently came under fire for marketing farmed fish and goat milk produced with labor from Colorado prisons, triggering a public outcry followed by promises by the company to reform its supply chains.
The socially-responsible-investment firm Northstar Asset Management, in a recent analysis of labor in the prison system, argued that “by denying inmates fair wages and basic employee rights, we are continuing to deepen the economic inequality that was embedded in slavery. Prison labor takes advantage of a captive workforce that ability to speak out against unfair conditions, and it robs inmates’ families of supportive wages.”
And in another twisted intersection between the state’s regular incarcerated population and the immigration system, immigrants detained in private prison facilities have also reported being subjected to coerced labor, doing in-house maintenance tasks for food rations.
The exploitation of prison and immigrant labor are two sides of a continuum of economic degradation. Whether criminalized by immigration authorities or incarcerated by the state, these workers are disposable, interchangeable, and ultimately, invisible.