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.