One of Arkansas's top politicians, State Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren, a Republican, is using unpaid, forced inmate labor to work at his plastics company, which makes dock floats for Home Depot and Walmart, according to Prison Legal News. Shocking? Sure. Illegal? Well, it depends on whom you ask. Prison labor, where inmates earn nothing or close to nothing, is used to man call centers, manufacture equipment for the US military, and otherwise put small businesses around the country out of business because they simply can't compete with an entity that has few or no labor costs. It's the American way of doing business.
The odd thing about the program that Hendren is taking advantage of is that many judges and politicians, especially in the south, consider it to be "progressive." For example, courts in Oklahoma and Arkansas send men to the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Program (DARP) as an alternative to prison, and there they are supposed to receive drug treatment and counseling. A recent investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting, however, found that there is no treatment or counseling and that prisoners serve simply as free labor for private industry.
Indeed, in the DARP program, prisoners work full-time jobs in factories and chicken processing plants, companies pay a discounted rate to the rehabs for the labor, and literally none of that money is passed on to the prisoners, either as salary or for counseling. It's slave labor. If they refuse to do the work, they are moved from the drug rehab to a state prison.
Hendren, for his part, isn't shying away from what he's doing. He bragged to the press recently, "I've been creating jobs for over 20 years. A country cannot survive if it cannot feed itself and make things." He added that he's "proud to give kids in drug rehab programs a second chance."
A lawsuit may soon change all that. Mark Fochtman, a former rehab prisoner, filed suit in an Arkansas court, saying that he was forced to work in Hendren's company on a production line that melted plastic into dock floats and boat slips. In his affidavit, he said, "The environment was very caustic working around melted plastics. Because of the work environment, the turnover rate during my time was high." He said that if DARP workers got hurt on the job and couldn't work, they were kicked out of the program and sent to prison. Others just worked through the pain to avoid prison.
Another prisoner, Dylan Willis, who is also a plaintiff in the suit, said that his face, arms, and legs are still covered with burn scars from molten plastic that shot out of a machine. Willis said his supervisors shrugged off his injuries as "cosmetic" and gave him some Neosporin.
Hendren is well connected in Arkansas politics. Besides being the Senate Majority Leader, he is Governor Asa Hutchinson's nephew. His father, Kim, with whom he started the company, also is a Republican state legislator.
If all of this sounds illegal, it likely is. In 2014, the Arkansas Department of Community Corrections revoked DARP's license to house parolees after discovering that the program refused to pay workers the minimum wage. As a result, Arkansas prisons are no longer supposed to send parolees to the program. The courts, however, continue to do so in violation of the law, but with no consequences.
Of course, the same thing happens in the federal prison system, too. Federal Prison Industries, also known as UNICOR, a wholly-owned US government corporation, was created in 1934 as a labor program for federal prisoners. Like Hendren's company, it forces prisoners to manufacture goods for sale to a variety of US government agencies and departments.
When I was incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution at Loretto, Pennsylvania, we had a UNICOR factory that manufactured high-speed cable for the US Navy. So much of it was deemed to be substandard that the plant was closed twice during my short 23-month stay there.
The most obvious problems, then, are twofold: slave labor doesn't make for quality production, and private manufacturers can't compete with an organization that has a payroll of almost nothing.
Using forced labor in private industry ought to be illegal everywhere in the country. Indeed, society would be better off if prisoners were paid a real wage. They could then pay whatever restitution they may have, whether to victims or to the government, and they could save money that they then could use to get back on their feet once they're released from prison.
But that won't happen. There is no "prisoner lobby" on Capitol Hill. And no member of Congress or the state legislatures will win any votes by advocating that convicted criminals be paid even the minimum wage. It's a vicious cycle that will repeat itself until a courageous judge finally puts an end to it.
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