Disaster work is often carried out by prisoners – who get paid as little as 14 cents an hour despite dangers

by J. Carlee Purdum, Texas A&M University

Efforts to beat back wildfires ravaging Western states in the U.S. have been hampered this year by depleted numbers of “orange angels” – incarcerated workers deployed as firefighters.

Their lower numbers coincide with the early release for eligible prisoners and the quarantining of others to combat the spread of COVID-19.

The potential impact that having fewer prisoners to draw upon highlights the crucial role that incarcerated workers play in disaster response. While many people are aware that prisoners work to help contain wildfires in California and elsewhere, less well known is the role incarcerated workers play as a labor source across a variety of disasters throughout the country.

As a social scientist, I study the impact of disasters on incarcerated populations. I recently co-authored a study on the role of incarcerated workers in state emergency operations plans – the primary emergency planning documents for state governments. We found that 30 out of the 47 states analyzed, including California, Texas and Florida, had explicit instructions to use prisoners for emergencies and disasters. Furthermore, we identified at least 34 disaster-related tasks that states assign to incarcerated workers. Delaware, New Jersey and Tennessee were not included in our analysis as their plans were not publicly available.

These include work that requires minimal training such as making sandbags, clearing debris, handling supplies and caring for pets for evacuees. But it also includes roles that require specialized training like fighting fires, collecting and disposing contaminated animal carcasses and cleaning up hazardous materials.

Some of these tasks put incarcerated workers at risk of injury or ill health.

Prisoners clearing vegetation to prevent the spread of a wildfire in Yucaipa, California. David McNew/AFP via Getty Images

14 cents an hour

Prison systems have long championed the work of incarcerated persons in emergencies and disasters as a demonstration of the value of prisons to local communities and the state.

State prison systems often have internal policies that guide the use of incarcerated persons to assist with disaster operations. For example, the Alabama Department of Corrections’ administrative regulations dictate that in the event of a disaster, “the major support of the [department] will be manpower” including the use of “inmate labor.”

In addition, state laws across the U.S. often specifically state that incarcerated workers may be assigned to work in disaster conditions.

For example, Georgia allows for incarcerated workers to be required to work in conditions that may jeopardize their health if an emergency threatens the lives of others or of public property. Meanwhile Colorado passed legislation in 1998 that created the Inmate Disaster Relief Program under which the state can “form a labor pool” to “fight forest fires, help with flood relief, and assist in the prevention of or clean up after other natural or man-made disasters.”

As with wildfire programs, incarcerated workers are looked to in times of disaster primarily because they are a low-cost substitution for civilian workers. Incarcerated workers are paid very low wages averaging between US$0.14 and $0.63 an hour. And some states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and Texas, don’t pay incarcerated workers at all.

The cost of inmate labor is offset through federal subsidies. FEMA’s public assistance program provides states with “funding for prisoner transportation to the worksite and extraordinary costs of security guards, food and lodging.” This provides a significant financial incentive to use incarcerated workers for disaster labor. After Hurricane Michael in 2018, FEMA awarded the Florida Department of Corrections $311,305 for debris removal.

Forced labor

Not all disaster work is voluntary for incarcerated persons. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows for incarcerated persons to be compelled to participate in labor without their consent as part of their punishment. That applies to disaster work too.

The Constitution’s Eighth Amendment “forbids knowingly compelling an inmate to perform labor that is beyond the inmate’s strength, dangerous to his or her life or health, or unduly painful.” However, in the context of disasters, it is challenging to know whether or not the situation or the environment is truly safe. And little is known about the training prisoners receive.

If incarcerated persons refuse to participate, they may face serious consequences, such as being sent to solitary confinement, the loss of earned time off their sentences or the loss of family visitation.

Deaths of incarcerated firefighters are reported alongside those of civilian firefighters, and there is no way to accurately track the number of prisoners who have died or been injured during disaster-related work. However, there are known examples of fatalities. In 2003, the South Dakota Department of Corrections “Emergency Response Inmate Work Program” was scrutinized after a 22-year-old man, Neil Ambrose, was electrocuted by a downed power line while cleaning up debris after a storm.

Ambrose reportedly expressed prior concerns about the hazardous work but was told he would be charged with “disrupting a work zone” and would be sent to solitary confinement if he did not participate. Later, the correctional officer in charge of Ambrose and those on the work crew was found responsible for his death in that he knew the downed power line was a safety threat. It was also later shown that the only training Ambrose had received was a short video on safely operating chainsaws.

Exploitation and harm

Some advocates for prisoners’ rights have begun drawing attention to the vulnerability of incarcerated workers in disasters. After Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice program published a guidebook called “In the Eye of the Storm” to help communities make disaster response and recovery processes more equitable. The guidebook includes suggestions for how to advocate specifically for worker protections for incarcerated persons. Community members are encouraged to ask about whether the incarcerated workers have received relevant training and adequate protective equipment and if their participation in the work is voluntary.

Incarcerated workers are deeply embedded throughout emergency management in the United States. Yet so much attention remains focused on the most visible and well-known programs, their role – and the potential for exploitation and harm – in many other disasters remains overlooked.The Conversation

Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

What the CDC eviction ban means for tenants and landlords: 6 questions answered

by Katy Ramsey Mason, University of Memphis

Editor’s note: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order on Sept. 1 banning evictions of people who lost work as a result of the pandemic. To benefit, renters must sign a declaration that they don’t make more than US$99,000 a year or $198,000 for those filing a joint return and that they essentially have no options other than homelessness. But the order, which takes effect on Sept. 4, leaves some questions unanswered. We asked Katy Ramsey Mason, an assistant professor of law and director of the University of Memphis Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic, to answer some of them.

The CDC order may offer some tenants breathing room. Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

1. What does the order do?

The order prohibits property owners from evicting covered tenants from any residential property because of nonpayment of rent before Dec. 31, 2020. It does not apply to any evictions that might be brought on grounds other than nonpayment, such as nuisance or alleged criminal activity.

It requires tenants to sign and submit a declaration to the landlord certifying under penalty that they qualify for protection under the moratorium. It does not relieve tenants from the obligation to pay rent – all of it comes due on Jan. 1, 2021 – and it allows landlords to continue to charge late fees and other penalties as permitted by law.

2. Who qualifies?

The CDC’s order applies to as many as 40 million renters across the country who could be at risk of eviction for nonpayment of rent.

It is more comprehensive than the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act eviction moratorium, which expired on July 24 and only applied to an estimated 12.3 million renters, or about 28% of rental properties nationwide. The new order applies to tenants who live in any rental property in any place in the U.S. and its territories that does not already have an eviction moratorium with the same or greater protections than the CDC order. There are still 20 states with some form of a moratorium in place, about half of which are more comprehensive than the CDC’s moratorium. All of those moratoriums are unaffected.

Other than the financial requirements, to qualify for relief under the CDC order a tenant must certify that he or she is not able to pay full rent due to substantial income loss and has attempted to obtain government assistance with rent, and must commit to making partial rent payments to the extent of his or her ability.

3. What authority does the CDC have to do this?

The CDC is invoking its powers under federal law to take action to prevent the spread of communicable disease if it finds that state or local prevention measures are insufficient. The order emphasizes the link between homelessness and the spread of COVID-19 and states that the high levels of homelessness that would result from widespread evictions would increase the risk of interstate transmission of the virus.

4. What does it mean for landlords?

The CDC’s order is certain to be unwelcome news for many landlords, who have already been struggling through the pandemic.

Many tenants have been unable to pay rent, and nonpayment evictions have been limited by state moratoriums and the coronavirus relief bill. According to the 2015 American Housing Survey, slightly less than half of rental properties are owned by “mom and pop” landlords, while the rest are owned by business entities. If landlords are not able to pay their mortgages and other costs, it could result in a loss of affordable housing units across the country.

Under the CDC’s order, landlords can continue to collect rent and charge late fees and other penalties, but they cannot evict tenants who don’t pay. The order also does not allocate any additional funding to assist tenants or landlords with unpaid rent, but encourages local governments to use coronavirus relief funds that have already been distributed towards rental assistance programs.

5. How will it be enforced?

Unlike the CARES Act moratorium, which had no enforcement mechanism, the CDC eviction moratorium imposes significant criminal penalties on violators. An individual who violates the order can be fined up to $100,000 and/or one year in jail. If a death results from the violation, the fine increases to up to $250,000.

If an organization or company violates the order, the monetary fines increase to a maximum of $200,000 if there is no death and $500,000 if there is a death. The order authorizes the Department of Justice to “initiate court proceedings” to seek those penalties.

6. What happens when the order expires?

When the order expires on Dec. 31, landlords will again be able to initiate eviction proceedings in accordance with state law – unless the moratorium is extended. If tenants have been unable to pay their full rent up to that point, they will be responsible for all of the arrears that have accrued – putting them at risk of losing their homes in the middle of winter. Some members of Congress have been pushing for additional funding to assist tenants – and landlords – with unpaid rent, but negotiations over another relief bill remain stalled.The Conversation

Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

POWERFUL Black Lives Matter performance

Diversity is a British street dance troupe formed in 2007 and based in London. They are best known for winning the 3rd series of Britain's Got Talent (BGT) in 2009, beating out Susan Boyle, in the live final. They returned to the BGT stage on September 5, 2020, and performed a powerful Black Lives Matter performance that was entertaining, emotional and inspirational.

As legions of white people embrace the Black Lives Matter movement, Diversity's performance captured what could possible be the moment in history where Dr. King's dream starts to become realized. I've watched in amazement images from Portland, OR, during 100 straight days of protest. Portland one of the whitest major cities in America, with less than 6% black residents, has become the epicenter of the Black Lives Matter protest.

100 Days of Protests in Portland

The same day of Diversity's Black Lives Matter performance, Portland marked their 100th straight day of Black Lives Matter protest in response to the murder of George Floyd. Protesters, activists and city leaders weigh in below on how Portland became the center of the national conversation over systemic racism and police brutality.

Before real change can occur, change must first occur in the minds and hearts of people. As I drive around the greater St. Louis area and see Black Lives Matter signs displayed in front of white homes, I'm inspired and hopeful that things will change.