Want a job in Alabama? Get arrested

Published 9:03 am Tuesday, March 20, 2012

It was an image that represented Alabama’s past more than the present. You could hear the cadence of their voices penetrate the brutal atmosphere as they labored under the pretense of rehabilitation. Hooh! Aah! Hooh! Aah! Their feet had blisters, ankles swollen, as their bodies ached from doing the convict shuffle.

This wasn’t a new dance but it was the way they were forced to walk to avoid tripping while in leg irons. They were the state’s underpaid and free labor work crew known as the chain gang.

Over the years, several attempts have been used to justify this type of “rehabilitation:” societal restitution for the cost of housing, meals and guarding the inmates, reducing inmates’ idleness, and to satisfy the needs of politicians to appear “tough on crime.”

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The inmates who usually participated on chain gangs were often housed on prison farms. On a prison farm, penal labor convicts are put to economical use on a “farm” commonly for manual labor.

Work includes, but is not limited to, agriculture, logging, as well as the building of railways and state highways. In addition, convicts may also be leased for non-agricultural work, either directly to state entities, or to private industry. Such servitude disgraced Alabama in the 20th century and now has the potential to continue the disgrace.

Last week House Bill 30 was introduced to authorize the Department of Corrections to contract or enter into agreement with private industry in order to implement work-oriented rehabilitation programs in an actual private enterprise work environment for inmates sentenced to the department. The bill states that the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections may contract or enter into agreement with private individuals, enterprises, partnerships or corporations to develop joint plants, businesses, factories or commercial enterprises. There are several problems with this bill, but for the time being I will only share a few.

With high unemployment rates within the state of Alabama, specifically in the Black Belt region, it is unconstitutional for the government to compete with the free market for jobs. It is disturbing that these unnamed private companies have all of these jobs to hire inmates, while thousands of Alabamians remain unemployed or underemployed. Why can’t they hire people who are not incarcerated? Is this an attempt to purchase inmate labor from the government in order to get a steep discount for labor?

This bill attempts to be sold on the premises that inmates being leased to private companies will earn not less than the prevailing wage for work of a similar nature in the private sector. The problem with such rationale is that as long as there are cheap laborers available, companies have no need to increase wages.

This bill is directed at hiring people who have committed a crime. Think about it. More than half of Alabama’s inmates do not have a high school diploma, may suffer from mental illness or struggle with substance abuse. Yet, the Education Trust Fund and the Department of Mental Health budgets continue to dwindle. Once again, our priorities have been misplaced. By investing in education and mental health services, we can deter much of the criminal activity that occurs in our communities and thus decrease recidivism. As Frederick Douglas said, “It is easier to build strong children then to repair broken men.”

It has become a sad day in Alabama when the only way you can find employment is to become an inmate.