[Ppnews] BP Hires Prison Labor to Clean Up Spill While Coastal Residents Struggle

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jul 22 18:15:04 EDT 2010

BP Hires Prison Labor to Clean Up Spill While Coastal Residents Struggle

Abe Louise Young | July 21, 2010

In the first few days after BP’s Deepwater 
Horizon wellhead exploded, spewing crude oil into 
the Gulf of Mexico, cleanup workers could be seen 
on Louisiana beaches wearing scarlet pants and 
white t-shirts with the words "Inmate Labor" 
printed in large red block letters. Coastal 
residents, many of whom had just seen their 
livelihoods disappear, expressed outrage at 
community meetings; why should BP be using cheap 
or free prison labor when so many people were 
desperate for work? The outfits disappeared overnight.

Work crews in Grand Isle, La, still stand out. In 
a region where nine out of ten residents are 
white, the cleanup workers are almost exclusively 
African American men. The racialized nature of 
the cleanup is so conspicuous that Ben Jealous, 
the president of the NAACP, sent a 
letter [1] to BP CEO Tony Hayward on July 9, 
demanding to know why black people were 
over-represented in “the most physically 
difficult, lowest paying jobs, with the most significant exposure to toxins.”

Hiring prison labor is more than a way for BP to 
save money while cleaning up the biggest oil 
spill in history. By tapping into the inmate 
workforce, the company and its subcontractors get 
workers who are not only cheap but easily 
silenced­and it gets lucrative tax write-offs in the process.

Known to some as “the inmate state,” Louisiana 
has the highest rate of incarceration of any 
other state in the country. Seventy percent of 
its thirty-nine thousand inmates are 
African-American men. The Louisiana Department of 
Corrections (DOC) only has beds for half that 
many prisoners, so twenty thousand inmates live 
in parish jails, privately-run contract 
facilities and for-profit work release centers. 
Prisons and parish jails provide free daily labor 
to the state and private companies like BP, while 
also operating their own factories and farms, 
where inmates earn between zero and forty cents 
an hour. Obedient inmates, or "trustees," become 
eligible for work release in the last three years 
of their sentences. This means they can be a part 
of a market-rate, daily labor force that works 
for private companies outside the prison gates. 
The advantage for trustees is that they get to 
keep a portion of their earnings, redeemable upon 
release. The advantage for private companies is 
that trustees are covered under Work Opportunity 
Tax Credit, a holdover from Bush's Welfare to 
Work legislation that rewards private-sector 
employers for hiring risky "target groups." 
Businesses earn a tax credit of $2,400 for every 
work release inmate they hire. On top of that, 
they can earn back up to 40 percent of the wages 
they pay annually to "target group workers.”

If BP’s use of prison labor remains an open 
secret on the Gulf Coast, no one in an official 
capacity is saying so. At the Grand Isle base 
camp in early June, I called BP's Public 
Information line, and visited representatives for 
the Coast Guard Public Relations team, the 
Department of Homeland Security, and the La. 
Fisheries and Wildlife Department. They were all 
stumped. Were inmates doing shore protection or 
oil cleanup work? They had no idea. In fact, they 
said, they'd like to know­would I call them if I found out?

I got an answer one evening earlier this month, 
when I drove up the gravel driveway of the 
Lafourche Parish Work Release Center jail, just 
off Highway 90, halfway between New Orleans and 
Houma. Men were returning from a long day of 
shoveling oil-soaked sand into black trash bags 
in the sweltering heat. Wearing BP shirts, jeans 
and rubber boots (nothing identifying them as 
inmates), they arrived back at the jail in 
unmarked white vans, looking dog tired.

Beach cleanup is a Sisyphean task. Shorelines 
cleaned during the day become newly soaked with 
oil and dispersant overnight, so crews shovel up 
the same beaches again and again. Workers wear 
protective chin-to-boot coveralls (made out of 
high-density polyethylene and manufactured by 
Dupont), taped to steel-toed boots covered in 
yellow plastic. They work twenty minutes on, 
forty minutes off, as per Occupational Safety and 
Health Administration safety rules. The limited 
physical schedule allows workers to recover from 
the blazing sun and the oppressive heat that 
builds up inside their impermeable suits.

During their breaks, workers unzip the coveralls 
for ventilation, drink ice water from gallon 
thermoses and sit under white fabric tents. They 
start at 6am, take a half hour lunch and end the 
day at 6pm, adding up three to four hours of hard 
physical labor in twenty-minute increments. They 
are forbidden to speak to the public or the media 
by BP's now-notorious gag rule. At the end of the 
day, coveralls are stripped off and thrown in 
dumpsters, alongside oil-soaked booms and trash 
bags full of contaminated sand. The dumpsters are 
emptied into local HazMat landfills, free 
employees go home and the inmates are returned to work release centers.

Work release inmates are required to work for up 
to 12 hours a day, six days a week, sometimes 
averaging 72 hours per week. These are long hours 
for performing what may arguably be the most 
toxic job in America. Although the dangers of 
mixed oil and dispersant exposure are largely 
unknown, the chemicals in crude oil can damage 
every system in the body, as well as cell structures and DNA.

Inmates can’t pick and choose their work 
assignments and they face considerable 
repercussions for rejecting any job, including 
loss of earned "good time." The warden of the 
Terrebonne Parish Work Release Center in Houma 
explains: "If they say no to a job, they get that 
time that was taken off their sentence put right 
back on, and get sent right back to the lockup 
they came out of." This means that work release 
inmates who would rather protect their health 
than participate in the non-stop toxic cleanup 
run the risk of staying in prison longer.

Prisoners are already subject to well-documented 
health care deprivations while incarcerated, and 
are unlikely to have health insurance after 
release. Work release positions are covered by 
Worker's Compensation insurance, but pursuing 
claims long after exposure could be a Kafkaesque 
task. Besides, there is currently no system for 
tracking the medical impact of oil and dispersant 
exposure in cleanup workers or affected communities.

"They're not getting paid, it's part of their sentence”

To learn how many of the 20,000 prisoners housed 
outside of state prisons are involved in 
spill-related labor, I called the DOC Public 
Relations officer, Pam LaBorde, who ultimately 
discouraged me from seeking such information. 
("Frankly, I do not know where your story is 
going, but it does not sound positive,” she said on our third phone call.)

Going to prison officials directly didn’t help. 
The warden of a South Louisiana jail refused to 
discuss the matter, exclaiming, "You want me to 
lose my job?" A different warden, of a 
privately-owned center admitted, on condition of 
anonymity, that inmates from his facility had 
been employed in oil cleanup, but declined to 
answer further questions. Jefferson Parish 
President Steve Theriot and Plaquemines Parish 
President Billy Nungesser, and Grand Isle Police 
Chief Euris DuBois declined interview requests.

Transparency problems are longstanding with the 
La. DOC. There is also scant oversight of private 
prison facilities. Following Hurricane Katrina, 
the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued 
a 140-page 
[2] that documented abuses and botched prison 
evacuations, as well as the numerous times its 
requests for official information were rejected. 
“It appears that you are standing in the shoes of 
prisoners, and therefore DOC is exempted from 
providing any information which it might 
otherwise have to under public records law,” DOC 
lawyers told the 
<http://www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights>ACLU National Prisons Project [3].

Some officials have been more forthcoming. A 
lieutenant in the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff's 
Office told me that three crews of inmates were 
sandbagging in Buras, La. in case oil hit there. 
"They're not getting paid, it's part of their 
sentence,” she said. “They'll work as long as 
they're needed. It's a hard job because of the 
heat, but they're not refusing to work." In early 
May, Governor Bobby Jindal's office sent out a 
release [4] heralding the training of eighty 
inmates from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in 
"cleaning of oil-impacted wildlife recovered from 
coastal areas." DOC Spokesperson Pam LaBorde 
subsequently denied that any inmates participated in wildlife cleaning efforts.

Offering an exception to this policy of secrecy 
is Lafourche Parish Work Release Center, the only 
one in the state that is accredited by the 
American Correctional Association. It is audited 
regularly and abides by national standards of 
safety and accountability, which is perhaps why I 
was able to simply walk in on a Thursday afternoon and chat with the warden.

Captain Milfred Zeringue is a retired La. state 
police officer with a jaunty smile, powerful 
torso, and silver hair. His small, gray office is 
adorned with photos of many generations of his 
Louisiana family and a Norman Rockwell print 
picturing a policeman and a small runaway boy 
sharing a meaningful look at a soda fountain 
counter. A brass plaque confers the "Blood and 
Guts Award" upon Zeringue. Of 184 men living 
under the Captain's charge, 18 are currently 
assigned to oil spill work. The numbers change 
daily and are charted on white boards that stretch down the hallway.

Captain Zeringue says that inmates are glad for 
any opportunity they can get, and see work 
release jobs as a step up, a headstart on 
re-entry. "Our work release inmates are shipped 
to centers around the state according to employer 
demand,” he explains, describing the different 
types of skilled and unskilled labor. “I have 
carpenters, guys riding on the back of the trash 
trucks, guys working offshore on the oil rigs, 
doing welding, cooking. Employers like them 
because they are guaranteed a worker who's on time, drug-free, and sober.”

“And,” he adds, “because they do get a tax break."

Inside the center, men sit around long plastic 
tables watching TV, or nap on thin mattresses 
under grey wool covers. The windowless 
dormitories hold 20 to 30 men each in blue metal 
bunk beds. Hard hats hang off of lockers, ceiling 
fans circle slowly, and each bunk has a white 
mesh bag of laundry strung from one rung. An air 
of dejection and fatigue permeates the air, but 
the facility looks safe and clean. It's 
surrounded by chain link fence and staffed by 
former police officers. One long shelf stacked 
with donated romance and adventure novels serves 
as a library. GED classes and Alcoholics 
Anonymous meetings gather weekly. Individuals are 
free to walk around the halls, use pay phones, 
shoot pool, or sit and watch cars pass on the 
highway from a small outdoor yard. A doctor 
visits once a week. Inmates greet the Captain as 
we walk and jump to hold doors open for us.

Zeringue exudes a certain affection for the 
workers in his center. "To me, I'm kind of like 
Dad here. The inmates come to me and talk about 
their problems. They get antsy and nervous when 
they're close to getting out--how am I going to 
survive, how's my family gonna be with me?"

Like all Gulf Coast residents, inmates have good 
reason to feel anxious about the future. BP has 
received almost 80,000 claims for lost revenue in 
the wake of the spill. Scores of people are out 
of work, the offshore drilling industry is in 
limbo, and the age-old fishing and shrimping 
professions are looking death in the face. In the 
towns and bayous of the Gulf, anxiety and 
post-traumatic stress are taking hold.

In some places, the desperation is palpable. I 
met Randy Adams, a construction contractor from 
Grand Isle, on the sidewalk outside of a local 
bar. "This BP spill is turning me into an 
alcoholic, because I don't have anything to do," 
he says. "That, that, thing--that thing they 
did--" He points to the beach. He's unable to say 
“spill” or label it in any way. He points to the 
water again and again. "That thing has taken 
everything away from me. I have a gun under the 
front seat of my truck, and every day I decide, 
do I want to put a bullet in my skull? Live or 
die, that's my choice here, every day. My life is gone, do you understand?"

Scott Rojas of the Jefferson Parish Economic 
Development Commission suggests that for all the 
work to be done, finding local labor to do 
oil-spill cleanup jobs is trickier than it would 
seem. "These are really hard, and really low-paid 
jobs--I know agencies have put effort into 
finding locals to do the work. But they may not 
always have an easy time of it. As for reports of 
inmates being hired, I can't confirm or deny. The 
people down in Grand Isle swear to it, but you're 
going to have to talk to them."

The Louisiana Workforce Commission, the state 
unemployment agency, is advertising hazardous 
waste removal oil spill cleanup positions as 
"green jobs." They pay $10 per hour, so these 
jobs might seem like an attractive opportunity. 
But Paul Perkins, a retired Angola Prison deputy 
warden who owns and operates five for-profit 
inmate work release centers, says that even as 
the agency is “overflowing with applications for 
oil spill jobs,” the work force is inconsistent. 
“They might hire 400 people on Monday, and after 
one day of work, only 200 will come back on Tuesday.”

Hiring prison labor might prove more reliable, 
but it evokes understandable rage among Gulf 
Coast residents. According to Perkins, the 
Louisiana Secretary of Corrections, James 
LeBlanc, met with disaster contractors in early 
June and asked them to stop using inmate labor 
until all unemployed residents found work. But as 
the spill has so dramatically demonstrated, in 
this new environment, the government seems only 
able to make polite requests. BP calls the shots, 
and their private contractors, like ES&H, are the 
sole clean-up operators. From there, 
subcontractors, such as 
<http://ablebody.ablehq.com/>Able Body Labor [5], decide who to employ.

Working for BP: "This isn't what I would like to be doing.”

Anna Keller relocated to Grand Isle in May to 
work with Gulf Recovery LLC, to help develop 
community-based responses to the oil disaster. 
Also a member of 
Resistance New Orleans [6], Keller says, it is 
"common knowledge” that prisoners are doing 
cleanup. “If you talk to anyone working on the 
beach they'll tell you, yes, prisoners are 
working here." She describes a shipping container 
that sits at the turn-off for the Venice Boat 
Harbor. It advertises "Jails to Go,"
a company that installs barred windows and bunks 
in shipping containers so that they can hold work-release prisoners.

According to Keller, the use of inmate labor 
takes recovery one step further away from those 
people who are most intimate with the ecology, 
culture, and landscapes of the area. In her view, 
they should be hired first, and not just for the 
grunt jobs. "Community members should be hired in 
the planning stages, and paid for their 
expertise. The local people are the true experts here.”

Up the road at A-Bear's Restaurant in Houma, an 
elderly man in overalls describes his son's 
financial dilemmas to the room of locals over 
dinner. The son is forty, married with children, 
and was laid off from an oyster shucking factory 
shortly after the BP leak began. He's now walking 
door-to-door with a lawnmower, looking for grass 
to cut. The man holds his head in both arthritic 
hands. The waitress hands him a paper napkin to 
blot his eyes. I ask him if his son would work 
for BP in the cleanup and he grimaces. "Maybe, 
no, I don't think so,” he says. “That would be 
hard for his pride, you know? For that little money? No."

Beach cleanup workers do make the lowest wages in 
the recovery effort. Others on the BP payroll 
have it slightly better, but the jobs they are 
doing are a daily reminder of what they have 
lost. Chris Griffin is a French-speaking Cajun 
shrimper whose father and grandfather also 
captained shrimp boats. After oil contamination 
closed the Gulf waters, Griffin was hired to 
captain airboat tours of oil-impacted marshlands 
for BP. Three times a day he steers a slim 
four-seat boat with a deafening engine into the 
waters he's known all his life, while Coast Guard 
officials give media tours and answer the same grim questions again and again.

"This isn't what I would like to be doing," 
Griffin says, "but I'm glad I have a job so I can 
take care of my family. I'm not worrying about 
the money. Not everybody has that. Me, I'm 
worrying about the years in the future here. Will 
we keep cleaning it up? Will they take care of everybody?"

Source URL: 

[1] http://www.thegrio.com/opinion/naacp-what-we-want-to-see-with-bp.php
[3] http://www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights
[4] http://www.corrections.state.la.us/ehcc/
[5] http://ablebody.ablehq.com/
[6] http://www.criticalresistance.org/

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