[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 BPs 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  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 BPs 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 cant 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 didnt 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
 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 .
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  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 , 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 , 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?"
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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