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High Country News

The essential — and dangerous — work prisoners do

Incarcerated people respond to pandemics, wildfires, avian flu outbreaks, mudslides and more.

Incarcerated people sew protective masks at Las Colinas Women’s Detention Facility in Santee, California. | Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images

Last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic swept through nursing homes, exhausted medical supplies and sent the country into lockdown, prison officials gave incarcerated people their marching orders: Manufacture hand sanitizer, sew face masks, transport dead bodies, dig graves.

The workers toiled in crowded factories, overflowing morgues and inside their own prisons, where they often lacked access to essentials like soap and adequate medical care. In the process, they became one of the most vulnerable — and yet essential — parts of the nation’s emergency response.

Seven Western states — Montana, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, California and Arizona — specify incarcerated labor as a resource in their state emergency operation plans. Others, like Colorado, passed legislation in 1998 like the Inmate Disaster Relief Program, which allowed the state to use the workforce for wildfires and other emergencies. (Recently, Colorado passed a new law by the same name that requires the state’s fire division to encourage formerly incarcerated firefighters to apply for paid work in the field.) The reason is simple: “(Incarcerated workers) are extremely low-cost,” said Carlee Purdum, an assistant research professor with the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, such workers received anywhere from 14 cents to $1.41 an hour on average in 2017. And because they are technically considered a state resource, said Purdum, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, further subsidizes the cost of their labor when states are overwhelmed by natural disasters.

The workers can be tapped for nearly anything. “I’ve seen and documented the use of incarcerated workers for a lot of different types of hazardous work, from cleaning up oil spills to going through and eliminating infected birds with the avian flu,” said Purdum. “Really, anything that happens in a disaster, if it overwhelms the community, and (state or local officials) feel like they have a need, they will turn to incarcerated workers.”

But incarcerated people aren’t just vulnerable owing to the hazardous nature of the work they do; they lack the power to keep themselves safe and are forced to rely on prison officials for their well-being in dangerous situations. High Country News spoke with Purdum, who has spent her career researching the unique problems faced by incarcerated people during disasters, along with lesser-known aspects of prisoners’ labor.

Read the full interview: https://www.hcn.org/articles/south-labor-the-essential-and-dangerous-work-prisoners-do

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High Country News

High Country News

Working to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.

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