Editors’ Note: Sourced in part from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, May 9, 2020.
In 1871, the Virginia Supreme Court declared that prisoners were “slaves of the state.” That edict has been emulated across the nation throughout its prison systems. Recently, the Richmond Times-Dispatch (RTD) generously touted what sounded like a press agent’s statement concerning the efforts of the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) and one of its units, Virginia Correctional Enterprises (VCE), in producing face masks.
In less than two months, half a million face masks were manufactured by a handful of offenders for use by 30,000 inmates, thousands of corrections officers and other staff of the Virginia Department of Corrections.
At $6.26 a dozen, the face guards have also been purchased by dozens of state agencies, local governments and jails thus far, generating more than $210,000 in sales, according to Virginia Correctional Enterprises, a company that pays the inmates 55 cents to 80 cents an hour for the work.
The VCE inmate/employees also manufacture other types of protective clothing and cleaning supplies used to help curb the spread of COVID-19 behind bars. In addition to protecting health, the Department of Corrections believes work for VCE teaches skills and helps released inmates from committing new crimes.
These puffery statements mask both the realities of prison labor and further contribute to public misunderstanding of the failure of prison rehabilitation. Having characterized the inmates as “VCE inmate/employees,” RTD ignored Virginia law, which exempts inmates from being employees. That mischaracterization is layered atop a second issue, namely that inmate offenders are paid “55 cents to 80 cents an hour.” Only in America are such statements expected to be unquestioned.
VCE is denoted by RTD as a “company,” which it is not, as it is a unit of VADOC ostensibly initiated some 75 years ago by the General Assembly. Priming VCE as a company with employees opens several avenues of further commercial and economic questions. If the sale of face masks generated $210,000, what are VCE’s annual sales? What is done with the income?
Perhaps most gratuitous is the following statement by RTD:
Inmates take pride in their efforts against the virus, but some are not happy about the circumstances surrounding their work and living conditions, and with what outside critics allege is little more than slave labor.
To its credit RTD printed excerpts from an inmate’s email, a prisoner at the Halifax Correctional Unit joined by 11 others.
My coworkers and me have been making sneeze and cough guards (face mask) for the department of corrections going on 7 weeks and counting. On various occasions we worked 12 hours, 10 hours, 9 hours for 13 days straight and 12 days straight. We get up in the morning for count, get rushed to breakfast get rushed to work, get worked hard all day and then get rushed back to the building and still don’t eat at the proper time. We’re trying to be law abiding citizens doing humanit[arian] work.
“My coworkers and me have been making sneeze and cough guards (face mask) for the department of corrections going on 7 weeks and counting,” the email explained. “On various occasions we worked 12 hours, 10 hours, 9 hours for 13 days straight and 12 days straight.”
“We get up in the morning for count, get rushed to breakfast get rushed to work, get worked hard all day and then get rushed back to the building and still don’t eat at the proper time. We’re trying to be law abiding citizens doing humanit[arian] work.”
“We do what we do to help our fellow inmates. Some VCE staff do what they do to help make the company look good.”
The only question we have is when or will the virus get into this facility? If the virus gets into VCE shops, who will make these masks? . . . As of [May 7], four inmates have died, 12 have been hospitalized and 631 inmates and 71 staff members have thus far tested positive for COVID-19.
Among other things, all inmates—in more than 40 facilities, some single or double-celled, others dormitory-style—are required to wear their VCE masks at all times unless instructed to remove them by a staff member.
The department says the VCE sneeze/cough guard mask helps prevent the spread of the virus but should not be worn in place of medical-grade, personal protective equipment masks in situations where more protection is required.
The Department of Corrections said the masks made by inmates have also been ordered by 34 state and local government agencies, including the Office of the Medical Examiner, the Virginia State Police and the Virginia National Guard.
In addition to the Halifax unit, the masks are being made in apparel plants at the Haynesville and Augusta correctional centers and the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. Inmates at the Wood Upholstery Plant at Lunenburg Correctional Center have also pitched in.
As many as 35 offenders at the Indian Creek Correctional Center are repackaging bulk cleaning supplies into smaller units to fill orders and 12 offenders at the Dillwyn Correctional Center metal plant were making face shields for use by DOC staff. That operation has since moved to the Nottoway Correctional Center’s wood plant.
VCE, as can be seen, manages a sizable network of commercial and industrial functions in which, RTD asserts, “inmates take pride in their efforts against the virus.”
Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said, “there is no Virginia law authorizing forced labor as a sanction for criminal activity. No judge sentences someone to hard labor, nor could they. Yet, the Virginia Correctional Enterprises system, backed up by prison discipline for refusal to participate, is clearly a system of forced labor.” A DOC spokeswoman declined to comment on the ACLU’s allegation, citing unidentified “active litigation.”
Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said, there is no Virginia law authorizing forced labor as a sanction for criminal activity. “No judge sentences someone to hard labor nor could they,” she said.
The ACLU argues that the failure to reduce the populations in Virginia prisons and jails means that prisoners live and work in facilities where COVID-19 is present and where they cannot maintain social distance or engage in self-protective hand-washing and other activities.
Inmate labor should not be exploited and anyone working in prisons and jails should only be doing so willingly and in return for fair wages, she said.
The inmate email to the RTD states, “We was told by the VCE staff that the Governor was requesting we make … large amounts of [masks] to make us work harder and made us believe we was getting recognized for our act of humanity to make the deadline on the orders. I don’t know if the governor actually called them, but I do know when they read us a list of emails from [officials] saying they appreciate what we’re doing — none was from him.”
The email also complained that the inmates are treated as if they are a COVID-19 threat to the staff noting the reality is different as, “Some staff [pat] us down without gloves and pass out trays without gloves. We are on the front line working with individuals that go home everyday that could possibly pass us the virus. We wasn’t given a death sentence.”
The pride in their efforts against the virus seems a curious statement, perhaps one put forth by a VADOC publicist.