$16 billion company sued over free inmate labor
January 9, 2020 12:34 PM   Subscribe

When he was arrested in October 2018 and couldn’t afford bail, Davis was sent back to Santa Rita. He spent the next four months working eight hours a day in the kitchen. Monday through Friday, he prepared trays of food that were wheeled on robotic carts to the housing units or shipped to jails in nearby counties. The work was overseen by employees of Aramark, a $16.2 billion multinational food and facility services conglomerate. Since at least 2006, Aramark has held contracts worth more than $94.5 million to feed Alameda County’s inmates. Neither Aramark nor Alameda County paid Davis for his labor, reports Mother Jones.

... The plaintiffs claim that their unpaid kitchen jobs were forced labor, a violation of the Constitution, the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and a 1990 California law that requires private companies to pay prisoners fair wages. ...

The suit—which its lawyers believe could be the first of its kind involving a county jail—alleges that sheriff’s deputies forced inmates to work by threatening them with solitary confinement or longer sentences if they refused, or with firing if they needed take a sick day. Davis says that when he tried to take a day off to attend a GED class, he was threatened with being “rolled up”—fired from his job and transferred to another housing unit. Both Davis and Abbey say they know inmates who refused to go to work who lost up to 30 days of “good time” credits, extending their time behind bars.

Kelly, the sheriff’s spokesperson, says inmates were allowed to quit their jobs or turn down kitchen assignments without punishment, but those who refused to go to work could face disciplinary action including losing good time credits or commissary access. “This is not a free society,” Kelly says. “You’re in jail, under jail rules. You have to comply with those rules.” But he stresses that inmates who volunteer for kitchen jobs “really do enjoy the work” because it offers a way to pass the time and socialize.
posted by Bella Donna (15 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
“really do enjoy the work” because it offers a way to pass the time and socialize.

And slaves were really happy because they got food and shelter.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:40 PM on January 9 [34 favorites]

“The whole operation is run by the Aramark corporation,” says Sgt. Ray Kelly, the sheriff’s office spokesperson. “We just kind of facilitate.”

Hopefully a judge can explain the legal notion of complicity to the kind-of-facilitating law enforcement officers.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 12:51 PM on January 9 [30 favorites]

“really do enjoy the work”

'Work makes you free' or something...

Pretty sickening in the first place with that attitude, doubly so that there's profit margin involved for corporations and, subsequently of course, individuals.

I honestly would be ok with a reasonably tempered version of this where inmates offset the cost of their incarceration via work that either improved their situation via healthy alternatives or better prepared meals or more autonomy or skills being incorporated or crafts being produced or what not... well, except for the fact that it would take about 17 nanoseconds for it to be exploited into something that, once again, preyed upon the weak and provided profit for the strong and corrupt and those that are less than altruistic.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:57 PM on January 9 [5 favorites]

“really do enjoy the work” because it offers a way to pass the time and socialize.

From the complaint (on behalf of the prisoners):"...working in the kitchen means that plaintiffs can get of their cells for some portion of the day, which is beneficial to their physical and mental health."

So at least they agree on that. But maybe they shouldn't have to perform unpaid, forced work to get out of their cells in the first place? And it sounds like the law is pretty clear that they need to be paid at least 1/5 of the outside wage.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:08 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]

It would be one thing if it were truly voluntary, not that a $16 billion company needs to exploit free labor to begin with. But that prisoners were being punished if they wanted to do something like study instead is an obscenity on top of a obscenity. Some people lost time they had earned so they ended up being forced to be in jail 30 days longer, for example, because they did not want to labor in this way. I don’t object to a healthy system that helps keep incarcerated individuals occupied and educated. But it’s not like our extremely dysfunctional and toxic capitalist patriarchy needs extra victims.
posted by Bella Donna at 1:41 PM on January 9 [14 favorites]

This is horrifying. It's like there's just no morality left at the top. Where are the goddamned grownups?
posted by Mchelly at 2:16 PM on January 9 [4 favorites]

Just a note: that these people were enslaved is only unconstitutional because they were not convicted of a crime. Our constitution permits slavery as a punishment subsequent to conviction.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:24 PM on January 9 [30 favorites]

Slavery was never actually abolished in this country. Remember that.
posted by kafziel at 3:33 PM on January 9 [17 favorites]

Even if you disagree about prisoners being paid, those wages need to go somewhere to keep this supply of free laborers from pushing down everyone else's wages.
posted by HiddenInput at 3:48 PM on January 9 [9 favorites]

Another "benefit" to working in the jail or prison kitchen is that you get to eat relatively healthy, nutritious food. Usually what the guards eat. What that actually means - eggs, chicken, hamburger, fresh fruit and vegetables, and special treats like chicken wings or ice cream. As opposed to: starch - potatos and pasta, beans, "meat" that comes in 2x2x2 bricks that is marked "institutional use only - not for public consumption" (that's where pink slime goes now), "vegetables" - boiled cabbage, boiled broccoli stalks, boiled carrots, and sugar - cakes, jello, pudding.
posted by youthenrage at 5:38 PM on January 9 [4 favorites]

Minimum wage should be the floor for all employment, including prisoners.
posted by fings at 6:50 PM on January 9 [10 favorites]

Meanwhile the Aramark managers sued when they didn't get their $10-$40,000 bonuses.

Image how much easier it would be to transition to legal employment if you came out of prison or jail with savings from your job inside, especially if you had gained a usable skill.
posted by sepviva at 7:19 PM on January 9 [15 favorites]

Good for California for including crimes against humanity as a civil matter in their human rights legislation, but I wonder why these prima facie crimes are not covered by a criminal statute. Every one of these perpetrators — from the Chair of the Board of Aramark right on down to the lowliest jailer in Alameda county — should have to answer for their crimes.
posted by ob1quixote at 9:19 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]

As an Alameda County resident I'd like you all to know Sheriff Ahern is an evil racist shit with a history of malfeasance as long as his tenure and Sgt Ray Kelly is a dissembling toadie.

California's sheriffs are elected, but to qualify to run you need to be a working peace officer (or have attained an expensive advanced certificate), live in the county, and not be afraid of Ahern misusing his office to destroy your life. That fucker got his position when the former sheriff retired just before the next election, appointing him as acting sheriff. That got him the title and incumbency star on the actual ballot, and no one has posed a challenge since. Ahern is an elected Republican in a technically non-partisan office in a county which is 57.1% percent registered Democrat and 10.9% Republican. His policies, performance, and personhood are unpopular, but the only time I've ever seen the Oathkeepers in the Bay Area it was underneath an Alameda County Sheriff's Office tent at a community emergency preparedness fair. Draw your own conclusion.

If by early 2022 you or anyone you know 1) possess an active or inactive advanced certificate from California's Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training or 2) have completed some number of years of full-time salaried labor in law enforcement and possess a degree from an accredited college or university, I want to talk to you very, very seriously and at length.
posted by books for weapons at 1:15 AM on January 10 [12 favorites]


Working Toward Freedom
To pay off fines and other debts, inmates in Mississippi’s little-known restitution centers must work grueling low-wage jobs, pay rent and endure strip searches.

In this world between prison and freedom, they often don’t know when they’ll get to go home.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:45 PM on January 10 [3 favorites]

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