On Thursday, Vincent (who asked the INDY not to use his last name) will go to court after already serving six months in the Durham County Detention Facility to learn whether he still owes the state $900 in unpaid child support, which led to his incarceration. This, despite the fact that he worked essentially full time in the jail's kitchen while he was locked up—all unpaid. Technically, he was a volunteer, though he chuckles at that description.
"If you're going to hire inmates, you should pay them," he says. "How can you work for someone, get released, and then still owe money?"
A national prison strike last Friday protested cases like these, where inmate labor doesn't count for anything, not even a paycheck. Some 150 protesters made their demands heard loud and clear on the streets of Durham during a nighttime march. The message echoed that of similar events held all over the country: end prison slavery.
About 450 men and women are incarcerated at the Durham County jail. Only 15 percent of them are on work detail, called pod 4B, which is considered a privilege compared to the only other option—remaining alone in a cell for most of the day.
Unlike in state prisons, where the average inmate's daily wage hovers around $4.73, the workers in the county jail do not manufacture any material goods and don't receive any remuneration. Among the various tasks they do perform—laundry, painting, janitorial work—roughly half of the workers in 4B serve a stint in the kitchen, which, for the last twenty years, has been run by Aramark Corporation. The company serves more than six hundred correctional facilities in the United States and Canada, with large universities and public school systems also on its client docket.
Vincent says he signed up for pod 4B during his first month in jail. He worked both in laundry service and on the kitchen's first shift, from 2:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., along with ten fellow inmates and one Aramark employee. He washed dishes and prepped what he calls "pig slop," a combination of soy-textured protein and potatoes served at nearly every meal.
In the jail's handbook, a warning at the top of the work section reads: "All work detail at the facility is for volunteers only."
"The hours are so long and they talk to you like their slaves, not like they're paying you," Vincent says. "It's just a really disrespectful environment. Because you're an inmate, and they wanted to make sure you knew it."
The jail falls under the purview of the Durham County Sheriff's Office, which is quick to point out that inmates are not forced into the work detail. And the inmates do get some benefits: in lieu of a paycheck, state law requires a four-day sentence reduction per thirty days of work.
So far this year, the county has paid Aramark $630,000 for its services.
In turn, Aramark's website promises: "We are able to reduce costs with operational efficiency, intelligent technology, and innovative menus. It all adds up to savings for you and for the taxpayer."
"They build these buildings to confine people to raise their capital, because they make money off of you for being in there," Vincent says. "By getting inmates to work, they are getting a discount because they don't have to hire. It's a real slap in the face."
Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Tamara Gibbs says Aramark's contract expires at the end of September, and the county has chosen not to renew it.
Gibbs says the decision was based on a nutritional assessment by dieticians at the Durham County Department of Public Health, who factored in inmates' frequent complaints about the food's quality.
But in making the move, the county will also save money. ABL Management Inc., based in Reidsville, will take over for Aramark. In the bidding process, Gibbs says, the office received a price-per-meal estimate between $1.10 and $1.33. Aramark's current contract has each meal priced at $1.95.
With ABL, Gibbs says, the jail will roll out a job-skills training program. But that "will take time to implement."
Vincent, who was released in May, received nothing of the sort. He currently works at a shelter, where he earns $50 a week in exchange for room and board. Without a job or skills to get back on his feet, Vincent fears he'll never get enough money to pay off his debt. And for that reason, he worries he'll eventually end up back behind bars.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Slave Wages"