Private Prison Company Employees Profited From Unpaid Prisoner Labor, Former Inmates Say

CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Larry Stephney, a former inmate at a private jail in Tennessee, says he and fellow inmates were forced to build woodworking projects that facility staff then sold for personal profit

A private jail near Nashville, Tennessee, is exploiting free prisoner labor to line staff members’ personal pockets, former inmates allege.

Employees of the Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility, a for-profit jail run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), stand accused to knowingly putting inmates to work on projects they later sold at a flea market. Former inmates Larry Stephney and Charles Brew showed the Associated Press evidence of the scheme: pieces of wood bearing the number “412148,” for the section of state law that prohibits jail employees from personally profiting off of prisoner labor, that the two men say they hid on the underside of the pieces they made for the CCA employees’ company, Stand Firm Designs.

The men and other prisoners in the facility’s woodshop allegedly produced lawn games, birdhouses, and other simple pieces of woodworking that Stand Firm later sold online and at a city flea market. The company belongs to Rob Hill, who teaches the building trades shop course at the facility where the products were made, and two other CCA employees, one of whom has reportedly left the company. Roy Napper, the owner who no longer works for CCA, denied any wrongdoing to the Associated Press. The other two men did not respond to messages from the wire service.

A CCA spokesman told the AP that unhappy inmates can always walk away from classes or jobs they don’t feel comfortable with. But “Stephney and Brew said they did not feel free to refuse the work,” the wire service reports, for fear that the multiple prison employees who were in on the alleged scheme might have planted evidence in their cells to prevent them from getting parole.

The 13th Amendment prohibits slavery in the United States, save “as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” The carve-out for free, forced labor by the imprisoned has ugly consequences, including prison jobs that pay 50 cents or less per hour – if they pay at all. In Arizona, for example, state law requires all prisoners to work unless they are physically unable to do so. The state sends many of its inmates to perform grueling agricultural work. The inmates say they are not provided adequate water or sunscreen, and can be disciplined by prison officials if they take unauthorized breaks.

In California, prisoners are routinely asked to help fight wildfires for a wage of $2 a day, with a 50 percent hazard pay bump for hours they spend battling an active fire.

Prison labor has been a feature of American incarceration for decades. Long before industrial, private, for-profit prison companies swept onto the scene, prisoners stamped out license plates and performed other menial labor to furnish the material needs of government. Over the years, the relationship between incarcerated work and personal rehabilitation grew warped. Many prison labor programs are still officially billed as an effort to teach inmates work skills that will help them support themselves after they finish their sentence.

But even in situations where prisoner labor isn’t directly lining the pockets of prison staff – when it’s helping the Pentagon save money, for instance, or enabling the Boston public transit system to clear snow off train tracks on the cheap — there’s a lot of reason to be skeptical of the idea that paying the incarcerated pennies per hour will improve their chances of achieving post-prison economic independence. In most of the country, it is still legal to put a checkbox on job applications requiring candidates to disclose whether or not they have a criminal history before a hiring manager ever considers their qualifications or interviews them. The unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated individuals is estimated at over 50 percent.