After another 16 inches of snow fell on the Boston area this weekend, bringing the city’s total snowfall for the past month up over seven feet, the beset city is turning to prison labor for help digging out.
A mixture of unionized city workers and state prison inmates worked to clear commuter rail tracks of snow on Monday in hopes of having trains running again when businesses reopen Tuesday after the President’s Day holiday. With air temperatures down in the single digits and wind chill values running below zero fahrenheit, the crews shoveled snow off of tracks and above-ground platforms at the Braintree station outside the city, a key outlying stop on the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority’s (MBTA) red line.
Details of the prison labor system remain unclear as state corrections officials have not yet responded to requests for information. An MBTA spokesman confirmed to ThinkProgress that prisoners are assisting union workers but referred further questions to the state Department of Corrections.
The state has deployed inmates to shovel before, according to city Inspectional Services Department commissioner William Christopher, who said that two four-prisoner crews were sent out around the city earlier this month to clear paths to fire hydrants and shovel snow off handicapped access infrastructure. “The amount of snow that we got is record-setting and we’ve pulled out every resource from every possible way to clean this situation up,” Christopher said at the time. Further west, inmates in a community service program at a minimum-security prison have helped clear snow from other storms this winter, and as far back as 2011.
The MBTA’s turn to inmate labor likely means that the system’s contracts prohibit paying non-union members to do the work. The city is reportedly offering $30 an hour for union workers to shovel tracks, and supplementing those paid work crews with prisoners.
The median wage for state prisoners across all trades is 20 cents per hour, and in many states prison labor is used to support profit-making enterprises rather than in the emergency public-service context in which Boston is deploying it here. If the use of prison labor to cut corners and goose profits is on the rise, that may owe in part to a years-long lobbying effort by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to promote state legislation that makes it easier to put prisoners to work on private manufacturing rather than public goods like license plates.