More than 100 inches of snow have fallen on the Boston area this winter, wreaking havoc on the metro area and its public transit system. During one of the coldest and snowiest storms in February, prison inmates were brought in to help shovel Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) stations. Through a public records request, ThinkProgress has learned that more than 90 inmates were paid just $3 to $4 a day in single-digit temperatures and sub-zero windchill — while non-inmates were offered $30 an hour to do similar work.
With massive snowfall the night before, February 16 was one of the most punishing days in Boston history. According to the National Weather Service, the low that morning at Logan Airport was -3′ Fahrenheit, with a windchill of -25′. Residents were warned that frostbite could occur after just ten minutes outside.
— NWS Boston (@NWSBoston) February 16, 2015
After the initial reports that morning noted that snow removal efforts in these freezing tempatures were being assisted by Massachusetts inmates, ThinkProgress filed public records requests with the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC) and the MBTA, seeking all communications within and between the agencies regarding their arrangement for prison laborers. Though the DOC’s counsel responded last month claiming that “no responsive documents exist,” the MBTA provided dozens of pages of communications, including several to and from DOC officials. As of press time, the DOC has still not provided these or other communications to ThinkProgress.
The first messages were from January, days after Gov. Charlie Baker (R) vowed in his inaugural address to close a budget shortfall through spending cuts, while holding the line on taxes. MBTA security chief Randy Clarke wrote to the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety to request the Department of Corrections’ help with future snow storms. Noting that inmate laborers already assist the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), he proposed using them “to clear bus stops” as “a good cross agency example of how to improve snow removal and save money.”
As the snow began to fall in February, a DOC official named Gina Perez wrote to Clarke flagging a potential problem: suitable snow gear. “Another obstacle for the DOC is proper snow gear: boots, globes and hats. Can the MBTA provide that and for how many.” Clarke replied noting, “We do not have that equipment. Is this a deal breaker as I thought the crews that did this for DCR are already outfitted?” Three days later, after at least 96 inmates had already been out shoveling, the Executive Office of Public Safety representative wrote to Clarke that DOC Director of Legislative Affairs John O’Malley had “called today to find out about getting better snow gear for the inmate crews who are helping shovel for the [MBTA].” Six minutes later, O’Malley, responded, “Please disregard for now. If circumstances change I will be in touch.”
In another discussion, Clarke asked the DOC point-person “if the inmates get paid for this work?” She replied, “Yes, they do get paid their daily inmate wage.” In another message, Perez noted to Clarke that the on-sight leader “did have an issue regarding food,” but suggested that that should be a conversation between him and Clarke.
A spokesman for DOC told ThinkProgress that the minimum security inmates involved in this effort had been there voluntarily and could have opted-out of this specific assignment. Their daily wage for this type of work, he noted, ranges from three to four dollars (this cost was paid entirely by the DOC, while MBTA was reportedly paying $30 an hour to other workers helping clear snow). He also confirmed that, “the DOC provided the necessary winter clothing (hats, boots, gloves, jumpsuits) to the inmates and the MBTA provided shovels.” Despite the email regarding the possibility of getting better snow gear, he said that “equipment did not change depending on the day, location, or availability.”
Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, told ThinkProgress that she found it unsurprising that prisoners would voluntarily agree to shovel snow for cents per hour. “Most prisoners in MA are bored, so shoveling snow was seen by many as relieving the tedium and giving back to the community.” She added that the rate of pay is “pathetic but more than the $1.50-a-day the few with in-prison jobs earn.”
Walker also noted that the typical winter coats provided to inmates doing outdoor works are “’barn jackets’ — jean jackets lined with wool.”
Low as these inmate wages are, they are actually above the national average of about 20 cents per hour. In many states prison labor is used in support of for-profit endeavors, due in part to lobbying by the corporate 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. California even recently argued in court that it couldn’t release inmates early because it would lose cheap prison labor, before Attorney General Kamala Harris disavowed that argument.
On February 21, after the Boston inmates had been deemed no longer necessary, Clarke emailed Perez to express MBTA’s appreciation for the excellent work the inmates had done. “I have mentioned it to the Gov’s office and will do so again formally next week.”