Last year, several California inmates launched a nationwide strike demanding a better working environment at numerous facilities where prisoners are used as labor with little or no pay.
The strike, which was held across 50 prisons in 26 different states, highlighted how prisoners are exploited by corporations that use "in sourcing" — which means they essentially use incarcerated people as slave labor.
Inmates were not only deprived of better working conditions, they were also excluded from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s mandate of protecting American workers while working in imprisonment.
California state law prohibits inmates from being paid while still incarcerated, while inmates serving life without parole sentences would never be entitled to any kind of compensation even if they were critically injured on job.
Linda Delp, the director of University of California Los Angeles’s Labor Occupational Safety and Health program, reviewed the injury logs maintained by the California Prison Industry Authority and came up with workable solutions for recurring and preventable-injury types.
Repeated entries describing objects sticking in and injuring inmates’ eyes while they use industrial grinders caught her attention. A possible solution would be to ensure that inmate workers wear appropriate safety goggles or visors and have adequate training, suggested Delp.
There were several recurring cases in the injury logs where workers’ fingers were amputated under sewing machine needles, or they had their hands pulled into moving parts on sanders or other machinery.
According to Delp, these unforeseen incidents could be prevented with the help of proper machine guarding mechanisms and training.
What was more evident in the logs apart from the cases of injuries was CALPIA’s tendency to blame inmates for getting injured while working in unsafe conditions repeatedly — as if they haven’t been through enough.
In one of the injury logs from 2014, CALPIA blamed an inmate for ending up in a dreadful situation after he suffered from an amputation because of not wearing gloves.
“While inmate was cutting fabric, inmate removed his glove to adjust machine, and failed to put his glove back prior to operating the machine,” read the log.
“In spite of training and proper safety equipment provided by CALPIA, there are times when inmates violate training protocols,” said Michele Kane, a CALPIA spokesperson.
With the largest prison population and second largest prison rate in the world, the United States needs to address the issue of prison labor swiftly and thoroughly.
Banner and thumbnail credit: Reuters, Lucy Nicholson