Louisiana may expand use of prison labor to state construction projects

 

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By Julia O’Donoghue

julia_odonoghue@nola.com,

NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

 

A Louisiana Senate committee voted 3-2 Tuesday (May 8) to allow state prisoners to work on construction projects and do repair and renovation work at the Department of Corrections’ administrative buildings as well as the state Capitol complex. Prisoners would be paid between 4 and 70 cents per hour for these jobs or be able to earn credit toward an earlier release.

 

The full Senate will take up the legislation next. A pared-down version of the bill already passed the House on a 97-7 vote, with little to no discussion, but there’s likely to be some debate on the Senate floor. 

 

“I don’t have a nice way of saying this other than it reminds me of slavery,” said Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, before voting against the legislation in committee. 

Peterson said she would be reading up on how Louisiana uses state inmate labor before the measure came up in the full Senate for a vote. 

The Department of Corrections has been pushing House Bill 84, sponsored by Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, because it already has state inmates working on construction projects at its administrative buildings outside downtown Baton Rouge.

 

Specifically, there were prisoners building a fence around the Department of Corrections’ headquarters last month. The legislation is meant to “clarify” that inmates could do that type of construction project at the administrative building, according to Havard. 

“You are just making it legal now that’s all?” said Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport, during the committee meeting about the bill.

Under current law, with the governor’s permission, state inmates are allowed to do custodial work on state grounds and at state facilities. Inmates are regularly used to clean, cook and do gardening work at the state Capitol, governor’s mansion and several office buildings in Baton Rouge. (Full disclosure: State inmates clean this reporter’s office in the state Capitol building during the week.) 

The current law also allows the governor to authorize prisoners to work on construction projects at state prisons and other correctional facilities where prisoners live. They are allowed to do any remodeling, renovation, maintenance or repair work at a state prison or other facility where they live, with the governor’s permission. If it’s a new project, the construction must not have more than a $200,000 price tag though — without labor costs included. 

Havard’s legislation would expand that use of prison labor and let inmates work on state construction projects at the Capitol complex as well as the Department of Corrections’ administrative buildings — with the governor’s permission.

Under Havard’s bill, the same restrictions that are in place for the construction projects they do at prisons would be in place for the projects they work on elsewhere — including the cap on new construction projects of $200,000. Gov. John Bel Edwards supports the bill. 

 

Havard’s bill didn’t deal with the Capitol complex initially. It would just have allowed prisoner to work on construction projects at the Department of Corrections’ headquarters. The bill was then amended by Sen. Norbert Chabert, R-Houma, to extend that prisoner construction project provision to the Capitol complex in the Senate committee Tuesday. Chabert said he offered the amendment at Havard’s request. 

In reality, prisoners already do construction, renovation and maintenance projects at the Capitol complex already, regardless of what the current law says. 

One prisoner who NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune interviewed last year said he plastered walls, installed light fixtures, ran cable television wires and built handicap ramps in the Capitol and at the Pentagon Barracks, where legislators live during the session. 

 

Havard said his bill would allow people to do plumbing and other skilled labor for the state when repairs, maintenance and smaller construction projects are needed. The prison system characterized the work as a job training opportunity that would help the inmates. 

But sometimes the inmates that do this type of work already have those skills. Prior to being incarcerated, the prisoner interviewed last year had been a contractor who owned his own company that built fast food restaurants and renovated public housing.

 

He had been brought to the Capitol complex to work on light installations and plastering walls — among other things — because the prison system knew he had those skills, he said. He had plenty of experience doing that type of work before he got to prison. 

 

Peterson, Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, and the Southern Poverty Law Center have all raised questions about whether the state should be relying more on prisoner labor. The Southern Poverty Law Center said the prospect of close-to-free labor for the government provides an incentive for the state prison to keep more people incarcerated. 

“Just because you’ve been doing it doesn’t mean it’s right,” Peterson said. 

Right before they voted to send Havard’s bill to the full Senate, the same committee approved legislation offered by James that would require the prison system to track and report how intmate labor is used. James said he offered House Bill 817 because it’s been difficult for him to find out information about how state prison labor is used and what inmate wages looks like.