This story was published in partnership with Scalawag for our Powerlines series, which looks at climate change, justice, and infrastructure in the American South. The series is supported by the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University, and is part of their POWER project.
When Rob Martin* was enrolled at the Lafourche Parish Work Release facility while he was incarcerated in southeast Louisiana, his days began at 4 a.m. Each morning, he was ushered into a van and taken to work a 12 to 16-hour shift at a job placement chosen for him by the facility operators.
For a while, it was maintenance work for an equipment leasing company that rents pumps and power tools to companies working in the Gulf of Mexico. His first week there, Martin said he worked 50 hours and came back to the facility with just $43. After about a year, he was hired as a maintenance supervisor of dockside operations for a company that recycled and produced drilling fluid for oil and gas companies, Martin said. Oil and gas industry work can be dangerous. Around the time that Martin was in work release, a contract worker was killed while performing routine maintenance on a gas pipeline in Louisiana waters. Martin remembered once using his body to divert a stream of drilling fluid from a ruptured line.
“I have no idea how many chemicals got into my body with that,” he said.
At the end of the workday, the van picked him up and took him back to the facility. Martin was at Lafourche for the last two years of a 12-year sentence for a murder conviction. He worked every day of the week, and said he didn’t take a single day off until he was released.
Louisiana’s Department of Safety and Corrections (DPS&C) bills work release as a way of assisting incarcerated people in the transition from prison back into the workforce during the last six months to four years of a sentence, reducing recidivism in the process. Martin said he was grateful to have spent his days outside a jail cell, acquiring work experience that would be valuable in the post-release world. But he also sees the many ways work release is designed to benefit its operators—parish sheriffs and private contractors, as well as local companies, some of which service the state’s lucrative oil and gas sector—over its participants.
In these programs, incarcerated people are sometimes assigned to work in the industries that fuel climate change in places most vulnerable to its effects, like the Gulf Coast and the Deep South, cleaning up oil spills or working in the offshore drilling industry. As natural disasters become more common and intense, prison labor is increasingly being used to help with preparation and recovery.
The South has a long history of using incarcerated labor to exploit natural resources. Matthew Mancini, author of One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866-1928, said that after the emancipation of enslaved people, many Southern state governments leased out their prison populations to private corporations and businessmen. “The system, of course, was brutal,” he said. “And it was mainly—not entirely, but mainly—a system of controlling Black labor.”
Whether it was coal mining in Alabama, turpentine extraction in Florida, or timber harvesting in Georgia, convict leasing was often used as a way to extract valuable natural resources. The idea that both prisoners and the land are disposable state resources persists today, Mancini said. Louisiana currently has the highest incarceration rate in the country, with a hugely overrepresented Black population. The state penitentiary at Angola was once a plantation, and incarcerated people there still till the cotton fields.
Martin sees the connections. Work release, he said, is today’s “version of indentured servitude in America.”
Louisiana has a long history of using captive labor for private profit.The Lafourche facility where Martin was enrolled has been operating for about two decades. Public documents obtained by Scalawag and Southerly show that Lafourche Parish Work Release has made a practice of allowing the oil and gas industry to hire incarcerated workers. Records reveal that Lafourche assigned work release participants to employment at 39 local companies in October 2019, half of which service the oil and gas sector in some way.
Some companies, like Coral Marine, provide oil spill response; others, such as Berry Brothers, offer pipeline construction. Provisions Energy provides meal services on rig sites, and Gator Rigging makes equipment for offshore rigs. Other employers without apparent ties to oil and gas production are two sugar production companies, a shrimp supplier, and an alligator farm called Utopia.
The DPS&C did not respond to Southerly and Scalawag’s request for updated records about its work release program. According to a Louisiana Legislative Audit of the Transitional Work Program (TWP) from fiscal year 2015, nearly a quarter of incarcerated people in the state participated in the program. Though they only constituted about 3% of prisoner job placements that year, offshore jobs are generally among the most lucrative for work release operators, who get to keep a large portion of prisoners’ wages. In 2015, the “Offshore-Deckhand” position had the highest wage of any of the top ten most common work release jobs; while every other positions’ hourly wages ranged between $7.38 and $8.98, offshore deckhands made, on average, $11.12 an hour.
“Everybody who was making good money at the [Lafourche] center was working offshore,” Martin said.
Work release job placements are chosen by facility operators, which are either parish sheriff’s offices or private third-party contractors. A 2013 DPS&C report shows that prisoners are compensated directly by their employers, and are required to be paid no less than 50 cents above the federal minimum wage, although the DPS&C can grant exceptions. But facility operators —in Lafourche’s case, the parish sheriff’s office—pocket 64% of a prisoner’s gross wages, which are used to pay for their room and board. In 2015, operators across all work release programs in Louisiana made $35.5 million from prisoner wages, in addition to per diem payments the state gave for each state prisoner and millions from commissary sales to their captive clientele.
In the October 2019 monthly report from Lafourche, “Offender Morale” was described as “low.” “Offenders are unhappy with strip searches, food, and room and board payments (64% is too high),” the report stated.
Even if they were unhappy, declining a job could mean returning to a cell. Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre told Scalawag and Southerly that the work release program aims to “bend over backwards” to match prisoners with specific skills to appropriate work placements, and denied that the facility would place an individual in a dangerous work environment. But, he said, “if an inmate shows up and decides that they are not going to accept a job that’s available, then we would not keep them at the center. We would rather have someone who’s motivated to work. We can ship them back to the [DPS&C].”
Martin said that the way it’s often spun is “take it or go back to prison.”
The oil and gas industry operates on a boom and bust cycle. In 2016, the work release facility in Terrebonne Parish, which is near Lafourche, closed during an oil bust. The facility was run by Louisiana Workforce LLC, a private third-party contractor; the company’s owner, Paul Perkins, is a former long-standing DPS&C employee and regular donor to local sheriff’s campaigns. Perkins said that Workforce’s program is “nothing but good.” He closed the facility in Terrebonne Parish when oil prices dropped because the facility was no longer financially viable.
The work release facility in Terrebonne Parish has not reopened, and Terrebonne Parish Sheriff attorney William Dodd said that the parish no longer has a Transitional Work Program site. Instead, incarcerated people pick up trash along the highways and have begun work reinforcing local levees in work crews. He made clear that this work is unpaid. (Perkins and Dodd did not respond to requests for follow up questions.)
The use of work release programs is common across the South. A recent investigation by Mississippi Today and The Marshall Project revealed that in Mississippi, some incarcerated people must work low-wage jobs at fast food restaurants in order to pay off fines and court-ordered debts while also paying rent to state restitution centers. Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that judges in Alabama have made a practice of ordering pre-trial defendants to work release in lieu of posting bonds.
Some of these jobs are dangerous or hazardous. Across the country, incarcerated people labor on industrial farms, facing health risks from extreme temperatures and pesticide exposure. A decade ago, work release participants in Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes worked long hours cleaning oil and toxic dispersant from beaches following the BP Oil Spill.
Incarcerated people are also being put to work preparing for and cleaning up after natural disasters made more frequent and intense by human-caused climate change. Distinct from work release programs, the prisoners dispatched before and after storms are generally part of jail-run work crews and are not paid for their labor. In 2017, ahead of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, hundreds of prisoners were required to fill sandbags the state would use to block coming floodwaters, and then were not evacuated from their facilities until three days after the storm made landfall. In Florida, prisoner work crews were dispatched to clean up debris following Hurricane Irma in 2017 though during the storm, 4,500 prisoners in Miami-Dade county—in an evacuation zone—were not relocated. Beyond the South, incarcerated people who fought back fires on work crews in California faced barriers to employment as fire-fighters post-release because of their criminal records.
Advocates in the region are beginning to address the connection between incarcerated labor and climate and environmental issues. The Gulf South for a Green New Deal Platform, anchored by the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy (GCCLP), states that “Convict leasing and prison labor cannot play a role in an equitable economy and must be banned.”
“We want to call to attention that the exploitation of Black, brown, and indigenous bodies in the Gulf South equals the exploitation of land, equals the contamination of water, equals the erasure of tribal presence in our region,” said Matthew Kennedy, a regional organizer for GCCLP. “All of our solutions towards each of those things has to come from a place that addresses extractive economy in the South and answers the need for Southern liberation.”
Back in his home of New Orleans, Martin is now looking for work and may need to find a job in the oil and gas industry. He said he often encounters other formerly incarcerated people who seek jobs in the industry because they know it’s well-paying and will often accept employees with criminal records. He envisions a future with a broader range of well-paying jobs open to formerly incarcerated people. Martin said he hopes “the whole prison experience” will change to focus on “actually helping people become productive citizens.”
Bruce Reilly, deputy director of Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), a criminal justice reform organization run by and for formerly incarcerated people in Louisiana, echoed that vision. VOTE helped kill a 2017 Louisiana legislative effort that would have allowed work release operators to place electronic ankle monitors on prison workers, requiring the workers to pay for these monitors out of their wages. Work release could be a step in between a conviction and life post-release that helps an incarcerated person get their footing, Reilly said. When he was in prison in Rhode Island, Reilly said he was so happy to be shoveling snow in the middle of the night because he hadn’t been out under the night sky in over a decade. “Exploiting someone’s labor and having an opportunity to get out are not mutually exclusive,” Reilly said.
Transitioning to a more just, sustainable economy is possible—it just takes imagination, Kennedy said. “It’s about a reorganization of the Southern economy,” he said, “and its particular legacy of enslavement and exploitation.”
*Rob Martin’s name has been changed to protect his identity.
Carly Berlin is a freelance reporter based in New Orleans.