City, County decisions to cut prison labor contracts lands major victory for modern day abolitionists

by Panagioti Tsolkas

You don’t have to declare yourself a prison abolitionist to see that the facade of legitimacy in Florida’s Department of Corrections is fading fast. Even Republican State Senator Keith Perry noted publicly this month, “When [prisoners] get released, they are worse than when they went in.” In February of last year, the Miami Herald’s coverage of reform efforts stated that “Florida is afraid of its prison system.” So much for corrections.  

But it never has been about correction. Florida’s prison system, born in 1868 (a mere three years after chattel slavery was outlawed), inherited the ugly legacy of pre-Civil War politics. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I mean the massive prison economy of rural Florida has literally been providing a social and economic safe haven for the remnants of Neo-Confederate outfits.

Evidence of this occasionally surfaces in news headlines, like the recent KKK plot at RMC Lake Butler or the racially motivated beating at Apalachee CI, both of which resulted in prosecution of guards. In other words, too brutal to effectively cover up. But more so, it is in content that fills the thousands of pages of letters that advocacy groups pour over in the process of developing relationships with incarcerated activists.

It is those letters that provided a catalyst for what happened in Gainesville and Alachua County over the past several months. As a result of community organizing in an inside/outside collaborative effort, as of Jan 24, both the City of Gainesville and Alachua County have officially terminated their contracts with FDOC prison slave labor.

In the process of digging deeper into the contractual relationship and crunching numbers to budget for a transition away from prison slave labor, it also became clear that the work hours FDOC tried to claim it provided were grossly exaggerated. Because the County managed its own staff of overseers, it had clear records indicating that these overseers were anticipated to manage three-to-four times more than the amount of prisoners that FDOC actually showed up with, resulting in significant miscalculations of how much the County would really need to be making up for.

In the City’s case, the existing contract had payment go to FDOC for managing their own overseers, leaving very unclear and unreliable documentation of what was actually provided for the hundred-of-thousands in city tax dollars that essentially went toward subsidizing FDOC staff costs.

Whats next

1. It’s great to have these contracts terminated with swift and decisive action by both City and County Commissions in near-unanimous decisions. We also want to see pro-active language adopted in the form of a binding ordinance that indicates a refusal to tolerate discrimination against someone with criminal convictions by excluding them from basic rights to a fair wage and labor protections.

2.  It’s time to end prison slave labor contracts between FDOC and the University of Florida. UF coordinates a statewide slave farm work contract producing millions of dollars in food through the office of UF/IFAS based in Gainesville. The UF Board of Trustees can and should follow the examples of Gainesville and Alachua County.

UF/IFAS Extension is a partnership between state, federal, and county governments to provide scientific knowledge and expertise to the public. The University of Florida, together with Florida A&M University, administers the Florida Cooperative Extension Service.

IFAS’s main office is located at the University of Florida Extension office, along with the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station, and is called UF/IFAS Extension. As farm manager Greg Kimmons at IFAS’s West Florida Research and Education Center in Jay says, “I was just looking for a way to get free labor.”

According to The Fine Print magazine: “Through partnerships with the Florida Department of Corrections, at least six IFAS sites — including ones at Jay, Citra, Live Oak, Immokalee and Wimauma—routinely call upon inmates from nearby prisons to do the more tedious, menial tasks associated with agriculture. The practice has become so normalized, directors and farm managers say that without this prison farm worker program, IFAS centers couldn’t function.”

3. Scale up this model across the state and the region. Most every state agency with an office in Tallahassee uses FDOC labor, as do dozens of cities and counties. 

Florida is one of five states in the country that still refuses to pay prisoners any monetary amount for labor, alongside Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. The movement we have sparked here in Gainesville could spread, and alter this historic injustice to incarcerated workers, as well as apply pressure on the prison system as a whole by showing a closer-to-accurate cost of incarceration.

If the state had to treat working prisoners with equal respect, the cost could force a reduction in prison populations pretty quickly.

As this February also marks the bicentennial of abolition champion Frederick Douglass, perhaps its a good time to ask, if you are someone who believes there is no justification for slavery: why not declare yourself a prison abolitionist? 

Panagioti is an organizer with the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons and the Gainesville Branch of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.

Comments are closed.