Baptist preacher accuses city government of using 'slave labor'

mowen@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 14, 2014 

Columbus Council meeting Tuesday December 3, 2013


A Baptist preacher accused the Columbus Consolidated Government today of using “slave labor” in the city’s Public Works Department, drawing rebukes from two African-American city leaders.

The Rev. Richard Jessie, a minister at Revelation Missionary Baptist Church, told Columbus Councilors during council’s public agenda that he would not be celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King day this year because of the city’s extensive use of prison labor.

“There should be some tie-in with Dr. Martin Luther King, who died fighting for the rights of sanitation workers so that they could be paid adequately,” Jessie said. “And here we are in Columbus, Georgia, and we’ve become comfortable using slave labor -- and that’s what it is, slave labor -- to do our public works.”

That drew responses from City Manager Isaiah Hugley and Councilor Pops Barnes.

“I’ve heard you use the term ‘slave labor’ before, and I take exception to that as an African American and as city manager,” Hugley said. “I came from the same heritage you came from. As city manager I would not be agreeable to the use of slave labor. What we are dealing with is a group of men who have committed crimes and are paying their debt to society.”

Hugley said inmates don’t just work on garbage trucks. They learn and perform some skilled labor such as painting, plumbing, carpentry and engine repair and maintenance.

“We are teaching them a skill,” Hugley said. “The alternative to not teaching them a skill would be to let them just sit at the prison. So they get something out of being incarcerated for whatever crime they committed.”

Barnes, who visits prisons to speak to inmates, echoed Hugley’s point about the importance of teaching inmates skills while they’re in prison.

“I’m a 70-year-old African American man, Rev. Jessie,” Barnes said. “I go to the prison and speak to them, and one of the things I speak about is taking responsibility, and part of the way they have to take responsibility is being able to come out and get a job.”

The city uses about 425 inmate laborers every day on outside details and another 150 who work at the Muscogee County Prison. According to the county prison website, replacing those 425 inmate laborers with workers paid workers would cost the city $10.2 million a year.

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