On weekday mornings, when most Columbus residents are just starting their day, hundreds of Muscogee County Prison inmates are already on the job. In shifts starting as early as 6:30 a.m., they are dispersed throughout the city to collect trash, clean city buildings, dig ditches, maintain roadways and work at locations such as golf courses, the animal shelter and the recycling center.
The program, now the largest county prison work camp in Georgia, has existed for more than 135 years, according to the Muscogee County Prison website. It saves the city between $17 million and $20 million annually, officials said. Local entities also benefit from funds the program receives from the state.
"The most compelling reasons for our existence are revenue and custody of state and county offenders," the prison website reads. "The inmate subsidy paid to Muscogee County Prison by the State of Georgia is $20 per inmate per day. Based on 528 state inmates, our inmate subsidy receipts should reach more than $3.8 million dollars per year, which is deposited into the Columbus Consolidated Government's general fund. Also, we provide inmates the opportunity to earn their GED, as well as 'On the Job' (OJT) training to help prepare them to return to society as productive citizens."
But for some in the community -- and across the nation -- such monetary incentives raise concerns about the motives of a prison system disproportionately populated with black males, a group that has provided cheap labor throughout American history. Critics believe there's a "prison industrial complex" that has allowed private businesses and government entities to profit from the rapid expansion of the U.S. inmate population, which today is one of the largest in the world.
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Michelle Alexander, author of The New York Times best-seller "The New Jim Crow," links the rise in the U.S. prison population to the War on Drugs launched by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, resulting in mandatory drug sentences that disproportionately affected blacks.
Local law enforcement officials have said they don't keep track of drug arrests by race. But last year the Ledger-Enquirer obtained arrest statistics from the Georgia Uniform Crime Reporting program showing that blacks accounted for 74 percent of arrests on marijuana possession charges. The local data correlated with national statistics released by the American Civil Liberties Union showing that blacks were arrested at four times the rate of whites for the use of marijuana, despite both groups using the drug at the same rate.
"Today, due to recent declines, U.S. crime rates have dipped below international norm," Alexander wrote in her book. "Nevertheless, the United States now boasts an incarceration rate that is six to ten times greater than that of other industrialized nations -- a development directly traceable to the drug war."
Locally, civil rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have tried to rally the community around the issue.
Johnnie Warner, director of the Columbus Black History Museum, has been among those pushing for change. He and some friends recently founded the American Freedom Society, a group that meets weekly to discuss the problem.
"How could you have profit in a prison system?" Warner asked at a recent meeting. "You know the American way: If there's money in it, they are blinded from humanity."
Last month the controversy surfaced at Columbus Council when the Rev. Richard Jessie, a local minister, called the county prison work program "slavery" and said he wouldn't celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day because of it. Jessie received swift rebukes from City Manager Isaiah Hugley and Councilor "Pops" Barnes, both black men. Hugley said he took exception to the suggestion that he, as a black man, would be associated with slavery. He and Barnes said the program is a benefit to inmates because it teaches them job skills and responsibility.
"I verbalized what my position on that is," Barnes said recently. "And I don't have anything more to say about that."
Hugley said he hasn't changed his mind, either. Each prisoner costs about $13,256 annually, which doesn't include health care benefits the city provides, he said. And he believes the labor they provide is a good trade-off.
"What I see, being a department head here and as city manager, is that the prisoner has an opportunity to interact outside the jail with society," he said. "That prisoner gets to gain valuable work experience that will help that person to re-enter society with skills that will hopefully get them some type of employment that won't get them back into the system again.
"And what the city of Columbus gets out of it," he added, "we get the value of the labor those prisoners can provide while they gain experience as carpenters and electricians and plumbers and maintenance workers. And that labor saves the taxpayers dollars because we would have to hire persons who would be on the government payroll. There's a savings to the city, we know, of somewhere between $17 and $20 million."
At the same time, Hugley said he understands the concerns about inequities in the justice system.
"Do I think there's uneven justice based on the number of African-Americans in prison? I would say yes," he said. "When we've got blacks making up 13.8 percent of the nation's population, but they make up 31.1 percent of the prison population, a red flag goes up for me. I don't know what's going on with all of that, but there appears to be a disparity.
"And, as an African-American, that disparity concerns me," he added. "It's disturbing when you look at the stats. And so I can understand how one might see that."
Last week dozens of people gathered at the Columbus Public Library to watch "Slavery by Another Name," a film focused on forms of forced labor for thousands of African Americans from the Civil War to World War II. The screening was part of a film series organized by Columbus State University's Department of History and Geography, which received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to educate the community about civil rights issues and initiate dialogue.
The film, based on a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Douglas A. Blackmon, tells the stories of slaves and their descendants who were arbitrarily arrested after the Emancipation Proclamation and forced to work in coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads quarries and farm plantations under horrendous conditions.
Gary Sprayberry, chairman of CSU's Department of History and Geography, said there's a big difference between today's prison system and the convict lease system of the post-slavery era -- but that there's also reason for concern.
"In the convict lease system, prisoners were leased out to private enterprises and were routinely flogged, humiliated, starved and denied access to any form of decent health care," he said. "When they died, their bodies were routinely discarded, buried in unmarked graves, and their families were never notified of their fates.
"Today, prisoners obviously have more rights," he said. "But they are still utilized as cheap sources of labor, saving local governments millions. And if the accused happens to be poor and can't afford proper legal representation, he or she is more likely to end up behind bars and more likely to end up being used by the county to perform menial, backbreaking tasks."
How the program works
Muscogee County Prison Warden Dwight Hamrick said his top priorities are to provide the Columbus Consolidated Government with labor and to rehabilitate the inmates. He said there are a total of 576 beds -- 528 are for state prisoners and 48 for prisoners from the local county.
About 385 inmates leave the prison for work each day and about 104 work inside the prison doing food service, laundry and cleaning the dorms. Of those who do outside detail, about 300 to 350 work for the city's Public Works Department.
As of Wednesday, 378 of the inmates were black, 149 white, 26 were Hispanic and three were Asian.
Hamrick said he doesn't get caught up in debates about the demographics of the prison population or comparisons to slavery.
"I'm not the judge. I don't sentence anybody to prison," he said. "I don't see black or white. I see inmates with blue stripes on their pants."
All inmates are required to work, he said. Those who refuse to work are placed in isolation/segregation cells.
"The majority of these guys want to go outside the wire," he said. "They want to be on the truck. An idle mind is not good. Time really drags if you're doing nothing. The busier we keep them, the quicker the time goes."
Prisoners who work on sanitation, golf course, recycling and landfill details earn $3 per day, while those who do jobs such as facility maintenance, street beautification and transportation get nothing. Those who earn money receive a payment once they're released from prison.
Hamrick said he doesn't know why some inmates get paid and others don't. It was a decision made before he was hired in 2010, he said, and the inmates are paid out of the Public Works budget.
He said all the inmates are minimum to medium security and have committed lower-level crimes than those in a state prison. They also have shorter sentences and are closely supervised.
"Are they a threat to society? Yes, they are inmates," he said. "But we don't have murderers and rapists. They wouldn't be eligible for a county facility."
Hamrick said GED classes are not mandatory, but some men take advantage of the opportunity to better themselves. In 2012, 41 men earned On the Job Training certificates and 10 received GEDs. Last year, the number of OJTs dropped to 26 and GEDs increased to 29. He said most of the prisoners come from other parts of the state and leave Muscogee County when they're released, so the prison has no idea how many get jobs as a result of the program.
Hamrick said the prison is currently 16 beds short but has been able to keep up with the city's demand for work:
"But if the number of inmates were to fall significantly low, I would be on the phone calling the Georgia Department of Corrections and saying, 'I can't fulfill my obligation for outside and inside detail. But I've never had to make that call. Unfortunately, there's a lot of crime out there, so we always have inmates."
Public Works Director Pat Biegler said prison labor saves the department about $140,000 a week. She says the department receives 45,000 to 50,000 calls for service a year, and the inmates play a significant role. Yet, there's always a demand for more workers.
"If you know anything about Public Works, there is always more work than people to do it because we have so many public roadways, so many miles of ditches, so many miles of sidewalks, so many facilities," she said. "If you look at the volume of things the city needs to take care of, there will never be enough people to do everything. So certainly we could use more."
Biegler said the new recycling center was designed with inmates in the plans. But the prison has a certain capacity, she said, and without building additional space, there's a natural cap that exists.
"We really have reached the cap and availability of inmates from within the prison," she said. "So if I were planning another program, I would not be looking at using inmates."
Biegler said it's not a racial issue. She believes the program allows inmates to gain skills they need to apply for jobs in the future.
"When I look at the groups of inmates that I see during the day, there are white faces there, too," she said. "The whole issue of racial justice and equality is one that's way above my head, to be honest. I'm an engineer. I'm kind of straight forward. I don't view it that way. I see people who have broken the law. They are serving their time, and for the most part, as far as I know, are willing to get out and work. And that's a far cry from slavery in my opinion."
Dane Collins, administrator at the Muscogee County Jail, said the facility handles 1,100 inmates. He said the jail also has a work program, but it's voluntary. Inmates work with parks and recreation and other departments, as well as within the jail, providing food service, laundry and maintenance.
He said those who work in the program get an extra meal and some have sentences reduced for good service.
"We look for ways to incentivize that program," he said. "They're in jail awaiting trial. It gives people something to do."
The 13th Amendment
Warner of the Columbus Black History Museum said Columbus' prison labor program started at the stockades where slaves were held overnight in preparation for auction houses. After the Emancipation Proclamation, black men were taken there and formed into chain gangs. They were later moved to convict camps.
He said the Emancipation Proclamation prohibited slavery, "except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." And that's why he believes black men are being exploited today.
"You do a crime, you must pay the time," he said. "My problem is, we did not teach them that the 13th Amendment allows slavery as a punishment for crime.
"If we fail to teach our children properly and thoroughly about the Constitution, we take away that food and knowledge our children need to secure their freedom," he added.
Warner said he understands the mentality of many of the young men in prison. He grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, where men hustled to make a living and going to jail was a rite of passage.
"My mother would always say if a man didn't know how to make a dollar, he wasn't a man,'" he said. "And she would always say, 'I don't know what you're going to be, but I want you to be good at it. If you're going to be a pimp, you be the best pimp. If you're going to be a hustler, you be the best hustler. If you're going to be a doctor, you be the best doctor.'"
In 1979, Warner was hanging with the wrong group of friends while on leave from the military. He said they were driving in a stolen car and got arrested. Warner said he spent a week in jail. He remembers the chains on his hands, across his belly and around his feet.
"I felt like an animal, a slave," he said. "And I said, 'This ain't for me.'"
Warner said the charges were later dropped and he was sent back to the military. He then turned to the Bible and it changed his life. He also began reading history and developed a sense of identity.
Warner said that's what's missing in the lives of many black men today. He also believes society has exploited their lack of self-worth.
"I believe they needed a continuation of cheap labor, and knowing the mindset of these young men, they used it for their own personal gain," he said. "We didn't want to change their mindset because we needed free labor."