About 40 people attended a community forum Thursday evening to express their concerns about the Muscogee County Prison labor program, which disperses nearly 400 prisoners daily to collect trash, clean city buildings, dig ditches and maintain roadways.
The event was organized by the Southern Anti-Racism Network and the Black History Museum and Archives. The moderator was Tonza Thomas, NAACP Georgia State Conference secretary.
Many of the speakers said the local prison labor program, the largest in the state of Georgia, is designed to keep black men in prison as a cheap source of labor for the city government. The program, city officials have said, saves the Columbus Consolidated Government between $17 million and $20 million a year.
"African-American males make up the majority of prisoners in the Muscogee County Prison system," said Gary Sprayberry, chairman of Columbus State University's Department of History and Geography. "Most of them are poor and can't afford decent legal representation. Therefore, they're more likely to be convicted of crimes and sent to work and are used as cheap sources of labor."
He said the rise in unemployment and poverty among blacks has coincided with the rise of the prison population. Nationally, he said, the unemployment rate is about 5.8 percent for whites and 12 percent for blacks. Sprayberry said 18 percent of Muscogee County residents live in poverty, about 66 percent of those black.
"Many African-American men in our community find themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty without hope and without access to a decent education. Many find themselves in the clutches of a criminal justice system that's perfectly willing to use them as unpaid, or underpaid, laborers in order to save municipal governments millions of dollars. It's a bleak situation that only seems to be getting worse as many manufacturing jobs are out-sourced and as the gulf between the wealthy and everybody else seems to be rising."
The Rev. Richard Jessie, who raised concerns about the prison labor program at a Columbus Council meeting in January, said he would return to council April 15 to ask city officials to transition free or low-wage prison jobs to paying jobs that could help prisoners start a new life once they leave prison.
Others at the forum said they would also attend the council meeting.
Jessie said he wants the city to address the status of nonviolent offenders who have been in jail for nine months to two years.
He said they have a right to a speedy trial and should be tried or released.
"It appears that we've gotten mighty comfortable with this system that we're living under and all of the negative consequences of it," he said. "Of course if you're doing well, you don't experience what the children of prison inmates are going through. You don't see the devastation to that person that's in jail behind a system that has been developed by capitalists to make money for them."
Jessie said today is the anniversary of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who died fighting for the rights of sanitation workers, and Muscogee County prisoners doing that job are paid only $3 a day. He called on the community to pray for change and to stand up against injustice.
"How do we build some accountability in our political system with those people making decisions about how money is spent?" he asked. "How do we make them more accountable to citizens?"
Theresa El-Amin of the Southern Anti-Racism Network said she has lived in a lot of cities and sanitation jobs usually go to city workers, most of them black.
"So what Columbus has done has exacerbated the unemployment rate among black workers," she said.
Wesley Jones, a volunteer at the Black History Museum and Archives, said he believes the prison labor issue should be placed on a ballot so voters can have a say.
Sprayberry said prison populations have exploded across the nation, coinciding with the federal war on drugs that began in the 1970s. Georgia consistently ranks in the top 10 among states with the highest incarceration rates, and all top 10 are Southern states, he said.
"Some argue that we are reverting back to the Gilded Age, or the post-reconstruction era when the cruel dictates of Industrial Revolution and the insatiable free market demanded cheap sources of labor and maybe they're right," he said. "The U.S. incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation on earth. We now have roughly 2.5 million people in prison in this country, that's about 25 percent of the world's prison population."