You may not realize this, but Georgia, like many others states, runs on prison labor. Firefighting, park maintenance and roadside cleaning are all done by prison labor.
In fact, GPB reports that firefighting services in nearly one third of the state’s counties are provided by prisoners, through a state funded initiative.
A reasonable first reaction might be, “that’s great, we’re giving prisoners something meaningful to do, and skill sets they can use in the future.” However, this rosy picture of prison labor hides some of the systemic dysfunction of the model, namely that we lock up so. many. people. in the first place.
Not surprisingly, people of color are disproportionately affected. Thirty percent of Georgia’s population is Black or African-American, while they make up 61 percent of incarcerated people.
Why aren’t these communities getting the education and work opportunities they need to succeed in the first place? The black unemployment rate is still twice the white unemployment rate, despite years of economic recovery. Your first stable job shouldn’t happen in prison.
It’s a really clunky solution, to say the least, to use prisons they way we do to address the complex set of forces — like poverty and mental illness — impacting people’s lives. It’s even more shameful to use people once they are in prisons to do jobs the state should be paying someone.
Georgia doesn’t properly invest in low-income and minority communities. For example, the state has been underfunding public education to the tune of of $1 billion a year. Then, we disproportionately send people of color to prison, rather than to probation or support services, or even just letting them off the hook the way white people often are.
Georgia then turns stable, state jobs into unpaid gigs prisoners work to provide the “job training” unavailable to them in their home community. All while minimum sentencing and similar laws keep people incarcerated for a very long time for very small infractions — including being unable to pay traffic fines — or engaging in behaviors related to addiction, a mental health issue not a criminal pathology.
Prisons as they currently exist, do little to heal the existing problems that make communities unstable and prevent people from living to their fullest potential.
Gov. Deal wants to make prisons nicer, but the consequences of nicer prisons are still the same: families divided and cycles of poverty perpetuated as ex-offenders face barriers to reentry, like difficulty renting an apartment or getting a job. Locking people up and then getting free labor out of them does little to address any of this.
So rather than making prison nicer, let’s rethink how we handle justice in this state, and how we can comprehensively address the root causes of incarceration, and help communities flourish, rather than lock people away.