Last summer, 33-year-old Frank Ellington went to work at a poultry processing plant in rural Alabama. He had been in prison for almost eight years and completed half a dozen therapy courses.
If he did well in the state’s work release program, parole seemed attainable.
Five months later, though, Ellington was dead. A machine in the poultry plant caught his arm and pulled him inside. He was killed instantly.
Ellington was one of more than 1,000 prisoners working for private companies in Alabama. Many work in poultry plants, where they do dangerous work for little pay. A Southern Poverty Law Center investigation of Ellington’s death revealed that at least seven other states regularly send prisoners to work in poultry plants.
In Alabama, the state we examined most closely, it’s a sweet deal for the companies and the state. The plants get highly vulnerable workers who are unlikely to complain about low wages or unsafe working conditions. The state, in turn, reaps millions to help pay for its mass incarceration operations.
For prisoners, however, work release can be a double-edged sword. Ellington’s violent death raises serious questions about whether states, in a rush to benefit from a captive workforce, are jeopardizing the safety and well-being of the men and women in their custody.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that employees at Ellington’s plant might not have known how to correctly turn off the machine that killed him. OSHA also identified the lack of a procedure to “control potentially hazardous energy” during cleaning and servicing. It was the same problem, at the same plant, that led to a proposed fine 10 years earlier.
Our investigation also turned up 24 incidents in which prisoners were injured at poultry plants in Georgia and North Carolina since 2015. They were cut by knives and burned with chemicals on their skin and in their eyes. They also reported pain in their hands — a symptom of the kinds of musculoskeletal disorders that frequently afflict poultry workers. In some cases, we obtained emails showing that company officials were reluctant to properly address the injuries. In North Carolina, a sanitation contractor did not send four inmates to have chemical burns evaluated by a doctor, according to one email. “Instead, the supervisor only gave them diaper rash cream to put on the burns,” she wrote.
There’s little question that work release can benefit prisoners, and studies show it can reduce recidivism in some cases. Most states have had programs for decades. But as we’ve seen throughout the criminal justice system, privatization and profits can overwhelm the best intentions.
For work release to serve the goals of justice, systems like Alabama’s must change.
First, states should ensure that workplaces are safe. The SPLC investigation found poultry plants to be among the most dangerous workplaces in America. Adding coerced workers to a workforce already heavily populated by vulnerable immigrants only further diminishes the ability of employees to stand up for safety.
Second, incarcerated workers should have the full workplace rights due to them. In Alabama, the state takes 40 percent of their gross pay, generating an average of $11 million each year for the Department of Corrections. In Ellington’s case, the state took another 25 percent to pay down his court debt. In 2012, the last year for which we were able to obtain data, we found that Alabama prisoners received $3.3 million of the $25 million they were collectively paid — slightly more than 13 cents of every dollar.
The goal of work release should be to get people out of prison and back into society. If prisons can’t manage to ensure their prisoners’ safety or allow them to retain their wages, pardons and parole boards should consider expediting parole for all on work release. In order to qualify for work release programs, prisoners usually have to be deemed low-risk. They could be similarly cleared to live in the community.
There, they could enter and exit from jobs as they wish, move around to find better work, and organize with their coworkers. These are the outcomes we should want of work release programs to begin with.
The current program that sent an Alabama man to his death, and all those like it, aren’t serving those goals well.
Kristi Graunke is a senior supervising attorney and Will Tucker is an investigative reporter at the Southern Poverty Law Center.