BP Hires Prison Labor to Clean Up Spill While Coastal Residents Struggle

Published first in The Nation

In the first few days after BP’s Deepwater Horizon wellhead exploded, spewing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, cleanup workers could be seen on Louisiana beaches wearing scarlet pants and white t-shirts with the words “Inmate Labor” printed in large red block letters. Coastal residents, many of whom had just seen their livelihoods disappear, expressed outrage at community meetings; why should BP be using cheap or free prison labor when so many people were desperate for work? The outfits disappeared overnight.

Work crews in Grand Isle, Louisiana, still stand out. In a region where nine out of ten residents are white, the cleanup workers are almost exclusively African-American men. The racialized nature of the cleanup is so conspicuous that Ben Jealous, the president of the NAACP, sent a public letter to BP CEO Tony Hayward on July 9, demanding to know why black people were over-represented in “the most physically difficult, lowest paying jobs, with the most significant exposure to toxins.”

Hiring prison labor is more than a way for BP to save money while cleaning up the biggest oil spill in history. By tapping into the inmate workforce, the company and its subcontractors get workers who are not only cheap but easily silenced—and they get lucrative tax write-offs in the process.

Known to some as “the inmate state,” Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration of any other state in the country. Seventy percent of its 39,000 inmates are African-American men. The Louisiana Department of Corrections (DOC) only has beds for half that many prisoners, so 20,000 inmates live in parish jails, privately run contract facilities and for-profit work release centers. Prisons and parish jails provide free daily labor to the state and private companies like BP, while also operating their own factories and farms, where inmates earn between zero and forty cents an hour. Obedient inmates, or “trustees,” become eligible for work release in the last three years of their sentences. This means they can be a part of a market-rate, daily labor force that works for private companies outside the prison gates. The advantage for trustees is that they get to keep a portion of their earnings, redeemable upon release. The advantage for private companies is that trustees are covered under Work Opportunity Tax Credit, a holdover from Bush’s Welfare to Work legislation that rewards private-sector employers for hiring risky “target groups.” Businesses earn a tax credit of $2,400 for every work release inmate they hire. On top of that, they can earn back up to 40 percent of the wages they pay annually to “target group workers.”

If BP’s use of prison labor remains an open secret on the Gulf Coast, no one in an official capacity is saying so. At the Grand Isle base camp in early June, I called BP’s Public Information line, and visited representatives for the Coast Guard Public Relations team, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Louisiana Fisheries and Wildlife Department. They were all stumped. Were inmates doing shore protection or oil cleanup work? They had no idea. In fact, they said, they’d like to know—would I call them if I found out?

I got an answer one evening earlier this month, when I drove up the gravel driveway of the Lafourche Parish Work Release Center jail, just off Highway 90, halfway between New Orleans and Houma. Men were returning from a long day of shoveling oil-soaked sand into black trash bags in the sweltering heat. Wearing BP shirts, jeans and rubber boots (nothing identifying them as inmates), they arrived back at the jail in unmarked white vans, looking dog tired.

Beach cleanup is a Sisyphean task. Shorelines cleaned during the day become newly soaked with oil and dispersant overnight, so crews shovel up the same beaches again and again. Workers wear protective chin-to-boot coveralls (made out of high-density polyethylene and manufactured by Dupont), taped to steel-toed boots covered in yellow plastic. They work twenty minutes on, forty minutes off, as per Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety rules. The limited physical schedule allows workers to recover from the blazing sun and the oppressive heat that builds up inside their impermeable suits.

During their breaks, workers unzip the coveralls for ventilation, drink ice water from gallon thermoses and sit under white fabric tents. They start at 6 AM, take a half-hour lunch and end the day at 6PM, adding up three to four hours of hard physical labor in twenty-minute increments. They are forbidden to speak to the public or the media by BP’s now-notorious gag rule. At the end of the day, coveralls are stripped off and thrown in dumpsters, alongside oil-soaked booms and trash bags full of contaminated sand. The dumpsters are emptied into local HazMat landfills, free employees go home and the inmates are returned to work release centers.

Work release inmates are required to work for up to twelve hours a day, six days a week, sometimes averaging seventy-two hours per week. These are long hours for performing what may arguably be the most toxic job in America. Although the dangers of mixed oil and dispersant exposure are largely unknown, the chemicals in crude oil can damage every system in the body, as well as cell structures and DNA.

Inmates can’t pick and choose their work assignments and they face considerable repercussions for rejecting any job, including loss of earned “good time.” The warden of the Terrebonne Parish Work Release Center in Houma explains: “If they say no to a job, they get that time that was taken off their sentence put right back on, and get sent right back to the lockup they came out of.” This means that work release inmates who would rather protect their health than participate in the non-stop toxic cleanup run the risk of staying in prison longer.

Prisoners are already subject to well-documented health care deprivations while incarcerated, and are unlikely to have health insurance after release. Work release positions are covered by Worker’s Compensation insurance, but pursuing claims long after exposure could be a Kafkaesque task. Besides, there is currently no system for tracking the medical impact of oil and dispersant exposure in cleanup workers or affected communities.

“They’re not getting paid, it’s part of their sentence”

To learn how many of the 20,000 prisoners housed outside of state prisons are involved in spill-related labor, I called the DOC Public Relations officer, Pam LaBorde, who ultimately discouraged me from seeking such information. (“Frankly, I do not know where your story is going, but it does not sound positive,” she said on our third phone call.)

Going to prison officials directly didn’t help. The warden of a South Louisiana jail refused to discuss the matter, exclaiming, “You want me to lose my job?” A different warden, of a privately-owned center admitted, on condition of anonymity, that inmates from his facility had been employed in oil cleanup, but declined to answer further questions. Jefferson Parish President Steve Theriot and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, and Grand Isle Police Chief Euris DuBois declined interview requests.

Transparency problems are longstanding with the Louisiana DOC. There is also scant oversight of private prison facilities. Following Hurricane Katrina, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a 140-page report that documented abuses and botched prison evacuations, as well as the numerous times its requests for official information were rejected. “It appears that you are standing in the shoes of prisoners, and therefore DOC is exempted from providing any information which it might otherwise have to under public records law,” DOC lawyers told the ACLU National Prisons Project.

Some officials have been more forthcoming. A lieutenant in the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office told me that three crews of inmates were sandbagging in Buras, Louisiana in case oil hit there. “They’re not getting paid, it’s part of their sentence,” she said. “They’ll work as long as they’re needed. It’s a hard job because of the heat, but they’re not refusing to work.” In early May, Governor Bobby Jindal’s office sent out a press release heralding the training of eighty inmates from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in “cleaning of oil-impacted wildlife recovered from coastal areas.” DOC Spokesperson Pam LaBorde subsequently denied that any inmates participated in wildlife cleaning efforts.

Offering an exception to this policy of secrecy is Lafourche Parish Work Release Center, the only one in the state that is accredited by the American Correctional Association. It is audited regularly and abides by national standards of safety and accountability, which is perhaps why I was able to simply walk in on a Thursday afternoon and chat with the warden.

Captain Milfred Zeringue is a retired Louisiana state police officer with a jaunty smile, powerful torso, and silver hair. His small, gray office is adorned with photos of many generations of his Louisiana family and a Norman Rockwell print picturing a policeman and a small runaway boy sharing a meaningful look at a soda fountain counter. A brass plaque confers the “Blood and Guts Award” upon Zeringue. Of 184 men living under the Captain’s charge, 18 are currently assigned to oil spill work. The numbers change daily and are charted on white boards that stretch down the hallway.

Captain Zeringue says that inmates are glad for any opportunity they can get, and see work release jobs as a step up, a headstart on re-entry. “Our work release inmates are shipped to centers around the state according to employer demand,” he explains, describing the different types of skilled and unskilled labor. “I have carpenters, guys riding on the back of the trash trucks, guys working offshore on the oil rigs, doing welding, cooking. Employers like them because they are guaranteed a worker who’s on time, drug-free, and sober.”

“And,” he adds, “because they do get a tax break.”

Inside the center, men sit around long plastic tables watching TV, or nap on thin mattresses under grey wool covers. The windowless dormitories hold twenty to thirty men each in blue metal bunk beds. Hard hats hang off of lockers, ceiling fans circle slowly, and each bunk has a white mesh bag of laundry strung from one rung. An air of dejection and fatigue permeates the atmosphere, but the facility looks safe and clean. It’s surrounded by chain link fence and staffed by former police officers. One long shelf stacked with donated romance and adventure novels serves as a library. GED classes and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings gather weekly. Individuals are free to walk around the halls, use pay phones, shoot pool, or sit and watch cars pass on the highway from a small outdoor yard. A doctor visits once a week. Inmates greet the captain as we walk and jump to hold doors open for us.

Zeringue exudes a certain affection for the workers in his center. “To me, I’m kind of like Dad here. The inmates come to me and talk about their problems. They get antsy and nervous when they’re close to getting out—how am I going to survive, how’s my family gonna be with me?”

Like all Gulf Coast residents, inmates have good reason to feel anxious about the future. BP has received almost 80,000 claims for lost revenue in the wake of the spill. Scores of people are out of work, the offshore drilling industry is in limbo and the age-old fishing and shrimping professions are looking death in the face. In the towns and bayous of the gulf, anxiety and post-traumatic stress are taking hold.

In some places, the desperation is palpable. I met Randy Adams, a construction contractor from Grand Isle, on the sidewalk outside of a local bar. “This BP spill is turning me into an alcoholic, because I don’t have anything to do,” he says. “That, that, thing—that thing they did—” He points to the beach. He’s unable to say “spill” or label it in any way. He points to the water again and again. “That thing has taken everything away from me. I have a gun under the front seat of my truck, and every day I decide, do I want to put a bullet in my skull? Live or die, that’s my choice here, every day. My life is gone, do you understand?”

Scott Rojas of the Jefferson Parish Economic Development Commission suggests that for all the work to be done, finding local labor to do oil-spill cleanup jobs is trickier than it would seem. “These are really hard, and really low-paid jobs—I know agencies have put effort into finding locals to do the work. But they may not always have an easy time of it. As for reports of inmates being hired, I can’t confirm or deny. The people down in Grand Isle swear to it, but you’re going to have to talk to them.”

The Louisiana Workforce Commission, the state unemployment agency, is advertising hazardous waste removal oil spill cleanup positions as “green jobs.” They pay $10 per hour, so these jobs might seem like an attractive opportunity. But Paul Perkins, a retired Angola Prison deputy warden who owns and operates five for-profit inmate work release centers, says that even as the agency is “overflowing with applications for oil spill jobs,” the work force is inconsistent. “They might hire 400 people on Monday, and after one day of work, only 200 will come back on Tuesday.”

Hiring prison labor might prove more reliable, but it evokes understandable rage among Gulf Coast residents. According to Perkins, the Louisiana Secretary of Corrections, James LeBlanc, met with disaster contractors in early June and asked them to stop using inmate labor until all unemployed residents found work. But as the spill has so dramatically demonstrated, in this new environment, the government seems only able to make polite requests. BP calls the shots, and its private contractors, like ES&H, are the sole clean-up operators. From there, subcontractors, such as Able Body Labor, decide whom to employ.

Working for BP: “This isn’t what I would like to be doing.”

Anna Keller relocated to Grand Isle in May to work with Gulf Recovery LLC, to help develop community-based responses to the oil disaster. Also a member of Critical Resistance New Orleans, Keller says, it is “common knowledge” that prisoners are doing cleanup. “If you talk to anyone working on the beach they’ll tell you, yes, prisoners are working here.” She describes a shipping container that sits at the turn-off for the Venice Boat Harbor, advertising “Jails to Go.” Such containers work as contract labor housing for work release prisoners, with bunks inside, bars on the windows, and deadbolts on the doors.

According to Keller, the use of inmate labor takes recovery one step further away from those people who are most intimate with the ecology, culture and landscapes of the area. In her view, they should be hired first, and not just for the grunt jobs. “Community members should be hired in the planning stages, and paid for their expertise. The local people are the true experts here.”

Up the road at A-Bear’s Restaurant in Houma, an elderly man in overalls describes his son’s financial dilemmas to the room of locals over dinner. The son is 40, married with children, and was laid off from an oyster shucking factory shortly after the BP leak began. He’s now walking door-to-door with a lawnmower, looking for grass to cut. The man holds his head in both arthritic hands. The waitress hands him a paper napkin to blot his eyes. I ask him if his son would work for BP in the cleanup and he grimaces. “Maybe, no, I don’t think so,” he says. “That would be hard for his pride, you know? For that little money? No.”

Beach cleanup workers do make the lowest wages in the recovery effort. Others on the BP payroll have it slightly better, but the jobs they are doing are a daily reminder of what they have lost. Chris Griffin is a French-speaking Cajun shrimper whose father and grandfather also captained shrimp boats. After oil contamination closed the gulf waters, Griffin was hired to captain airboat tours of oil-impacted marshlands for BP. Three times a day he steers a slim four-seat boat with a deafening engine into the waters he’s known all his life, while Coast Guard officials give media tours and answer the same grim questions again and again.

“This isn’t what I would like to be doing,” Griffin says, “but I’m glad I have a job so I can take care of my family. I’m not worrying about the money. Not everybody has that. Me, I’m worrying about the years in the future here. Will we keep cleaning it up? Will they take care of everybody?”

Abe Louise Young
July 21, 2010