To hire help at his Mississippi meat processing center, B. B. Gilmer drives to an old prison that now houses the Greenwood Restitution Center for people paying off court-ordered debts. There, he picks up men who must work for Gilmer or anyone else willing to hire them to earn enough money to go home.
Last season, Gilmer hired Travis Tanksley, a man in his mid-20s who was sent to the restitution center by a judge to earn $3,500 he owed from a conviction for passing bad checks.
Tanksley and the hundreds of people confined in the state’s four restitution centers every year have to earn their way out, reports Mississippi Today. They work at Popeyes and McDonald’s franchises, soul food joints and auto mechanic shops, furniture companies and meatpacking plants. Some take on dangerous jobs as garbage collectors and construction laborers.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections released a list of over 150 private individuals and businesses that have employed the inmates. Many inmates make minimum wage, which in Mississippi is $7.25 an hour. Collectively, they worked over 300,000 hours annually for private employers to earn $2.1 million each year.
Bruce Evans, who operates an Arby’s franchise, said, “It’s a win-win for the employer and the employee,” Evans said.
The corrections department maintains that “while individuals in this program are required to work, the [department] does not force them to work.” Officials can punish inmates for “refusing to work, encouraging others to refuse to work, or participating in a work stoppage,” according to the program’s handbook.
They can also get in trouble for getting fired. Breaking the rules too often can land them in a traditional prison. Noah Zatz, a UCLA expert in labor law, called the program “a classic case of debt peonage,” in which people who owe money either work off those debts or face criminal punishment.
Additional Reading; See TCR’s Cash Register Justice resource page.