Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Supervisors Debate Unpaid Jail Labor

Current policy gives sentence reductions for labor performed; Clancy pushes resolution declaring unpaid labor is 'immoral.'

By - Jul 13th, 2022 09:43 am
Milwaukee County Jail and Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee County Jail and Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A committee of the Milwaukee County Board debated the use of unpaid labor in the Milwaukee County Jail and House of Correction (HOC) Tuesday.

The discussion was prompted by a resolution authored by Supervisor Ryan Clancy that, if passed, would make it the official position of the county board “that the use of unpaid prison labor, particularly in Milwaukee County’s Criminal Justice Facility (Jail) and House of Correction, is inherently immoral and exploitative, and any service provided by prison labor undercuts the ability of free laborers to earn a living.”

Clancy’s resolution would not have a fiscal impact, as it would not directly lead to the county beginning to pay people incarcerated at the jail or HOC for jobs like working in the print shop or kitchen. 

“I hope that it will form the basis for future legislation, but I wanted to start here in the hopes that we can clear this low bar together,” Clancy told the board’s Personnel Committee Tuesday.

Currently, the jail and HOC offer programs that allow some inmates to earn reductions to their sentences. “There currently is not a structure in which we pay individuals… normally I would have a problem with that,” said HOC Superintendent Chantell Jewell, “There is a process by which they are incentivized by being able to earn time off their sentences.”

Jewell and Chief Deputy Denita Ball of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office both said the program is voluntary and no one is forced to work. 

“These discussions are very challenging for me as a superintendent,” Superintendent Jewell said, “because there are so many competing priorities and we just don’t have the fiscal resources to address all of them all right now.”

Clancy characterized the program as a “vestige of slavery” and said, “people are not volunteering when the other option is to sit in a cage for longer.” He also noted that people are taking jobs to earn extra food. “I would argue that providing adequate amounts of food should not be restricted to folks that are just working in the kitchen.”

Clancy had support on the committee from co-sponsor Sup. Steven Shea.

“I have worked at the jail,” Shea said. “The overwhelming majority of the residents that are there are poor and come from very disadvantaged backgrounds; again, the overwhelming majority of them are people of color.”

“If we do want people to recognize the value of work, then I think an excellent first step would be to recognize the value of work and actually give some compensation for prisoners who do work,” Shea said.

Shea noted that people incarcerated in county facilities actually do have a need for money to make phone calls and to purchase food and hygiene products from the commissary.

Shea was the only supervisor to support the resolution at committee.

Sup. Dyango Zerpa said that while he respects his colleagues that brought it forward, he said he didn’t support paying people incarcerated at the HOC and the jail when he thinks the current program is akin to community service, especially given the county’s financial trouble. “Isn’t community service something similar to performing a skill, performing a function that’s essentially forced through a sentence?”

“Also, I do believe that performing a skilled job, performing a skilled labor would be beneficial to persons in our care,” Zerpa said.

Sup. Tony Staskunas disagreed with Clancy’s characterization that inmates are being exploited for their labor because they volunteer for work assignments.

“This is not forced labor, this is not required labor,” Staskunas said. “This is not Cool Hand Luke where the guards are dragging people out into the fields every morning.”

Staskunas also said he thought reduced sentences are, ultimately, a more valuable compensation than the pay offered at state-run corrections institutions, where inmates earn less than a dollar an hour. He also said the resolution would lead the county to a policy whereby people at the jail and the House of Correction end up serving longer sentences.

Clancy did say that he broadly supports shorter sentences, and said, “Generally, the policy of being able to be in jail for less time if the person allows their labor to be exploited to enrich a private company, begs the question of why they were sentenced to those days in the first place.”

Sup. Willie Johnson Jr., chair of the committee, said at the beginning of the discussion that he was “sympathetic to the resolution” but after hearing the arguments of his colleagues and from Jewell and Ball, voted against the proposal.

Clancy’s resolution was rejected by the committee on a four-to-one vote, with only Shea in support and Zerpa, Johnson Jr., Logsdon and Staskunas voting against the proposal.

But this is likely not the end of the debate. Despite its rejection, it can still be considered and debated by the full board later this month, where Clancy will be joined by his other co-sponsors, Supervisors Priscilla Coggs-Jones and Juan Miguel Martinez.

Categories: MKE County, Weekly

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