During his time in state custody, Darrell Latham had filed a lawsuit making similar claims, which now resurfaced with new allegations that Alabama is covertly operating a labor-trafficking scheme. According to these claims, prisoners are being used to work in fast food chains and factories.
In 2003, Latham found himself in a peculiar situation during his six-year sentence for theft. Alongside dozens of other inmates, he spent hours each day inflating and packaging balls for Wilson Sporting Goods, earning a mere 25 cents an hour in Alabama work release centers. However, Latham couldn’t shake the feeling that something was amiss with this arrangement.
In 2003, Latham took legal action against the company and prison system, claiming that they were using prison labor to cut costs. He and other inmates believed that they were being exploited. Today, Latham draws parallels between his experience at Decatur Work Release and the recent accusations targeting the Alabama Department of Corrections.
Ten inmates, along with the Union of Southern Service Workers, Service Employees International Union, and other labor organizations, have taken legal action by filing a lawsuit on Tuesday. They are alleging that state officials in Alabama have been denying parole to inmates in order to compel them into participating in work release programs that primarily benefit fast food restaurants and other industries.
Latham criticized the Department of Corrections, referring to it as the Department of Corruption.
According to Latham, work release inmates are required to have jobs that pay at least minimum wage. However, the department of corrections classified the agreement with Wilson as part of the Alabama Correctional Industries program, which pays less than $1 an hour. Typically, inmates assigned to prison industries produce goods that will be utilized by state agencies. In this particular situation, they were employed by a private company that benefited from a competitive edge by utilizing inexpensive prison labor.
According to Latham, the process involved inflating the uninflated pallets of balls and sending them down an assembly line. The balls were then placed in boxes, loaded onto pallets, and wrapped up before being sent back to Wilson. Wilson would then sell these balls on the open market at regular prices.
According to officials from the department of corrections in their depositions, they believed that the program qualified for correctional industries because the inmates were not directly involved in the manufacturing process. The purpose of work release programs is to assist inmates in developing positive work habits prior to their release. However, due to a challenging labor market in Decatur, there were limited job opportunities available for inmates. They argued that the partnership with Wilson would offer inmates valuable skills and experience.
Latham and his attorneys claimed that the agreement was a form of exploitation or even slavery, as stated in the complaint. They aimed to secure unpaid wages for approximately 100 inmates, amounting to a minimum of $425,000.
After filing his lawsuit, Latham experienced retaliation from the Department of Corrections. They transferred him from Decatur Work Release to Limestone Correctional Facility, which is a maximum-security prison. Latham revealed that he received warnings from other inmates, messages that were relayed by prison authorities, urging him to abandon the lawsuit.
Latham persevered, but unfortunately, the lawsuit was eventually dismissed by a judge. At that point, Wilson had already withdrawn its operations from the Decatur Work Release Center.
According to Andrew Farquhar, former director of correctional industries, the parent company was unhappy with the negative attention and implications associated with the lawsuit. They insisted that Wilson refrain from using their services until the lawsuit was resolved, as they did not want to be associated with the term “slave connotations.”
According to Tonya East, the current lawsuit brings back memories of her own experience. In 2020, she was sent to Tutwiler after pleading guilty to drug charges and identity theft. Two years later, in 2022, she was transferred to Birmingham Work Release.
During her time in Birmingham, East found employment at a nearby restaurant that had a dress code requiring black pants and specific footwear. Unfortunately, the center where she was staying did not provide these items, so East had to reach out to her family for assistance.
According to East, the inmates in this job are paid less than workers in the free world. She also mentioned that the Department of Corrections deducts 40 percent of her paycheck before taxes and an additional 25 percent for court fees and restitution.
According to East, in addition to the low wages, workers also had to pay $5 per day for van rides. This meant that out of his $800 paycheck, he would only receive $150.
The Alabama Department of Corrections spokesperson refrained from commenting on individual cases. However, she did highlight the positive impact of the work release program on inmates.
According to a spokesperson, the Work Release Programs play a crucial role in the successful reintegration of inmates into the community.
According to East, her schedule often extended beyond the prison’s last dinner time, which meant that she had to purchase her own meals.
During a certain period, East mentioned that she fell ill with the stomach flu, which resulted in symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea. She informed the prison staff about her condition, explaining that she was unable to perform her duties. However, instead of receiving understanding and support, she faced disciplinary consequences. As a result, East had to forfeit her weekend passes that allowed her to visit her family, simply because she couldn’t work due to her illness.
East said that the person informed him that he was considered a 40 percenter and advised him that he should have taken the van to the job and allowed them to send him back.
Although work release is not mandatory for inmates, there are incentives for those who secure outside jobs. Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, where maximum-security inmates are housed, lacks air conditioning. In contrast, Birmingham Work Release provides this amenity.
During her time at the facility, she encountered a setback when her parole was denied. Surprisingly, her sister, who happened to be her victim, actually supported her bid for parole in 2022. Despite this support, the parole board chose to deny her application, resulting in her remaining on work release for an additional year and a half.
East expressed his dissatisfaction with the treatment of inmates, stating that it is unfair. He questioned why 40 percent of their paycheck is being taken and what it is being used for. While he understood that 25 percent goes towards fines and the court system, he was unsure of the purpose behind the 40 percent deduction and who benefits from it.