Alabama inmates sue state for ‘convict leasing,’ forcing them to work ‘for next to nothing’

Current and former prisoners who served time in Alabama are suing the state over its “convict leasing” program where they claim they earned “next to nothing,” comparing it to “cotton-picking.”

The prisoners claimed in a lawsuit that was filed Tuesday that Alabama has made $450 million from forced labor involving placing inmates at places such as Burger King and McDonald’s. They called it a “modern-day form of slavery.”

“It says they were ‘entrapped in a system of ‘convict leasing’ in which incarcerated people are forced to work, often for little or no money’ while the state kept the profits of their labor,” the Daily Mail reported.

“The plaintiffs said they are regularly forced to work at McDonald’s, KFC, Wendy’s, and Burger King franchises, Anheuser-Busch distributors, and meat processors,” the news outlet added.

(Video Credit: NBC 15)

The suit contends that the inmates “live in a constant danger of being murdered, stabbed or raped that is so profound that the federal government has sued Alabama for inflicting ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ and if they refuse to work, the State punishes them even more. They are trapped in this labor trafficking scheme.”

State agencies are being named in the lawsuit including the Alabama Department of Corrections. The City of Montgomery, the City of Troy, and Jefferson County are also named. The suit includes over two dozen state officials, including Governor Kay Ivey and Attorney General Steve Marshall. They are accused of violating the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

The suit goes on to charge that since 2018, “575 private employers and over 100 public employers have ‘leased’ labor from Alabama prisons,” according to the Daily Mail.

“It says the inmates work against their will in ‘unsafe work conditions’ and the ADOC takes 40 percent of gross earnings claiming it is ‘to assist in defraying the cost of his/her incarceration,” the outlet noted.

According to the complaint, 1,374 incarcerated people were enrolled in the work program as of September 2023.

“The forced labor scheme that currently exists in the Alabama prison system is the modern reincarnation of the notorious ‘convict leasing’ system that replaced slavery after the Civil War,” said Janet Herold, legal director of Justice Catalyst Law, according to the New York Post.

Lakiera Walker is one of the plaintiffs. She was in prison from 2007 to 2023 and asserts she was forced to work long hours with no pay “upon threat of discipline.”

Tasks included work such as providing care for mentally disabled or other ill incarcerated people, housekeeping, stripping floors, unloading chemical trucks, working inside freezers, and working for Burger King. Walker claims she was paid $2 a day and was also subjected to sexual harassment by a supervising officer.

She also says that when she was so ill she couldn’t work, a supervisor told her to “get up and go make us our 40 percent.”

“Those women need help. They really need a voice. I knew I had to do something. I want justice for this forced labor,” Walker told Law&Crime in an interview.

According to the suit, if prisoners don’t do as they are told they could be “put behind the wall” in one of the “higher-security ultra-violent facilities.”

“Plaintiffs argued that Alabama’s practices are illegal under both the Alabama and US Constitutions and asked that the court award compensatory and punitive damages,” the Daily Mail wrote.

Robert Earl Council, who is one of the plaintiffs, is an incarcerated activist. He co-founded the Free Alabama Movement which assisted in organizing a 2016 nationwide strike among prisoners.

He claims that he has been “subject to severe and abusive treatment in retaliation for advocating that incarcerated persons refuse to submit to forced labor,” according to Law&Crime.

“Arthur Charles Promey Jr. has been incarcerated for 16 years – he was denied parole in 2022, with ADOC allegedly telling his family it was because ‘he was fired from KFC in 2019,'” the Daily Mail wrote. “This was despite his KFC manager writing ‘a letter to the Parole Board specifically recommending him for parole in light of his strong work performance.'”

“The full list of plaintiffs is: Robert Earl Council, Lee Edward Moore Jr., Lakiera Walker, Jerame Apprentice Cole, Frederick Denard McDole, Michael Campbell, Arthur Charles Promey Jr., Lanair Pritchett, Alimireo English, and Toni Cartwright,” the outlet listed.

Plaintiffs also include two labor unions, who are arguing that the supply of inmate labor is suppressing wages for all workers and interfering with their ability to organize.

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