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When the BP oil gusher mess first began, BP hired prison labor in order to reap tax benefits instead of hiring coastal residents whose livelihoods crashed with the explosion of the wellhead. When the community expressed their outrage, BP did not stop the practice of using prison labor. No, apparently BP simply tried to literally cover-up the use of prison labor by changing the clothing worn by the inmates to give the appearance of a civilian workforce. Big surprise.

Please rec mothership!

According to The Nation article, during the first few days of this cleanup, cleanup workers for Louisiana beaches wore "scarlet pants and white t-shirts with the words 'Inmate Labor' printed in large red block letters." This is how coastal residents learned that BP hired prison labor rather than them. After community outrage was expressed at public meetings, the "outfits disappeared overnight."

However, Abe Louise Young, author of the article in The Nation, was not convinced that BP had actually stopped using prison labor in Grand Isle, Louisiana because "nine out of ten residents are white, [but] the cleanup workers are almost exclusively African-American men."  Ben Jealous, the president of NAACP, also demanded to know "why black people were over-represented in 'the most physically difficult, lowest paying jobs, with the most significant exposure to toxins.'"

So, was BP still using prison labor? Federal and state officials did not know, but said to Young: "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?"

The answer is yes, BP just changed their work attire to hide the fact of a prison work force:

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.

The inmates really can't make a voluntary choice to perform dangerous work that might ruin their health. "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 don't have the option to "pick and choose their work assignments" and can face repercussions for rejecting a job, including the loss of earned good time. Thus, inmates face the dilemma of protecting their health by refusing this work or staying longer in prison.

When Young tried to find out how many of the 20,000 prisoners "housed outside of state prisons" were performing BP spill work, an official with the Louisiana Department of Corrections (DOC) tried to discourage Young from pursuing this inquiry. Prison officials were also not helpful, one warden refused to discuss the issue, stating: "You want me to lose my job?"

Some government officials did provide confirmation of the prison labor force. "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."  In early May, Gov. Jindal sent out a press release "heralding the training of eighty inmates for "cleaning of oil-impacted wildlife recovered from coastal areas." And, a warden with one work release center confirmed that 18 prisoners were "currently assigned to oil spill work."

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.

Naturally, there is a money angle. BP benefits from the use of a cheap labor force that is easily silenced and also the bounty of tax credits and a partial "kickback" of wages paid:

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."

Yet, who will provide or pay for health care of prisoners now and down the road if the prisoners become ill?:

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.

Originally posted to Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse on Fri Jul 23, 2010 at 10:45 AM PDT.

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