Gainesville Works to Phase Out Prison Labor For City Clean-Up

Pilot program will employ youth, but inmates will still be doing unpaid work in the meantime.

A small group of prison inmates take to different parts of Gainesville every few days to pick up trash and cut grass.

They aren’t paid for their time. Money goes to the Florida Department of Corrections instead.

Across the country, protests and much debate has been made about how inmates are treated while incarcerated. There are concerns of price gouging for commissary items while companies and governments continue to use inmates for cheap labor, which some say is immoral and akin to slavery.

In Gainesville, city leaders are inching toward eliminating the practice through the creation of a pilot program created by City Manager Anthony Lyons that targets at-risk young adults in communities. The goal is to teach the participants of the program valuable job skills, while building their resumes and giving them business experiences.

Unlike inmates, they will be compensated for their time.

“It is definitely the will of the city to no longer use correctional labor,” Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe said. “It just doesn’t fit with Gainesville’s values. We shouldn’t take advantage of people just because they’re incarcerated.”

The City Commission has budgeted $50,000 toward the pilot program tentatively called the “Gainesville Landscape Lawn Care Academy.” The city is partnering with CareerSource, Santa Fe College, the Institute for Workforce Innovation’s Youth Build project and Gainesville police’s BOLD program.

Each organization has poured its own funding or leveraged existing services to help cover internship hours, OSHA training, CPR courses and instructional courses at the college every Friday morning. Some of the classes will cover bookkeeping, marketing, customer services and entrepreneurship.

City Chief of Staff Deborah Bowie said up to six people will qualify for the initial pilot. Participants must be dual enrolled in the Youth Build and BOLD programs to qualify. She said the programs help those between the ages of 18 to 20 who are typically hard to employ for various reasons.

“The inmate program has been problematic for a while,” she said. “I think it’s an issue because its a model that a lot of cities across the country have phased out ... This is work you don’t see a lot of cities doing.”

Monday through Thursday, the crews will be split up and given landscaping assignments throughout town. They can earn between $10.50 to $12 per hour of work for 35 hours a week.

The city will still use prison labor during the pilot, which is expected to end in spring 2019.

Gainesville has two contracts with the DOC. Between its parks and public works departments the two collectively pay about $110,000 annually for the service, none of the money going to inmates.

If Gainesville cuts ties with the DOC, it will be the first municipality to do so in the North Central Florida region. County officials also have discussed the topic. The county uses jail inmates for its work.

But those who have been fighting the prison system say the city’s pilot should be a separate issue from the labor debate.

“It’s not just a form of slavery, it is the literal definition of slavery, especially when you consider the predatory policing in our communities,” said Karen Smith, a prison rights activist.

Smith, an organizer with the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons and secretary of the local chapter of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, has been an activist for about 20 years, organizing mass protests inside and outside prisons around the state. She said the city should immediately cancel its contract with the DOC, then turn its focus to the new pilot program.

Read the entire story featuring grantee Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons.