Fast-food chains use Alabama prison inmates as slave labor, lawsuit alleges
By Amy Yurkanin | firstname.lastname@example.org
December 13, 2023
A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday said prisoners in Alabama have been denied parole and forced to work jobs at fast food restaurants as part of a “labor-trafficking scheme” that generates $450 million a year for the state, according to a press release.
Ten former and current prisoners and labor unions that represent service workers filed the lawsuit Tuesday against Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, Attorney General Steve Marshall, a beer distributor and several fast food companies. The lawsuit alleges the prison system makes money by deducting fees from the wages of prisoners. Private companies such as KFC, Wendy’s, Burger King and McDonald’s get a steady supply of workers from the prison system, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit claims the arrangement resembles convict leasing, a system that followed slavery in the South. Prisoners, many of whom were Black and had been arrested for violations of Jim Crow laws, could be forced to work dangerous or grueling jobs for private employers.
The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Parole reforms enacted in 2015 had reduced the number of work-release inmates by 40 percent in 2018, according to the press release. That year, Gov. Kay Ivey began targeting the parole system and rates dropped. The number of prisoners granted parole declined sharply between 2020 and 2022. The rates among Black inmates dropped even further and wait times increased, the lawsuit said.
“Labor coerced from Alabama’s disproportionately Black incarcerated population is the fuel that fires ADOC’s extremely lucrative profit-making engine,” the suit reads. “ADOC enforces express rules that severely punish incarcerated people both for refusing to work and for encouraging work stoppages.”
Violence and extortion are common in Alabama prisons, which are understaffed. Inmates often take work-release jobs to get out of the dangerous environment and earn money to buy clothes and extra food, the complaint says.
“This case seeks to abolish a modern-day form of slavery,” the complaint says. “They have been entrapped in a system of ‘convict leasing’ in which incarcerated people are forced to work, often for little or no money, for the benefit of the numerous government entities and private businesses that ‘employ’ them. They 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.”
One inmate, Lakiera Walker, was incarcerated from 2007 to 2023. Her parole hearing was rescheduled from 2020 to 2023, and Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall opposed her application even though her victims supported her release, the complaint said. Walker had to perform long hours of work inside the prison that included stripping floors and caring for sick and disabled inmates. She also did roadwork for Jefferson County, where she endured sexual harassment, and worked at Southeastern Meats. She often spent time inside the freezers with inadequate clothing, the lawsuit said.
“On one occasion, Ms. Walker was so ill that she had to be carried to the healthcare unit and could not work; she was approached by an ADOC job placement officer who told her she had to ‘get up and go make us our 40%,’” the complaint said. “There is no reasonable argument that Ms. Walker posed a threat to public safety for more than a decade before she was released, given her history of performing work both inside and outside prison walls without incident.”
State Rep. Christopher England, D-Tuscaloosa, said he has been watching the parole board since 2019 and was aware of racial disparities. Many people denied parole for being threats to public safety do work outside of prisons several hours a day, he said.
“They work jobs every single day for eight to ten hours unsupervised,” England said. “So, saying they are a threat to public safety is only a convenient excuse to deny them parole.”
More than 500 companies have contracts with the Alabama Department of Corrections to obtain work from inmates, the complaint said. The inmates are not allowed to refuse work or protest dangerous conditions or long hours. Prisoners who engage in work stoppages can be punished with transfers to a higher security prisons and loss of privileges. They can be sent to solitary confinement.
In addition to private employers, the lawsuit also names the City of Montgomery, City of Troy and Jefferson County as agencies that have benefited from inmate labor.
The Alabama Department of Corrections deducts 40 percent from inmate wages. Workers must also pay for transportation and clothes, the complaint said.
Michael Campbell, an inmate at Childersburg Work Release Center, said he works five to six days a week at a local KFC. He said inmates have begun to lose hope they will ever qualify for parole.
“It seems like they’re not even really looking to anybody’s record, they’re just standing over them and denying every one of them.”