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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report for America

How Mississippi’s ‘supercharged temp agencies’ provide inmate labor to businesses

Burger joints, meat processors and even private citizens look to the state’s restitution centers as reliable source of cheap labor

By Michelle Liu and Anna Wolfe | January 9, 2020

GREENWOOD – In the thick of deer season, B.B. Gilmer churns through thousands of pounds of venison, transforming the meat into tenderloin and steak cuts, ground hamburger and sausage, even Delta-style tamales.

For almost three decades, Mississippi hunters have taken their wild game to BB’s Meat Processing, where taxidermy trophies loom over the cramped lobby and deer hang by their hindquarters in backroom coolers. Gilmer and his wife field so many orders in the winter that they sleep in a bedroom attached to the shop instead of going home at night.

They also hire help. In the mornings, Gilmer drives to an old prison that now houses the Greenwood Restitution Center for people paying off court-ordered debts. There, he picks up one or two men — who must work for the Gilmers, or anyone else willing to hire them, to earn enough money to go home.

Last season, the Gilmers hired Travis Tanksley, a lanky guy in his mid-20s who was sent to the restitution center by a judge to earn $3,500 he owed from a conviction for passing bad checks.

Tanksley and the hundreds of people confined in the state’s four restitution centers every year have to earn their way out. They work at Popeyes and McDonald’s franchises, soul food joints and auto mechanic shops, furniture companies and meatpacking plants. Some take on dangerous jobs as garbage collectors and construction laborers. 

Who hires them? In response to our request for public records, the Mississippi Department of Corrections released a list of over 150 private individuals and businesses that have employed the inmates, from the Greenwood Country Club to a restaurant at the Jackson Zoo to a Moss Point funeral home and cemetery. 

The corrections department, or MDOC, says it doesn’t enter into contracts with these employers, and refused to release the agreements some employers say they signed.

Many inmates make minimum wage, which in Mississippi is $7.25 an hour. Collectively, they worked over 300,000 hours annually for private employers to earn $2.1 million each year, according to government records from fiscal years 2016 through 2018.

Eric Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report for America

Tyler Jackson and Jerod Johnson take down fencing at the Leflore County Agri Center in Greenwood, Miss., Monday, February 11, 2019. Both men entered the Greenwood Restitution Center to pay off court-ordered debts in 2018.

For employers, the reliable source of labor can be a benefit. Bruce Evans, who operates an Arby’s franchise in Pearl, said some of the restitution center inmates he hires already have experience working in restaurants.

“It’s a win-win for the employer and the employee,” Evans said.

The corrections department maintains that “while individuals in this program are required to work, the MDOC does not force them to work,” according to a statement the agency issued last month in response to our findings. “The MDOC merely assists them in finding employment.”

Still, corrections officials can punish inmates for “refusing to work, encouraging others to refuse to work, or participating in a work stoppage,” according to the program’s handbook. They can also get in trouble for getting fired. Breaking the rules too often can land them in a traditional prison.

Noah Zatz, an expert in labor law, called the program “a classic case of debt peonage,” in which people who owe money either work off those debts or face criminal punishment.

“These restitution centers are operating like supercharged temp agencies that have the power of the state criminal justice system backing them up,” said Zatz, a professor at UCLA.

In the Mississippi Delta, a majority black area where jobs continue to dwindle, work has been hard to come by for the work-camp inmates, they say. Some ended up at meatpacking plants — and lost those jobs when there were layoffs. Others said that an overburdened caseworker left them sitting in the center for long stretches of time, waiting for work while racking up $11 a day in room and board costs. 

People serving time in Mississippi prisons who work generally do so for public agencies and non-profits, not private companies. State law prohibits them from working in homes as servants, gardeners or other domestic workers.

But several people told us they have used restitution center laborers to sweep their yards, cut their grass, and even help serve their family Christmas dinners.

K.K. Henderson Kent, a Greenwood farm and restaurant owner, said she has hired people from the work camp to do odd chores around her properties for the last thirty years, including cleaning her restaurant and hauling garbage.

Henderson Kent said she pays $7.25 an hour and estimated that in some years, she has spent $8,000 to $10,000 on their wages. If inmates do a good job, she will buy them cigarettes, cook them supper at her house, or even lend them clothes from her son’s closet, she added. 

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report for America

B.B. Gilmer, right, drives to the Greenwood Restitution Center in the morning to pick up inmates who work at his deer processing business. Last year, he hired Travis Tanksley, left, who did all the cleaning and heavy lifting at the shop.

At the Gilmers’ deer-processing operation, Tanksley made $900 every two weeks. Before he arrived at the restitution center, he had little previous work experience, he said. “But I’m one of them kind of people who can do a job and go right into it.” 

Tanksley did all the cleaning and heavy lifting at the shop, helping out the Gilmers’ regular employees who skin, gut and cut the deer. As Tanksley weighed and hauled the venison, the Gilmers’ pet Yorkies wove around his ankles.

Gilmer said he hires men from the restitution center, who are compelled to work by the correctional system, because they’re more reliable than a regular employee, who might not show up for the job. 

And he thinks the work experience helps the inmates. “Some of them, they don’t have a skill,” Gilmer said. “At least when they get out, they’ll know how to do something. I think it’s a good thing.”

This investigation was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for The Marshall Project’s newsletter, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.

Read the rest of our investigation here.