‘Florida loves prison labor’: why most incarcerated people still work for free in the Sunshine state

<span>Incarcerated people fill sandbags in advance of Hurricane Idalia, in Flagler county, Florida, in August 2023.</span><span>Photograph: Flagler County Sheriff's Office</span>
Incarcerated people fill sandbags in advance of Hurricane Idalia, in Flagler county, Florida, in August 2023.Photograph: Flagler County Sheriff's Office

A $9bn food services company is using prisoners to make meals for other prisoners that can cost up to $30 – but it’s not paying them.

Food service provider Aramark runs a prison program called In2Work that hasn’t been paying prisoners for the work they’ve been doing for the company. The work includes making premium meals that family and friends can purchase for their loved ones in prison.

Julius Smith, 36, who entered the Florida state prison system at the age of 18 in 2008, said the state of affairs was all to common. “If we don’t do the work, then the prison does not operate,” said Smith, who is currently imprisoned in Florida. “I feel like people who go to prison should be paid like other people in states where they work. If inmates got paid, they could take care of themselves instead of resorting to extreme measures to get the things they need,” he said.

Smith has worked a job in whichever prison he’s been held in since he was first incarcerated. He has never been paid for the work he’s done. He currently works as a houseman, in charge of dormitory cleaning.

“In2Work was supposed to be giving inmates jobs. They said inmates were supposed to get paid for the work, but this program has been running half a year and not one inmate has been paid,” he said.

In April 2024, the California supreme court dismissed a lawsuit filed against Aramark by prisoners in California over the lack of compensation for the work they do for the company. The ruling stated that Aramark and Alameda county are not bound by state minimum wage laws. Aramark did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Aramark is far from alone in taking advantage of free prison labor. A 2022 report by the ACLU found workers in prison produce $2bn in goods and $9bn in services annually to prison systems in the US, but prisoners receive no or very little compensation for this labor.

“Is it shocking that Florida is seeming to turn a blind eye to prison slavery? No, not at all,” said Bianca Tylek, founder and executive director of the non-profit Worth Rises, which currently runs the #EndtheException campaign. “All of this is possible because of the exception of the 13th amendment that allows slavery to be used as criminal punishment event today.”

The 13th amendment of the US constitution banned slavery or involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”.

According to a January 2024 report by Edgeworth Economics, seven states, including Florida, pay no wages at all for the majority of prison jobs. About 37% of people in the US in prison or jail are Black and 48% of prisoners serving life sentences are Black, while Black Americans make up 13% of the US population. Black people in Florida are imprisoned at a rate 4.2 times higher than white people are.

Smith’s first job was prison dormitory cleaning duties, which entailed cleaning and scrubbing showers and toilets, dusting and mopping stairways, floors, cleaning windows, shining brass fixtures and taking out trash. When his custody dropped from close custody to medium custody in 2010, he was assigned to food service.

His morning shift could start as early as 2 in the morning until 10.30 or 11 in the morning, where he was tasked with cleaning floors with brooms and squeegees in the dining and prep areas. When he was scheduled later shifts, he could start around 10.30 or 11 in the morning and be working until 11 at night. Then he moved into food preparation work and said because a correctional officer didn’t like a fellow prisoner he was assigned with, he was moved to the pot room, tasked with cleaning dishes and pots used for food preparation.

“You’re scrubbing pots. They’d have this pot-scrubbing chemical, that stuff would eat up your hands. I hated that job,” said Smith.

If you work a job and they say you’re not satisfactory and give you some type of infraction, they could put you in confinement

Julius Smith

Eventually, due to the grueling nature of the job and the impact the chemicals had on his hands, Smith asked to be reassigned, offering to be put in solitary confinement rather than stay in the job. He eventually was reassigned to food prep for prisoners with dietary restrictions, such as meals for diabetics.

“Food service will wear you down. You’re always on your feet. Sometimes they give you rubber boots, everyone puts their feet in those boots, and they don’t really clean them, so you get foot fungus,” Smith explained.

After obtaining his General Educational Development (GED) diploma while in prison, Smith obtained a barbering position where he would cut the hair of prisoners and staff, without any compensation. He was placed in solitary confinement on one occasion for dropping a hair clipper, and a piece of it broke, and the correctional officer on duty wanted to make an example of him.

Smith explained he had started several vocational programs, but was often moved or transferred before being able to complete and receive certification in culinary arts, in barbering, and in dog training, despite spending hundreds of hours toward each.

“If you work a job and they say you’re not satisfactory and give you some type of infraction, they could put you in confinement,” added Smith. “I’ve never had a job where you receive actual pay.”

Prisoners can face disciplinary action, and even are at the risk of abuse if they refuse to work.

In 2019, Cheryl Weimar, while imprisoned in the work camp at Lowell correctional institution in Marion county, Florida, the largest women’s prison in the US, was beaten by correctional officers for refusing to work that day cleaning toilets.

Weimar had a very difficult life, from childhood to adulthood, according to her Tallahassee, Florida-based attorney Ryan Williams, from working as a prostitute as a child to struggling with homelessness and drug addictions.

The state of Florida settled a lawsuit filed by Weimar for $4.65m after the assault left her paralyzed from the neck down. No criminal charges were filed against the officers involved and no reforms were enacted in the wake of the incident.

“It’s grueling work,” said Williams of the work camp at Lowell. “She had a whole litany of mental health problems, she had a major depressive disorder, and she just had a mental breakdown that day. She told the guards she couldn’t work, she declared a psychological emergency, and they got pissed. I saw the video, it was violent, it was bad.”

Williams noted that Weimar passed away due to complications from her injuries in late 2023.

Related: ‘Egregious’: Louisiana prisons have experienced 50% spike in deaths, report says

“It was tragic,” he added. “They’ve had a lot of problems at that work camp.”

Despite the lack of pay and the threats they face for refusing to work, Smith explained that it costs a lot of money to be imprisoned.

Florida charges prisoners debt, with prisoners levied $50 a day for their incarceration, which can often leave people trapped in debt once they are released.

And although prisoners are provided some essentials, they are not provided with shampoo, deodorant and food, and are charged to use communications such as e-mails, which has replaced physical mail, and phone calls.

“We survive financially off what our people can send us,” continued Smith. “Hygiene materials, shampoo, brushes, combs, we have to buy them. They give us toothpaste, a little hotel bar of soap that doesn’t last the week and a little tiny toothbrush. They don’t provide deodorant, shampoo or grooming items. That is stuff you have to buy, so inmates who get no money, there are people who are doing all these things, and they can’t even buy a stick of deodorant.”

Florida, like many states throughout the US south, still relies on the labor of prisoners to keep prisons operating and subsidizing the work of local and state government agencies.

Florida is the third largest state prison system in the US, currently holding around 80,000 prisoners across 128 prisons, including 20 work camps. The state has one of the highest incarceration rates in the US, which has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world where data is available.

Prisoners perform road and construction work for the Florida department of traffic. They regularly work for county agencies to prepare for hurricanes, clean roadways, perform road construction and landscaping work.

The only prison workers who do receive any compensation do so through the Florida prison system’s Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises, Inc (Pride). Approximately 2,500 prisoners annually work for wages between 20 cents and 95 cents per hour manufacturing products, from uniforms, office and park furniture, and license plates, that produced $65.7m in sales in 2022 to businesses and government agencies.

Efforts to reform the prison labor system in Florida have not garnered any success at the state level, though some local efforts have successfully banned the practice. In 2023, Democrat lawmakers in Florida opted to stop introducing legislation to ban forced prison labor in the state due to the conservative political climate and DeSantis’s culture wars in the state. At the federal level, legislation has been introduced annually in recent years in the House and Senate to end the 13th amendment exception permitting slavery as a form of punishment, but has not yet passed.

Kimber Tough, an organizer with Florida Prisoner Solidarity based in Gainesville, Florida, helped with efforts to get Alachua county, Florida, in 2019 and the University of Florida in 2020 to stop using prison labor, which included numerous protests and advocacy efforts. But across the state, the practice still continues unabated.

“We targeted the city and county contracts, we created this FAQ sheet about prison slavery and basically never let the city and county rest until they realized we’re on the right side of it. It wasn’t easy,” said Tough. “Florida loves prison labor.”

The Florida department of corrections did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.