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Unpaid Prison Barber Made to Work During Covid Says, “We Aren’t Properly Disinfecting Anything”

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Each morning at 8:30, Ron begins trimming hair and beards at a barber shop from hell. As soon as he walks in, someone is waiting for a cut in a little plastic chair. Over the course of the next three hours, he flies through about 35 cuts, and another 35 in the afternoon, alongside several other barbers.

“It’s roach-infested, the mirror isn’t cleaned,” says Ron, who asked In These Times to withhold his real name for fear of retaliation. “There’s no brooms, no mops, there’s no dustpans, the sinks are clogged with hair. Dis-gust-ing.”

On a regular day, a long line forms outside the shop. Everyone is sweaty in Florida’s heat. “The barber shop doesn’t have much ventilation or air conditioning and there’s a lot of hair everywhere,” one “client” says. “Hair is stuck to everything, the capes are reused, they are wet and sticky with other people’s hair. The chairs are broken.”

Such an enterprise in a normal setting would swifty receive harsh reviews. But Ron is a barber at a prison in Florida. (In These Times is not revealing his specific location in order to protect him from retaliation.) He’s been clipping hair for about 20 years at compounds across the state, and he has never had any control over his labor conditions. Like “essential workers,” incarcerated laborers must risk their well-being for their jobs. Unlike essential workers, in Florida, they aren’t paid. “I gotta go to work every day,” Ron says. “They don’t care. They are telling us that we are doing social distance, but I’m a foot away from the next man trimming his beard, shaving him, cutting his hair…I could complain about it till kingdom come and they don’t care.”

After an outbreak at several facilities, the Florida Department of Corrections used uncompensated prison labor to make masks for the other 176,000 incarcerated people and staff across the state. But the masks are small, fragile and barely cover the nose and mouth, according to Ron. He says he was lucky to purchase a N95 mask from the custodial staff to use instead.

As of June 21, 1,704 incarcerated people and 365 prison staff have been infected with the virus in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. At least 548 incarcerated people in the United States have died from Covid-19.

Diseases were likely spreading in the barber shop long before Covid-19 hit. Per federal barber shop regulations, all tools “that come in contact with the head, neck or face of a patron, should be disinfected before use upon any patron.” But prison barber shops in Florida typically don’t allow time, and in some cases, sanitizing supplies for proper disinfecting, Ron says. Florida regulations specify that barbershop tools must be disinfected by a product registered with the Environmental Protection Agency “as a bacterial, virucidal and fungicidal disinfectant, and approved by that agency for use in hospitals, for one to five minutes.” Then, tools should be stored in an ultraviolet ray sanitizing cabinet.

According to Ron, Florida prisons aren’t abiding by these regulations. “If we did what we are supposed to do, per OSHA, we would only be able to cut one every fifteen minutes because it takes fifteen minutes to disinfect,” explains Ron. Since he only has one clipper, he wouldn’t be able to trim everyone’s beard on a weekly basis if a proper procedure were in place. And they don’t have the disinfectants registered with the EPA or UV sanitizing cabinets. “We aren’t properly disinfecting anything,” Ron says. “That’s mandated by the state of Florida. I don’t know how they passed inspections.” He says staff won’t address his concerns. “When you bring it up they say they don’t care…cut hair, or else.”

The “client,” who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation, describes haircuts in prison as “scary,” citing tools “not being sanitized, and some of these blades are not properly adjusted.” He explains, “you get cut, the guy before you gets cut, the guy after you is getting cut and you don’t have a choice because you have to get a haircut.” Every incarcerated person in Florida must keep a clean shaven, or up to a half-inch, beard. Men in solitary confinement at Ron’s prison get haircuts in their cells while standing, says Ron.

Meanwhile, a right-wing, astroturfed “reopen America” movement guided by corporate interests has been pushing for reopening non-essential businesses, while scientists urge them to remain closed.

Controversy around haircuts have become symbolic of the American culture wars sparked by the movement. In May, the Michigan Conservative Coalition, which has ties to the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, organized an “Operation Haircut” demonstration with free haircuts, a line that has inspired some Americans to complain that their shaggy hair is a violation of their constitutional rights.

Others, like a small coalition of Rhode Island restaurants, have pointed out that sheltering in place and bankruptcy are a false dichotomy: “Rather than call on workers and customers to risk their lives for a livelihood and social experience that we all have been deprived of,” the coalition wrote. “We instead suggest that this energy and effort be directed at our government and its officials to do their job and protect this extremely important and equally vulnerable industry during this crisis.” The coalition suggests rent and mortgage freezes and unemployment benefits as two such efforts.

Prior to the reopening of some salons in Florida on May 11, Ron questioned the inconsistency of the labor situation. “If my sister can’t get her hair and nails done, and she is dying to get them done, why should we not walk around with an afro? It doesn’t make any sense.” 

But he answers his own question: “I know what’s going on, it’s all about control, it’s all psychological. We outnumber them. But as long as we are killing each other and fighting each other we’re not looking at the problem which is them. We will always be losing, and they will always be laughing at us.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ella Fassler is an independent writer, researcher and prison abolitionist.


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Polar Vortex Shows How Incarcerated Workers Are Bearing the Brunt of Extreme Weather

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On January 28, an image of Cook County Jail prisoners shoveling snow went viral after it was posted on the  La Villita community Facebook page and then shared by the Chicago Community Bond Fund. The city of Chicago was preparing for an arctic blast and the prisoners were seen working in cold temperatures wearing orange jumpsuits. Thousands of people shared the image and expressed concern about the well-being of the prisoners. This scenario is yet another example of how incarcerated workers—toiling for little or no pay—are on the frontlines of extreme weather.

Predictably, the office of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart sought to exonerate itself in the press. “The situation was entirely and intentionally misrepresented,” said Cara Smith, chief spokesperson for Dart’s office. Smith claimed the prisoners were actually wearing insulated jumpsuits, that there was a warming van nearby, and that prisoners were not allowed to work if the temperature dropped under 20 degrees. Numerous news outlets reported Smith’s quotes without digging into their veracity, even though she presented no evidence.

Smith admitted that prisoners were only paid $2 for the work assignment, in a jail where at roughly 2,700 people are incarcerated simply because they can’t afford to pay their bond. Smith sought to justify the nothing wage by claiming the prisoners were doing work as part of a vocational job training program called RENEW. Yet, as Sharlyn Grace, co-executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, put it to The Chicago Tribune, “I don’t think that anyone is seriously suggesting that shoveling snow is a skilled form of labor that’s going to lead to job opportunities upon release.” Prisoners have little-to-no access to the press, and reporters often make no effort to contact them, so it’s no surprise that none have been quoted on the subject.

The latest example at Cook County Jail certainly isn’t the first time that prison labor has been used to respond to or prepare for extreme weather, nor is it the first time that such a controversy has made national headlines. In 2015, Think Progress reported that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority had used volunteer prison labor to shovel snow in Boston when the windchill was negative 25 degrees. The prisoners were paid $3 to $4 a day for their efforts, while non-prisoners doing the same work were paid $30 an hour.

After deadly wildfires hit California this past fall, more than 2,000 prisoners were used to help fight them. While the prisoners fight fires through a vocational program offered by the state, they’re incentivized by earning time off of their sentences and they’re only paid $2 a day and an additional $1 an hour if there is an active fire to fight. While the prisoners could use the work to reduce their sentence, once released, they often aren’t allowed work as firefighters due to their record of incarceration. In California, the job can legally be deniedto almost anyone with a criminal record.

Global warming is making wildfires, like the ones in California, more extreme.  “You warm the planet, you’re going to get more frequent and intense heat waves. You warm the soils, you dry them out, you get worse drought,” Michael Mann, an atmospheric science professor, told PBS last August. “You bring all that together and those are all the ingredients for unprecedented wildfires.”

Additionally, many scientists are now also connecting intense cold waves to the warming of the Arctic, which means that prisoners working in the cold could also technically be on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Prisoners have very little protections, are at great risk of exploitation, and details about their conditions are often scarce.

Panagioti Tsolkas, the coordinator for the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, tells In These Times that he also sees the intersection of climate change and mass incarceration in the wake of environmental disasters. “After hurricanes here in Florida, prisoners got called out to help with relief efforts,” he says.

While prisoners are being used to mitigate climate disasters, they’re among the most vulnerable to their impacts. Incarcerated people are often housed in prisons that experience extreme heat without air conditioning. A 2017 report from The Marshall Projectfound that four out of five people held in Texas prisons lack air conditioning. In 2014, state prisoners at Wallace Pack Unit in Grimes County sued their prison after a number of incarcerated people died as  a result of the extreme heat. Four years later, a settlement was reached, and the prison was required to provide air-conditioning.

In 2018, the Texas Inmate Families Association compiled reports from prisoners’ relatives and found that at least 30 Texas prisons had inadequate heating after freezing temperatures hit the state during the winter. Last year, the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons helped organize a prisoner strike in the state of Florida. The prisoners said one of their intentions was to “expose the environmental conditions we face, like extreme temperatures.”

Last summer, prisoners organized a nationwide strike across 17 prisons to highlight poor conditions and labor practices. Among their demands was an “immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.”  The 13th Amendment abolished slavery but contains an exemption that allows involuntary servitude as part of a criminal punishment. Chicago’s minimum wage is set to increase to $13 an hour this summer, and the prisoners who shoveled snow this week lag far behind.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 1, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

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