United States: California kept prison factories open

Inmates worked for pennies an hour as COVID-19 spread.

While much of California shut down this spring, Robbie Hall stitched masks for 12 hours a day in a sewing factory at a women’s prison in Chino. For several weeks, Hall and other women said, they churned out masks by the thousands but were forbidden from wearing them.

The incarcerated seamstresses at the California Institution for Women grew increasingly worried: The fabric they used came from the nearby men’s prison, where an outbreak ended up killing 23 inmates. And their boss regularly visited both institutions. “Are we safe with her going over there and coming back here?” Hall remembered asking her co-workers as they sewed.

Then it happened. In early May, COVID-19 broke out in the sewing factory, sickening at least four incarcerated workers, including Hall. She spent weeks in the hospital struggling to breathe.

California’s prison system has taken drastic measures to combat the coronavirus, halting rehab programs, religious services and educational classes. But correctional authorities kept one type of operation running through much of the last six months: prison factories.

Hall was one of thousands of incarcerated workers who stayed on the job in high-risk positions during the pandemic, making wages that ranged from 8 cents to $1 an hour. They cooked the food. They walked from cell to cell delivering meals. They cleaned everything from communal showers to COVID-19 units in prison hospitals. And they labored in prison factories making products, such as masks, hand sanitizer and furniture, that were sold to state agencies for millions of dollars.

Amid the drive for production, factories continued to operate even as infections increased inside prison walls, according to interviews with more than 30 inmates at the women’s prison in Chino and at Avenal State Prison for men, including some who became infected with the coronavirus. The factories brought together inmates who were housed in different units, heightening the risk of spreading the virus to other areas inside the prisons, The Times found.

Robbie Hall contracted COVID-19 in a Chino prison and spent weeks in the hospital. Factory staff, they said, warned that workers would lose their jobs — their only source of income — if they missed a day. Some said they were threatened with discipline that could jeopardize their chances for release from prison if they refused to work because of COVID-19 fears.

At the Chino prison, workers said, supervisors kept raising the daily quotas, from 2,000 to 3,000 to 3,500 masks. Seven days a week, the women cranked out masks until their bodies ached, and all they could do at night was collapse asleep in their cells. It was “like a slave factory,” Hall said. “The more you give them, the more they want.”

The Times sent detailed questions and requested interviews with the heads of state agencies responsible for prison conditions, but officials responded through representatives.

Michele Kane, a spokeswoman for the California Prison Industry Authority, which oversees the factories, said in a statement that “essential critical enterprises,” such as food, laundry and the manufacture of masks and hand sanitizer, have continued operating during the pandemic. The agency acknowledged that goods like furniture were made “when deemed safe” but declined to say what other factories remained open.

But interviews with incarcerated workers paint a disturbing picture of prison labor during the pandemic: meager wages, questionable infection control and the threat of more time in prison looming over their heads.

Supporters of prison labor say the practice helps defray costs of incarceration, provides job skills and reduces recidivism rates. But legal scholars and civil rights advocates have long criticized prison labor as exploitative and part of the historical legacy of slavery — a deep injustice, they say, only magnified by COVID-19.

“It is a bureaucratic decision to keep people working for pennies an hour during a pandemic,” said Kate Chatfield, director of policy at the Justice Collaborative, a national organization that advocates for criminal justice reform. “This should appall everyone who wants to live in a civilized society.”

The California Prison Industry Authority, a state agency known as CALPIA, oversees roughly 7,000 incarcerated workers statewide. Through CALPIA, prison labor makes everything from U.S. flags, license plates and packaged snickerdoodles to furniture found in the offices of nearly every state agency.

Fabric is CALPIA’s biggest moneymaker in manufacturing, bringing in $23.7 million in revenues in 2019, with furniture not far behind at $16.9 million, according to a recent audit. The state prison system is CALPIA’s biggest customer, accounting for about two-thirds of sales. Other major customers include the DMV, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and the Department of Health Care Services.

On April 1, the 11-member Prison Industry Board met and agreed to pay prison laborers overtime — though one board member worried that inmates would slow down production “just to get into the overtime.”

CALPIA General Manager Scott Walker acknowledged in the meeting that he couldn’t justify keeping factories open to produce “non-mission-critical” goods like shoes, furniture or snowplows for Caltrans. Walker said he had been “struggling with this for days” as he thought of “requiring people to come to work during this process to build a desk.”

Walker concluded the agency should “maybe err on the side of the medical knowledge and say, ‘Hey, stop. Stop all this nonessential traveling across the yard, commingling in a factory and just run the essential stuff,’” according to a transcript of the meeting.

The furniture factory was closed at Avenal State Prison in Kings County the very next day. But not for long. The factory was back up and running just 27 days later, on April 29. The first inmates and staff at Avenal State Prison tested positive for the coronavirus in mid-May.

Around the third week of May, an incarcerated worker in the furniture factory tested positive and was put in isolation, according to two workers who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

They had all been exposed to the man, the workers said. But a supervisor announced that if they didn’t report to the factory the next day, they’d get a write-up — a serious form of discipline that is a black mark when petitioning the parole board for release.

“It prevents us from going home early,” one explained. “A bunch of us went back to work. And a bunch of us contracted the virus.” He said he became deathly ill with COVID-19.

Kane, the CALPIA spokeswoman, said the agency had not received complaints alleging furniture factory workers were threatened with discipline for refusing to work during the pandemic.

The factory didn’t shut down until May 28, according to CALPIA. The shutdown came in response to an outbreak on the factory floor, workers said. The factory reopened June 18, Kane said, but then closed for two weeks in July. That was following another outbreak, workers said.

By the end of July, coronavirus cases at the prison had surpassed 1,400 and five inmates had died. “Why is money more important than human lives?” asked David Burke, who is incarcerated at Avenal State Prison. “Inmates are just a business.”

As chairman of his yard’s Inmate Advisory Council, Burke receives internal reports on prison operations, including coronavirus matters. He said that, as of mid-August, 83% of inmates had been infected with the coronavirus in the yard that staffs the furniture factory. Burke said the prison had increased the risk of spreading the virus in May by allowing workers from four different housing units into the furniture factory after one of them had tested positive.

Even operating with a skeleton crew for half of July, the factory produced more than $300,000 of furniture that month, inmates said.

Kane said the Avenal furniture factory has been working on an order for a substance abuse program that prison officials hope to launch. She said CALPIA currently uses only inmates from housing units where infections were “deemed resolved and workers from the same cohorts who are already living, eating, and recreating together.”

In late September, two more Avenal inmates died at outside hospitals, bringing the total to seven. As of Friday, 296 staffers and 2,931 inmates at the prison had been infected.