Overlooked and Written Off

Working for nickels and dimes is a reprieve for some inmates in New Mexico’s prisons. Is it also exploitation?

Allen Rackley is the star of management at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas.

Near the back of a furniture shop where about 40 inmates work most days to turn raw materials into desks, shelves, chairs, and countless other pieces of furniture for customers across the state, Rackley assembles several large wooden panels in what will be a long reception desk for the Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino.

At age 43, Rackley has spent most of his life locked up, beginning with a 16-year sentence for robbery while he was still a teenager. Then, he became one of nearly 80 percent of people in the nation who return to prison within five years of getting out, and was next incarcerated for a dozen more years for several burglary convictions.

Rackley, whose release date is next year, says working 10-hour days at the New Mexico Corrections Industries furniture shop helps time go by more quickly. Yet, he is still trapped behind a tall barbed-wire fence. The fenceposts are lined with razor-sharp spikes all the way to the top, meant to break off in flesh.

In the shop, Rackley tells SFR, "they treat you like a man, they work you like a man, and they expect you to be a man and conduct and carry yourself in that way." Back in general population, he says, correctional officers treat you like an "inmate"—less than human.

He speaks to a reporter while a corrections officer stands only a few feet away.

Rackley might be part of the crew that drops the desk off at Buffalo Thunder, because the state has deemed him and others working here non-threatening enough to assist in deliveries. They've recently built chairs and desks for Nambé Pueblo Tribal Court, lockers for the Santa Rosa Fire Department and pews for the Holy Cross Catholic Church in Las Cruces.

Parishioners, defendants and gamblers who interact with these objects might never know they came from a prisoner's hands.

Nationwide, inmates are organizing to stage work stoppages, sit-ins and boycotts of prison-made products in August. It comes two years after they participated in the largest mass protest against prison labor and conditions in American history. They've been aided by organizers on the outside, especially the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, an effort of the Industrial Workers of the World labor union.

In states like Texas and Florida, incarcerated laborers are paid nothing at all. About 300 inmates in New Mexico, nearly all of them men, working at seven different facilities across the state receive payment of 40 cents to $2.25 an hour, according to the Corrections Department. The department justifies this low pay by pointing to inmates' criminal convictions and costly ongoing institutionalization.

SFR tried to independently speak with inmates working for Corrections Industries by sending personalized letters, but none replied before this article's publication. All mail is first read by Corrections Department staff who deem whether it is appropriate to pass along. Rackley and others who spoke with SFR signed waivers to be photographed ahead of a scheduled visit, and all interviews conducted in person by SFR happened within earshot of prison staff.

There are no reports of anybody in New Mexico prisons participating in the nationwide strike in 2016, or preparing to do so this year. But when a riot at the Lee Correctional Facility in South Carolina resulted in dozens of casualties on April 15, it had echoes of the New Mexico State Penitentiary riot in Santa Fe over a quarter-century ago, and was rooted in similar reasons: mistreatment, exploitation, and corruption among officials.

Only now, the internet and social media have amplified the South Carolina uprising into a rallying cry for a new nationwide strike by inmates there and in 16 other states. An end to exploited labor is just one demand; taken together, the list reads like a basic call for human rights inside prisons.

Advocates say the line between giving people meaningful work while incarcerated and exploiting them is thin. Hundreds of documents collected by SFR show over 100 entities purchased New Mexico prison products at a fraction of what they'd cost from non-inmate labor. Customers across the state contributed to about $21 million the department counts as revenue in sales of prison goods and services over the last two years.

If inmates like Rackley see working for nickels and dimes as a privilege, those who study the issue argue it's only because regular prison life is filled with despair.

Who buys inmate labor in New Mexico?

Prisoners have always worked in factory-like conditions inside America's prisons, beginning with the first ones established in New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. People running them intended for the "corrections industries" model, which can now be found in every state, to offset the costs of operating prisons, according to Federal Prison Industries, the work program for those incarcerated at federal facilities.

The New Mexico Legislature formally created Corrections Industries in 1978, just four years after incarceration rates began to increase rapidly nationwide. A year later, Congress passed the Prison Industries Act, which did away with regulations on state prison labor passed during the Great Depression.

Since January 2016, over 120 public agencies in the state have purchased products created in prisons. Departments within New Mexico's three branches of government were the biggest purchasers, spending a total of $599,566 in that time.

Purchasing documents obtained through records requests show some of the most commonly purchased goods to be oak name plates and business cards for state employees, including at the Public Regulation Commission, the Cultural Affairs Department, and the Regulation and Licensing Department.

The district courts are the biggest buyers of prison labor by dollars spent, mostly for official envelopes designed and printed at the Corrections Industries print shop in Santa Rosa. The invoices sometimes render explicit the hierarchy within New Mexico's criminal justice system. Santa Rosa inmates designed and printed over one thousand linen-embossed invitations for the swearing-in ceremony of Supreme Court Justice Judith Nakamura, which took place at the Sid Cutter Pilots' Pavilion in Albuquerque in December 2015. They also printed 500 business cards for Justice Nakamura, and at Los Lunas, they built her official name plaque.

The Corrections Industries furniture shop at Los Lunas sells more products than any other division of Corrections Industries. Eleven counties have purchased such furniture, including Santa Fe, Doña Ana, Bernalillo and Sandoval. The purchases for Santa Fe County since last January have included golden oak name plates and business cards. Cities including Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Taos and Española have also purchased furniture. The name plates for all four Santa Fe magistrate judges and several city employees came from the Los Lunas prison, including for three city councilors.

There weren't many private sector customers for New Mexico prison labor, but some included Sony and Eventbrite for services related to since-shut down tours of the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe where the 1980 riot took place. In other states like Tennessee, inmates have produced jeans for JC Penney and K-Mart, and in Texas, some make computer and HVAC parts for private companies.

The "sad truth" about labor in prison is that inmates clamor for low-paying jobs because the alternative is a life of monotony and brutality, says Heather Ann Thompson, author of the book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.

"They're desperate for time out of their cell, desperate to make a little extra money, even if it's 20 cents an hour," Thompson tells SFR. "Imagine if prisoners were actually working an enriching job and getting paid full free-world wages. It's not the labor that's the problem, it's the exploitation."

With the state's Sentencing Commission forecasting a 9 percent increase in male inmates and 20 percent in women by 2027, officials are anticipating an increase in incarcerated labor, though its growth is limited by the state budget.

“Begging to do the job”

Juan Venegas is part of a team reupholstering the seats for 22 passenger cars for the New Mexico Rail Runner Express. The job requires Venegas and five others to remove worn foam padding and other material from 1,800 metallic skeletal seat pieces, clean them, and then reapply the foam.

Venegas expects to be out in less than 90 days after serving five years for a burglary conviction. He says he'll return to Alamogordo to live with his father and raise his three sons. Someone else will get to pick up his prison gig.

"We put our heart and souls into the work we do here," Venegas says. "I can take these skills out to the world, [but] I'll probably have to apprentice because I only focus on a few things here."

He knows that it will be hard to get a job when he gets out, and the reupholstering skills he's learning aren't in high demand. He's hoping to get rehired at a municipal job he had previously.

"Hiring felons, there are not a lot of places that do it," Venegas says. "You have to know someone to get into somewhere."

Another worker, Edward Patterson, pauses from building a bookshelf for the Children, Youth and Families Department office in Albuquerque to talk to a reporter. He's worked at the furniture shop for two years and his pay has increased from 40 cents to $1.50 an hour in that time.

"I guess for a prison job, it's pretty good," Patterson says of the payment. "It helps you pass your time a lot better, keeps your mind off a lot of other things, it keeps you from having to bother your family to help you out."

Standing nearby in a crisp charcoal suit is Mike White, the sales manager of Corrections Industries for the last two years. He previously worked for the Labatt Food Service company, a major food distributor based in San Antonio. Now, revenue from inmate labor pays his $57,500 salary and that of 21 other civilian workers. White sees the Corrections Industries program as a public service that produces low-cost goods and people who are able to re-integrate into society.

"The thing that we're producing at the end of the day is ideally an inmate [who], when he does get out, he has either hard skills or soft skills," White says. "The second thing is, if we're doing our job right, we're also bringing value to community. … We're using inmate labor to actually produce something that the community itself is getting, a high quality product [for] less than what they'd be able to get commercially."

One potential purchaser of Corrections Industries products, whom White will only describe as "a member of a board working up north," squashed a project out of the belief inmates were akin to slaves. White thinks that was a disservice to the laborers.

The would-be customer, White says, "was under the misunderstanding that we force inmates to work. But we had inmates begging to do that job."

In fact, White says the number of interested customers appears to be increasing. All Corrections Industries operations are financed by the sale of goods and services made by inmates, and some products are reintroduced back into the prison at a lower cost—for example, in 2014, six inmates at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe grew 850 pounds of vegetables in hoop houses as part of a collaborative program with New Mexico State University. The vegetables were served in prison cafeterias.

Students from the University of New Mexico's School of Management announced plans in 2012 to design and develop a new business model for Corrections Industries emphasizing vocational programs to teach market-relevant skills in fields like solar and automotive. But Corrections Department spokeswoman Ashley Espinoza says the effort never came into fruition.

For those who aren't working, there is little relief inside New Mexico's prisons. One pending federal lawsuit accuses the Corrections Department of prohibiting inmates from receiving certain photographs of their romantic partners. Another says the state has illegally crammed inmates together, including at Los Lunas, where lawyers say some live in a small dayroom on plastic cots and other areas not intended for long-term housing.

The lawyers say such overcrowding violates the Duran Consent Decree, which came out of a 1991 settlement 11 years after overcrowding contributed to a major riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe. The Springer Correctional Center for women is among the most severely overcrowded, but the department argues the facility is not covered by the consent decree.

Conditions in the state's prisons "are getting worse, from my perspective," says Matthew Coyte, a civil rights attorney in Albuquerque who has litigated dozens of lawsuits on behalf of current and former NMCD inmates. "We have a situation of understaffing and underfunding, resulting in punitive segregation being used. Limited programming is interrupted by rolling lockdowns."

Coyte also cites ongoing epidemics of Hepatitis C in the states' prisons. "There's a sense of despair that exists in these facilities," he says.

As hard as things are inside, the outside world is mostly unforgiving of former inmates. A 2015 New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that men with criminal records account for about 34 percent of all nonworking men ages 25 to 54. Some who work for New Mexico Corrections Industries are able to save some money for their release—after a certain percentage is taken out for a victims' restitution fund—but it won't be much.

Rackley, the Buffalo Thunder desk builder at the Los Lunas prison, currently makes $1.50 for each of the 40 hours a week he works. He's saving what he can to buy tools after he's released.

"I'm starting from where someone fresh out of high school or trade school is starting," says Rackley. "I'm playing catch-up to everything. You don't want to let your people down, your wife, your kids. You can't do it on a minimum-wage job. It's a lot of pressure."

Prison strike 2018

From the prison uprisings at Attica and Santa Fe decades ago to a 2016 rebellion by inmate workers and others at the Kinross Correctional Facility in Michigan and the bloody outburst at Lee Correctional Facility in South Carolina in April, those involved have almost always announced demands that include basic physical and spiritual fulfillment and an end to corruption among prison staff.

Inmates at the South Carolina prison cited dehumanizing conditions such as a lack of sunlight, poor and insufficient food, and few rehabilitative programs as reasons they lost hope. That same month, several former prison employees were indicted for bringing drugs and other contraband into the prison, according to USA Today.

A special investigation published in September 1981 by a team of reporters from SFR, The Santa Fe New Mexican, KOAT and KUNM found that bleak living and extreme corruption and violence precipitated the prison riot here that left at least 33 people dead. Thirty-five years later, some inmates employed by Corrections Industries assisted in the NMCD's public tours of the site of the riot, which it discontinued this year.

Before and after the riot, the flow of drugs and contraband into the prison was run "by official channels, with corrections officers and administrators acting as peddlers and pushers and procurers," according to the team of reporters, and officials as senior as then-Warden Felix Rodriguez pilfered meat illegally from the now-shuttered Los Lunas prison cattle farm where inmates produced food for the prison system. Inmate cooks even prepared steaks for the wedding party of one of Rodriguez' children in the mid-1970s and were given special privileges to stay silent about the incident.

In addition to exploitation, inmates' hopelessness and vindictive prison officials are also focal points for the upcoming national strike, according to Brooke Terpstra, a spokesperson for the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. These issues can never truly be separated from each other, Terpstra says, and inmates have characterized their resistance broadly as a human rights movement.

"The prisoners now organizing [the 2018 strikes] are coming into consciousness of themselves as a movement, and a history that dates back to the 2010 work stoppages in Georgia, work stoppages in Texas that occurred in 2014 and 2015, and hunger strikes in California in 2011 and 2013," Terpstra says.

Thompson, the author, says many who participated in the 2016 rebellions weren't even incarcerated workers—but they saw it as an opportunity to protest deadly prison conditions overall.

"Prisoners are resisting their exploitation, but I think they're also using the 'wage slavery' argument as kind of a mechanism by which to make a broader critique and protest against the general inhumane conditions and abuse taking place," Thompson says.

It's unclear how widespread prison protests will be this August. The very nature of the prison system discourages solidarity among inmates by pitting them against each other in a bid for survival, says Richard Moore, an activist and former inmate who attempted to smuggle out reports of abuses and neglect from New Mexico prisons in the 1970s.

"On one side inmates need to be busy; on the other side of that, we're doing work in there that a person on the outside would get paid $10 to $15 an hour [for]," Moore tells SFR in an interview in Albuquerque. "Just because we're incarcerated and just because we want to work and stay busy doesn't necessarily mean that other injustices should take place in the system."

“It’s overlooked”

Matthew Coyte, the defense attorney, says inmates' sense of despair could be heading to a crisis point. The supposed privilege of working for rock-bottom wages instead of staying housed in the general population isn't a solution, he suggests.

"If you maintain a lack of adequate medical care, [and] couple that with poor living conditions and the use of isolation or rolling lockdowns, you create the ingredients for a riot," Coyte says, "and we're all familiar with that here in New Mexico."

In between assembling large wooden panels for the Buffalo Thunder reception desk, Allen Rackley says he's thankful he can work while he's incarcerated. But he appears overwhelmed by the scale of wasted time and skill he sees on a regular basis.

"There's a lot of talent in here," he says. "And not just [the furniture shop]. Get inside the pen and see some of the things people sit around and do all day. It's all overlooked. It's overlooked, it's overlooked, it's not just overlooked—it's overlooked and written off, and that's the sad part."

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