Thursday, July 22, 2010

An Alternative to the National Guard?

The question of why state National Guard troops have not been more actively involved in cleanup operations along the Gulf Coast continues to go unanswered; but, on the basis of a report by Abe Louise Young for The Nation, the state of Louisiana appears to have provided BP with a better (and possibly more profitable) solution. Young's opening paragraphs offer an interesting hypothesis that reminds us that business-as-usual remains business-as-usual, even when the cast of characters may change:

In the first few days after BP’s Deepwater Horizon wellhead exploded, spewing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, cleanup workers could be seen on Louisiana beaches wearing scarlet pants and white t-shirts with the words "Inmate Labor" printed in large red block letters. Coastal residents, many of whom had just seen their livelihoods disappear, expressed outrage at community meetings; why should BP be using cheap or free prison labor when so many people were desperate for work? The outfits disappeared overnight.

Work crews in Grand Isle, La, still stand out. In a region where nine out of ten residents are white, the cleanup workers are almost exclusively African American men. The racialized nature of the cleanup is so conspicuous that Ben Jealous, the president of the NAACP, sent a public letter to BP CEO Tony Hayward on July 9, demanding to know why black people were over-represented in “the most physically difficult, lowest paying jobs, with the most significant exposure to toxins.”

Hiring prison labor is more than a way for BP to save money while cleaning up the biggest oil spill in history. By tapping into the inmate workforce, the company and its subcontractors get workers who are not only cheap but easily silenced—and it gets lucrative tax write-offs in the process.

Further down the page Young offers a rather thorough account of the nature of this work:

Beach cleanup is a Sisyphean task. Shorelines cleaned during the day become newly soaked with oil and dispersant overnight, so crews shovel up the same beaches again and again. Workers wear protective chin-to-boot coveralls (made out of high-density polyethylene and manufactured by Dupont), taped to steel-toed boots covered in yellow plastic. They work twenty minutes on, forty minutes off, as per Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety rules. The limited physical schedule allows workers to recover from the blazing sun and the oppressive heat that builds up inside their impermeable suits.

During their breaks, workers unzip the coveralls for ventilation, drink ice water from gallon thermoses and sit under white fabric tents. They start at 6am, take a half hour lunch and end the day at 6pm, adding up three to four hours of hard physical labor in twenty-minute increments. They are forbidden to speak to the public or the media by BP's now-notorious gag rule. At the end of the day, coveralls are stripped off and thrown in dumpsters, alongside oil-soaked booms and trash bags full of contaminated sand. The dumpsters are emptied into local HazMat landfills, free employees go home and the inmates are returned to work release centers.

Work release inmates are required to work for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week, sometimes averaging 72 hours per week. These are long hours for performing what may arguably be the most toxic job in America. Although the dangers of mixed oil and dispersant exposure are largely unknown, the chemicals in crude oil can damage every system in the body, as well as cell structures and DNA.

Inmates can’t pick and choose their work assignments and they face considerable repercussions for rejecting any job, including loss of earned "good time." The warden of the Terrebonne Parish Work Release Center in Houma explains: "If they say no to a job, they get that time that was taken off their sentence put right back on, and get sent right back to the lockup they came out of." This means that work release inmates who would rather protect their health than participate in the non-stop toxic cleanup run the risk of staying in prison longer.

However, one paragraph in particular relates the preference of inmates over the National Guard to another major national problem:

Prisoners are already subject to well-documented health care deprivations while incarcerated, and are unlikely to have health insurance after release. Work release positions are covered by Worker's Compensation insurance, but pursuing claims long after exposure could be a Kafkaesque task. Besides, there is currently no system for tracking the medical impact of oil and dispersant exposure in cleanup workers or affected communities.

Thus, while our military has always taken care of its own, the Louisiana Department of Corrections does not appear to be bound by similar concerns.

Young's article never mentions the National Guard, whether or not it was ever considered as an option for dealing with this crisis. Indeed, the only mention of the Governor concerns a press release about Inmate Labor clearly calculated to play well with the media but apparently carrying no validity:

In early May, Governor Bobby Jindal's office sent out a press release heralding the training of eighty inmates from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in "cleaning of oil-impacted wildlife recovered from coastal areas." DOC Spokesperson Pam LaBorde subsequently denied that any inmates participated in wildlife cleaning efforts.

Ultimately, this is a story of the unholy matrimony of business-as-usual at BP to politics-as-usual in the State Government of Louisiana, the perfect combination to taking a bad situation and making it worse.

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