Current and former prisoners sued Alabama on Tuesday, saying that the state’s system of prison labor is a “modern-day form of slavery” that forces them to work, often for little or no money, for the benefit of government agencies and private businesses. In the federal lawsuit, 10 plaintiffs, who are all Black, say the state regularly denies incarcerated people parole so that they can be “leased” out to produce hundreds of millions of dollars in profits for local and state agencies and businesses every year, reports the New York Times. The lawsuit accuses the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles of perpetuating the use of incarcerated workers by openly disregarding a 2015 state law that required it to make evidence-based parole decisions. The lawsuit says the board denies parole to anyone convicted of a violent offense, and disproportionately denies parole to Black people, particularly those who are deemed low-risk and eligible to participate in the state’s “extremely lucrative” prison work programs.
The suit charges that the system resurrects Alabama’s practice of “convict leasing,” in which Black laborers, from 1875 until 1928, were forced to work for private companies, who in turn paid substantial fees to state and county governments. Since 2018, about 575 companies and more than 100 public agencies in Alabama have used incarcerated people as landscapers, janitors, drivers, metal fabricators and fast-food workers, the lawsuit says, creating an annual benefit of $450 million. “They are trapped in this labor trafficking scheme,” the lawsuit says, “Although they are trusted to perform work for the state, local governments, and a vast array of private employers, some of the same people who profit from their coerced labor have systematically shut down grants of parole.”