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Weekend Read: On Labor Day, a reminder that incarcerated laborers don’t have a choice

When police arrived, they found Frank Ellington’s body draped backwards over the machine he’d been cleaning.

One blue-gloved hand hung limp by his side. The other, caught on a rotating toothed disc, stretched above his head. His skull was crushed, and his bucket, tipped over beside Ellington’s body, was surrounded by pools of his blood.

“I’m surprised there isn’t some kind of wrongful death lawsuit,” Ashland, Alabama Police Chief Joseph Stanford later told us in an interview. “You would expect it.”

But there is no such lawsuit, possibly because Koch Foods relies in part on one of the most vulnerable workforces in the country — prisoners — to operate some of the most dangerous workplaces: poultry plants.

And it’s not the only one. Our investigation found that in 2016, dozens of poultry companies employed more than 600 prisoners in at least seven states.

Many suffered significant work-related injuries or illnesses, including chemical burns, knife cuts, amputations, and musculoskeletal disorders. None of these are uncommon in an industry with an injury rate nearly twice the national workplace average.

In fact, since 2015, poultry workers have seen their colleagues die by blunt trauma (Kentucky); electrocution (Georgia); and chlorine inhalation (Texas). But what they haven’t seen is meaningful workplace safety reform.

Their vulnerability as a class of workers who can seek neither safer working conditions nor higher pay echoes the vulnerability of too many immigrants held in detention centers — like the one in Lumpkin, Georgia, where immigrants are forced to cook, clean and maintain Stewart Detention Center for as little as $1 a day.

If they refuse, they’re threatened with solitary confinement and the loss of access to necessities like food, toilet paper, or phone calls to loved ones.

We sued. And earlier this month, a federal court ruled that the private prison company that runs Stewart Detention Center, CoreCivic, Inc, can be held liable for violating anti-trafficking laws and reaping unjust economic gains in the process.

As Michelle Chen wrote for The Nation:

The exploitation of prison and immigrant labor are two sides of a continuum of economic degradation. Whether criminalized by immigration authorities or incarcerated by the state, these workers are disposable, interchangeable, and ultimately, invisible.

On Labor Day weekend — and here at the Southern Poverty Law Center — we’re working to make sure that they’re just a little bit more visible.

Too often, the industries that exploit them don’t see humans, like the Georgia poultry contractor who wrote in an urgent request to the state for more prisoners: “We need sure and dependable bodies.”

Workers are much more than bodies.

But in many workplaces across the country, the fight for economic justice is still stacked against black and brown laborers — particularly in industries that manage to sidestep the protections of the labor movement that we celebrate this weekend.

Today we honor workers like those in Stewart Detention Center and poultry factories throughout the South, and we redouble our commitment to them.

The Editors

P.S. Here are some other pieces we think are valuable this week:

SPLC’s Weekend Read is a weekly summary of the most important news reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequality, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive the Weekend Read every Saturday morning.