Segment from Land of the Free?

Chain Gang

American prisons have been a source of cheap labor since their very inception. Back in 2005, Brian talked with members of a prison work crew and asked about their experience working for low wages on the side of a road in Virginia. You might be surprised with what they have to say.

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Speaker 1: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, and the Robert and Joseph Cornell Memorial Foundation.

Speaker 1: From Virginia Humanities, this is BackStory.

Joann Freeman: Welcome to BackStory, the show that explains the history behind the headlines. I’m Joann Freeman.

Nathan Connolly: I’m Nathan Connolly.

Brian Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh.

Nathan Connolly: If you’re new to the podcast, we’re all historians and each week we explore the history of a topic that’s been in the news. Earlier this month, inmates around the country banded together in a national prison strike, to protest poor conditions and labor exploitation. Referring to the American Prison System as modern day slavery. Although the protest happened only a few days ago, the issue of having an incarcerated population as cheap labor is far from a recent development.

Brian Balogh: Back in 2005, I had the chance to hear from members of a prison work crew, and learned about their experiences working for paltry pay, on the side of the road in Virginia.

Harris Bruce: My name is Corporal Harris Bruce, from Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail. I’m the supervisor for the road gang. Today we is on Avon Street, cleaning up.

Brian Balogh: My first question for you is, is this a punishment or is this a reward? I mean, I drive by, I think punishment. But then it occurs to me, this might be better than sitting in jail.

Harris Bruce: It is. The guys enjoy coming out. I mean, they love the weather, they love the scenery. This is actually a gift.

Brian Balogh: So, what have these guys done to earn this gift?

Harris Bruce: Well, depending on the years that they got. If they were sentenced for three years or less, they can ask to come on board. A lot of guys can’t come on due to the fact they got over three years and their crimes. Like cocaine and stuff, they can’t come out. Assault charges, they can’t come out. These guys were here is mainly child supports, DUI type guys, so they can actually come out and work.

Brian Balogh: We are a history show, and certainly over the course of history, one form of punishment for people who have committed crimes, has been kind of public humiliation, public shame. So, putting people in stocks and we’ve heard about the Scarlet Letter for adulterers. Is there anything about making these guys wear orange and having them along this pretty well traveled street here that entails humiliation? Are they embarrassed?

Harris Bruce: No. No. Actually the orange is indication of the best inmates that we have in the building. The worst inmates, actually, I saw worst, the guys that can’t come out, they wear black and white. These guys right here wear oranges mainly. They are trustees and they can be trusted. I tell you, I’ll go get one.

Brian Balogh: All right.

Brian Balogh: I really appreciate you talking to us today. I wanna get a view from your perspective of what this is all about. At least Corporal Bruce says that this is a privilege to be able to come out here, get a little fresh air. Now, he’s carrying that big stick and has a gun, so I understand you have to think carefully about how you answer this question but what is it like for you to … Is this a punishment or is this a reward for you?

Speaker 6: Mentally, being away from my family, just being incarcerated period, that is punishment. You know what I’m saying? But, as far as being out here? No, man, it’s a privilege man, I like it. I get to come out here and get fresh air, you know what I’m saying? Sunlight. Lot of people don’t have that privilege. You know, they’re confined to a small space all day, and gotta look at a whole bunch of other people that’s just like them. I mean, I don’t know.

Brian Balogh: We’re standing out here by a road, people are driving by. How do you feel about the public aspect of this? Are you ashamed or do you see people you know sometimes? Anyone ever ask someone to get you a cheeseburger on the way? Or how does that work?

Speaker 6: Sometimes, it’s sometimes, I’m from Albemarle County, so sometimes depending on the area we’re in, I do feel a little ashamed but I mean, this program takes very good care of me, you know what I’m saying? I get paid for what I do, so I don’t have to call home, ask for money or anything like that, so basically I see it, they’re going to work, so am I.

Brian Balogh: Can I ask you how much you get paid for this?

Speaker 6: We get paid three dollars a day, fifteen dollars a week.

Brian Balogh: Uh-huh. Can I ask you how long you’ve been in prison?

Speaker 6: I’ve been locked up, going on 22 months.

Brian Balogh: And may I ask you when you think you’re gonna get out?

Speaker 6: I get out December the 19th, God willing.

Brian Balogh: May I ask you, and you don’t have to answer this, what you’re in for?

Speaker 6: I’m here for a violation and driving on a revoked license.

Brian Balogh: I see. Seems like a lot of time for a revoked license.

Speaker 6: Well, after they see you for a couple of times, you know more than twice, then they tend to lay the hammer down on you so.

Brian Balogh: Yeah. Do you think all this time you’ve spent in prison is gonna have any effect at all?

Speaker 6: I’ll tell you what. The last few times I came to jail, I didn’t wanna change my behavior. After this time, I can’t do it no more.

Brian Balogh: What’s different?

Speaker 6: Age. I’ve gotten older, I’ve matured. I’m 30 years old.

Brian Balogh: Thirty years old.

Speaker 6: Yep. In my adolescent days, I didn’t really care. You know, I rip around the streets, didn’t really care much. But now I have kids, I got three children. So they need a father figure, you know what I’m saying? And I gotta be a role model. I don’t want my sons to go through what I’ve had to go through.

Brian Balogh: Could I ask you how often you get to see your kids?

Speaker 6: I don’t. I don’t see them.

Brian Balogh: You don’t see them?

Speaker 6: No I don’t.

Brian Balogh: Is that the toughest thing about being in prison?

Speaker 6: Yeah. That’s it.

Brian Balogh: I can imagine. Well, I really appreciate your talking to me today, and I wish you the best of luck.

Speaker 6: Okay, thank you.