Jail Labor Briefing Remarks

November 24, 2020

The public safety and racial justice conversation that has risen up in the wake of the murder of George Floyd has, appropriately, focused most visibly on issues of policing - use of force, transparency, investment, and reinvestment. But it should also encompass all parts of the public safety system, including prosecution, the courts, community justice, and corrections.

It was with this in mind that we requested this briefing on the use of jail labor.

Any discussion of our public safety systems -- of any of our systems -- should be rooted in history. Chelsea modeled that beautifully in the previous presentation. 

With respect to prison and jail labor, this means recognizing forced labor’s roots in slavery, as described in Chelsea’s powerful acknowledgment. And it means recognizing that this uncompensated or under-compensated labor is allowed at all today only because of an exception to the 13th amendment, which banned slavery and involuntary servitude, “except for punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

Prison labor camps came into existence and proliferated following passage of the 13th amendment, during Reconstruction. So too did convict leasing programs, which were the precursor to today’s practices of hiring out inmates as part of public and private contracts. And then, as now, the people held in prisons and jails, and subject to these work programs were disproportionately Black. 

I don’t in any way mean to suggest that practices in Multnomah County jails are the same as those historic practices. They're obviously not. But a policy conversation about the use and structure of jail work programs must recognize these roots.

I requested this briefing in order to initiate and inform that policy conversation. As with all of the practices we’re examining, we need to think about whether they truly advance public safety; at what cost; and who bears that cost.

I want to thank the Sheriff’s team for putting together this briefing; and I look forward to the conversation.