ORLANDO – Anyone job hunting today knows that the competition is fierce, but Garry L. Jones says what a lot of those job seekers don’t know is that they’re actually competing against a select group doing hard work, over long hours, and producing lots of high quality goods for ridiculously low wages – as low as 25 cents an hour, or even 50 cents a day.
Jones is not referring to people working in third-world sweatshops. These employees are Americans who spent long days working for virtually no money at all, certainly not enough to live on.
That’s because these workers, he said, are prison inmates.
“The prison system is a money-making machine,” said Jones, a retired lieutenant with the Federal Correctional Institute in Tallahassee. “They make products that you wouldn’t believe the prisoners make.”
Jones, who now lives in Altanta but was visiting Orlando this week, said correctional institutes — both state and federal — have contracts with such large employers as Honda, Microsoft, TWA, even Victoria’s Secret, to manufacture products in prison, with the inmates providing the labor.
“All of these companies use inmates,” he said. “They beat out the competition, getting pennies on the dollar. As they do that, these companies are getting filthy rich.”
The inmates, though, are not reaping much in the way of financial rewards, he said.
“They might make 25 cents an hour or less, or maybe 50 cents a day,” Jones said. “Inmates don’t make anything. They just work.”
The benefit for inmates, he said, is that they can learn a useful skill while manufacturing these products. The bad news, he added, is that they rarely get a chance to use those skills once they’ve completed their sentence and been released back into society. Every one of them faces the same question on job application forms: have they ever been convicted of a felony?
“Once you get out, I don’t care how many skills you’ve got once they see that particular line that you’re a convicted felon, or you’ve been convicted of a crime,” Jones said, in an interview with Freeline Media Orlando. “I’ve worked in personnel and I’ve seen them shred those applications. They don’t care what you’ve done, it’s just the fact that you’ve been convicted of something.”
Another Catch-22 for convicted felons, he added, is that when they’re looking for a decent paying job, they end up competing against the inmates they used to be confined with – who are still working for pennies in the prisons.
“It’s good because they’re getting the skills, but once they get out, they can’t use those skills because people don’t want to hire them,” he said. “When they get out, they’re competing against the inmates who are still in prison.”
Jones, who is from North Carolina and started his career in corrections in 1987 at the District of Columbia Department of Corrections in Virginia. He eventually retired on medical leave, in part because he felt the system – most of his experience was within the federal prison system – was abusing the rights of inmates in ways that the public simply doesn’t know much about.
“I want to talk about corruption that went on in the prison system that I witnessed,” Jones said.
After retiring, he formed Advocate4Justice, a non-profit group committed to a more humane treatment of inmates.
“My goal was to bring justice back to the criminal justice system,” he said. “My goal was to tip the scales back.”
Jones noted that as the prison system began to focus more on making money than humane treatment of inmates, services for the inmates got scaled back dramatically.
“Back then, inmates were able to further their education,” he said. “Back then, inmates had good medical care, but they were still used like slaves.”
Today, prisons no longer require inmates to get their GED, and medical care is far less accessible, he said.
“Inmates no longer get good medical care,” Jones said. “I knew inmates who used to come into the system healthy, and when they’re released, they’re nearly dead.”
The family and friends of inmates can open JPay accounts, which allow them to set up an electronic account with money in it that the inmates can access while in prison. But if the friends do this, Jones said, the prison system starts charging them for any medical care they require.
“If you have money in your account, you have to make a co-pay,” he said. “If you don’t have money in your account, you’re considered indigent and you go to the bottom of the line. You’re not getting good, quality health care, and I have seen inmates die. When I was working in Tallahassee, I knew one female inmate who kept complaining that her back was hurting, her back was hurting. Eventually the inmate got very sick and they got to the point where the inmate couldn’t walk, so they sent the inmate to a local hospital. By then it was too late, her body was eaten up by cancer.”
The real problem, he added, is that prison medical wards are pitifully understaffed.
“You might have one nurse and they might have 300 inmates they have to see,” Jones said. “You have to be almost dead before they send you out to a private hospital.”
But the same is true with the rest of the prison staffing, he added.
“Say you’re working in a dormatory with 150 inmates,” he said. “You usually have two corrections officers working there. The inmates are able to do whatever they want to – stab, fight, kill, rape – because they don’t have enough staff. When I was trying to run a shift, inmates were basically doing things right under our noses and there was nothing we could do about it, because we didn’t have the staff.
“The prisons were trying to save money,” Jones added. “It’s now about the money and making these products.”
Jones said he’s not aiming to be a critic of prisons as an institution, but rather of how they’re being run today.
“I agree if you commit a crime and it’s severe enough, you should spend some time in prison,” he said, adding that by forming Advocate4Justice, “I thought I would go out and inform the public about this, and dispute some of the things people were saying. My main goal back then was that prisons were overcrowded, and 70 percent of the offenders are in there for non-violent crimes. Prisons are trying to cut down on spending. I say bring parole back into the system.”
By reinstituting parole, he said, inmates who are serving time for non-violent offenses will likely improve their behavior if they see a chance to get released earlier than their original sentence dictates.
“Give the inmates something to look forward to,” he said. “When you sentence someone to a long period of time without parole, they feel like they have nothing to look forward to, and they don’t try to better themselves. They attack officers, they attack other inmates, because they don’t care. But if you bring back parole, I guarantee you will start to have model inmates.”
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, sixteen states have abolished parole entirely, while four more got rid of parole for certain violent felons. The federal government abolished parole in 1984 for all offenders convicted of a federal crime, whether violent or not.
That was a mistake, Jones said.
“Some people who are incarcerated can be redeemed,” he said. “It costs billions and billions of dollars to incarcerate people. I have always predicted that the prison system is going to be forced to release inmates because they can no longer afford to house so many non-violent offenders. And now the economy is worse, and they don’t want to put as much money into prisons. I agree they should have prisons, but I don’t agree you should live in a slum.”
While Jones operates Advocate4Justice at his home in Atlanta, Vikki Hankins – a contributor to Freeline Media Orlando – runs the Orlando chapter, and has lobbied local congressmen to reintroduce legislation to reinstate federal parole.
“Everybody knows across the country that we have prison overcrowding and we’re spending too much money,” she said. “What I’ve done is said here’s a solution, and it’s not a far-fetched idea. It would allow people to do a third of their time with good behavior and when they’re rehabilitated, when they’ve done everything they can do to get back into society. These masses of non-violent offenders who are in there, this would bring those numbers down.”
Jones said he often speaks to church groups, advising kids about the consequences of violating the law, based on the misery he’s witnessed in prisons.
“I try to motivate them to stay out of the prison system itself,” he said.
He often hears from inmates who are thankful to have an advocate and supporter on their side.
“To me, it’s been rewarding as far as knowing that I’m trying to promote justice and inform the public about what’s going on,” Jones said.
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