2019 Session: Proposal would end unpaid prison labor


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A state lawmaker wants Arkansas voters to decide whether to end slavery for those convicted of crimes.

St. Rep. Vivian Flowers filed a constitutional amendment Wednesday that would ban unpaid prison labor.

Flowers said Arkansas and Alabama are the only states still doing this.

“As uncomfortable as some may feel to even hear the word, and I’m one of those people, when you force someone to work without pay, that’s called slavery,” Flowers said.  

The Arkansas Constitution prohibits slavery, except as a punishment for a crime. The resolution filed by Flowers and her cosponsor in the Senate, St. Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, would abolish it altogether.

“We say everyone who works hard should have an opportunity. That does not exclude incarceration,” Elliott said. 

The man sitting next to them during the press conference lived a life behind bars.

“I did 14 years and upon my release, I received a $100 check,” said Kurt Muhammad. “A hundred dollars for 14 years of free labor.” 

Muhammad argues inmates need to make money to afford the basic necessities, like commissary items and phone calls.

“You catch them selling illegal things inside the institution just to survive,” he said. 

Solomon Graves, the spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Correction (ADC), said inmates assigned to work release programs receive a salary from their employer, commonly above the minimum wage. Institutional job assignments are unpaid, but Graves said they give inmates a work ethic and marketable experience.

“It is clear that without a substantial increase in funding, we would be unable to provide a wage to inmates as this proposal would require. Nor, would we be able to hire the additional staff necessary to fulfill the tasks performed by inmates,” Graves said in a statement. “We are reviewing the amendment proposal in order to determine this fiscal impact, and our ability to maintain the safety and security of our facilities by continuing to implement assignments and activities which reduce the idle time of inmates.”

Supporters of the constitutional amendment argue paying all inmates would not only help them with rehabilitation but also lower the burden on their families.

“Bills don’t stop when we get locked up,” Muhammad said. 

Before this issue could go to voters, state lawmakers would have to approve it. They have filed more than a dozen proposed constitutional amendments ahead of Wednesday’s deadline but have to pick three.

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