Prisoners Shoveling Snow in Snowpocalypse

By David Swanson

Walking through Charlottesville, Va., today I saw a sight that is increasingly common in the United States: men in prison uniforms, watched by guards, out working in public, in this case shoveling snow. I asked them if they were being paid for their work, and they just laughed.

A short while later I ran into a city official who was clearly familiar with the prisoner snow-shoveling program. He told me it was nothing new, part of “work release,” gave the prisoners a chance to get outside, and that the prisoners were paid.

I pointed out that when asked if they were paid they laughed at me.

Then this official explained that he meant they were paid about 25 cents an hour.

My response was to suggest that 25 cents an hour sounded more like a cover to avoid accusations of slavery than actual pay for people’s labor. And weren’t there people in need of living-wage jobs who could shovel sidewalks, and who would — with such jobs — stand a better chance of themselves staying out of jail? Wasn’t there a danger in making it economically advantageous to certain parties to keep a large supply of 25-cent-an-hour laborers on hand by locking a sufficient number of people up in jail?

I’m not advocating denying prisoners a breath of fresh air. I’m advocating against entrenching further our uniquely American system of locking so damn many people up in the first place.