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Prison workers often do dangerous jobs with little training, leading to injuries with no recourse

 Blas Sanchez makes his way through a room in his home
Associated Press
Blas Sanchez makes his way through a room in his home, Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, in Winslow. Sanchez's leg was mutilated while working near the chicken manure chute as a prison laborer at Hickman's Family Farms in 2015 in Tonopah.

Blas Sanchez was nearing the end of a 20-year stretch in an Arizona prison when he was leased out to work at Hickman’s Family Farms, which sells eggs that have ended up in the supply chains of huge companies like McDonald’s, Target and Albertsons. While assigned to a machine that churns chicken droppings into compost, his right leg got pulled into a chute with a large spiraling augur.

“I could hear ‘crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch,’” Sanchez said. “I couldn’t feel anything, but I could hear the crunch.”

He recalled frantically clawing through mounds of manure to tie a tourniquet around his bleeding limb. He then waited for what felt like hours while rescuers struggled to free him so he could be airlifted to a hospital. His leg was amputated below the knee.

Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of prisoners are put to work every year, some of whom are seriously injured or killed after being given dangerous jobs with little or no training, The Associated Press found. They include prisoners fighting wildfires, operating heavy machinery or working on industrial-sized farms and meat-processing plants tied to the supply chains of leading brands. These men and women are part of a labor system that — often by design — largely denies them basic rights and protections guaranteed to other American workers.

The findings are part of a broader two-year AP investigation that linked some of the world’s largest and best-known companies, from Cargill and Walmart to Burger King, to prisoners who can be paid pennies an hour or nothing at all.

Prison labor began during slavery and exploded as incarceration rates soared, disproportionately affecting people of color. As laws have steadily changed to make it easier for private companies to tap into the swelling captive workforce, it has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry that operates with little oversight.

Laws in some states spell it out clearly: Prisoners aren’t classified as employees, whether they’re working inside correctional facilities or for outside businesses through prison contracts or work-release programs. That can exclude them from workers’ compensation benefits, along with state and federal laws that set minimum standards for health and safety on the job.

It’s almost impossible to know how many incarcerated workers are hurt or killed each year, partly because they often don’t report injuries, fearing retaliation or losing privileges like contact with their families. Privacy laws add to the challenges of obtaining specific data. In California, for instance, more than 700 work-related injuries were recorded between 2018 and 2022 in the state’s prison industries program, but the documents provided to the AP were heavily redacted.

Crystal Adams, wearing orange to identify her as a prison worker, inspects eggs as she works as an order runner at Hickman's Family Farm egg-packaging operation in Tonopah, Arizona, Thursday, March 14, 2024.
Associated Press
Crystal Adams, wearing orange to identify her as a prison worker, inspects eggs as she works as an order runner at Hickman's Family Farm egg-packaging operation in Tonopah, Arizona, Thursday, March 14, 2024.

At Hickman’s Family Farms, logs obtained by the AP from Arizona’s corrections department listed about 250 prison worker injuries during the same time frame. Most were minor, but some serious cases ranged from deep cuts and sliced-off fingertips to smashed hands.

“They end up being mangled in ways that will affect them for the rest of their lives,” said Joel Robbins, a lawyer who has represented several prisoners hired by Hickman’s. “If you’re going to come out with a good resume, you should come out with two hands and two legs and eyes to work.”

The AP requested comment from the companies it identified as having connections to prison labor. Most did not respond, but Cargill — the largest private company in the U.S. with $177 billion in revenue last year — said it was continuing to work “to ensure there is no prison labor in our extended supplier network.” Others said they were looking for ways to take action without disrupting crucial supply chains.

Prisoners across the country can be sentenced to hard labor, forced to work and punished if they refuse, including being sent to solitary confinement. They cannot protest against poor conditions, and it’s usually difficult for them to sue.

Most jobs are inside prisons, where inmates typically earn a few cents an hour doing things like laundry and mopping floors. The limited outside positions often pay minimum wage, but some states deduct up to 60% off the top.

In Arizona, jobs at Hickman’s are voluntary and often sought after, not just for the money, but also because employment and affordable housing are offered upon release.

During a daylong guided tour of the company’s egg-packaging operations and housing units, two brothers who run the family business stressed to an AP reporter that safety and training are top priorities. Several current and formerly incarcerated workers there praised the company, which markets eggs with brand names like Land O’ Lakes, Eggland’s Best and Hickman’s, and have been sold everywhere from Safeway to Kroger.

“We work on a farm with machinery and live animals, so it is important to follow the instructions,” said Ramona Sullins, who has been employed by Hickman’s for more than eight years before and after her release from prison. “I have heard and seen of people being hurt, but when they were hurt, they weren’t following the guidelines.”

AP reporters spoke with more than 100 current and former prisoners across the country – along with family members of workers who were killed – about various prison labor jobs. Roughly a quarter of them related stories involving injuries or deaths, from severe burns and traumatic head wounds to severed body parts. Reporters also talked to lawyers, researchers and experts, and combed through thousands of documents, including the rare lawsuits that manage to wind their way through the court system.

Critics say work should be voluntary

A loophole in the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed after the Civil War makes forced labor legal, abolishing slavery except “as punishment for a crime.” Efforts are underway to challenge that language at the federal level, and nearly 20 states are working to bring the issue before voters.

Today, about 2 million people are locked up in the U.S. — more than almost any country in the world – a number that began spiking in the 1980s when tough-on-crime laws were passed. More than 800,000 prisoners have some kind of job, from serving food inside facilities to working outside for private companies, including work-release assignments everywhere from KFC to Tyson Foods poultry plants. They’re also employed at state and municipal agencies, and at colleges and nonprofit organizations.

Few critics believe all prison jobs should be eliminated, but they say work should be voluntary and prisoners should be fairly paid and treated humanely. Correctional officials and others running work programs across the country respond that they place a heavy emphasis on training and that injuries are taken seriously. Many prisoners see work as a welcome break from boredom and violence inside their facilities and, in some places, it can help shave time off sentences.

In many states, prisoners are denied everything from disability benefits to protections guaranteed by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration or state agencies that ensure safe conditions for laborers. In Arizona, for instance, the state occupational safety division doesn’t have the authority to pursue cases involving inmate deaths or injuries.

Strikes by prisoners seeking more rights are rare and have been quickly quashed. And the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that inmates cannot join or form unions. They also can’t call an ambulance or demand to be taken to a hospital, even if they suffer a life-threatening injury on the job.

The barriers for those who decide to sue can be nearly insurmountable, including finding a lawyer willing to take the case. That’s especially true after the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act was passed almost three decades ago to stem a flood of lawsuits that accompanied booming prison populations.

Noah Moore, who lost a finger while working at Hickman’s egg farm in Arizona, had a second finger later amputated due to what he said was poor follow-up treatment in prison after surgery at a hospital. That’s in a state where a federal judge ruled two years ago that the prison medical care was unconstitutional and “plainly, grossly inadequate.”

“I think the healing hurt worse than the actual accident,” Moore said.

The Arizona corrections department would not comment on injuries that occurred during a previous administration, but said prisoners have access to all necessary medical care. The department also stressed the importance of workplace safety training.

No remedy for harm

Laws sometimes are amended to create even more legal hurdles for those seeking relief.

That’s what happened in Arizona. In 2021, a Hickman’s Family Farms lawyer unsuccessfully tried to get the corrections department to amend its contract to take responsibility for prisoner injuries or deaths, according to emails obtained by the AP. The next year, a newly formed nonprofit organization lobbied for a bill that was later signed into law, blocking prisoners from introducing their medical costs into lawsuits and potentially limiting settlement payouts.

Billy Hickman, one of the siblings who runs the egg company, was listed as a director of the nonprofit. He told the AP that the farm has hired more than 10,000 incarcerated workers over nearly three decades. Because they aren’t eligible for protections like workers’ comp, he said the company tried to limit its exposure to lawsuits partially driven by what he described as zealous attorneys.

“We’re a family business,” he said, “so we take it very seriously that people are safe and secure.”

At the height of the pandemic — when all other outside prison jobs were shut down – Crystal Allen and about 140 other female prisoners were sent to work at Hickman’s, bunking together in a large company warehouse. The egg farm is Arizona Correctional Industries’ biggest customer, bringing in nearly $35 million in revenue in the past six fiscal years.

Allen was earning less than $3 an hour after deductions, including 30% for room and board. She knew it would take time, but hoped to bank a few thousand dollars before her release.

One day, she noticed chicken feeders operating on a belt system weren’t working properly, so she switched the setting to manual and used her hand to smooth the feed into place.

“All of a sudden, the cart just takes off with my thumb,” said Allen, adding she had to use her sock to wrap up her left hand, which was left disfigured. “It’s bleeding really, really bad.”

She sued before the new state law took effect and settled with the company last year for an undisclosed amount. In legal filings, Hickman’s denied any wrongdoing.

The pain lives on

The man who lost his leg while working at the composting chute in Arizona said he, too, continues to struggle, even though nearly a decade has passed since the accident.

Blas Sanchez settled for an undisclosed amount with Hickman’s, which denied liability in court documents. He now runs a motel in Winslow along historic U.S. Route 66 and said he’s still often in agony — either from his prosthetic or shooting pains from the nerves at the end of his severed limb.

And then there’s the mental anguish. Sometimes, he wonders if continuing to live is worth it.

“I wanted to end it because it’s so tiring and it hurts. And if it wasn’t for these guys, I probably would,” he said, motioning to his step-grandchildren playing around him. “End it. Finished. Done. Buried.”

The Associated Press receives support from the Public Welfare Foundation for reporting focused on criminal justice. This story also was supported by Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in conjunction with Arnold Ventures. The AP is solely responsible for all content.