Dallas As Covid-19 sweeps through prisons creating hot spots all over the country because of the close and abysmal conditions, it’s a reminder of how many people are still incarcerated despite widespread claims by the administration and others that reforms have been made. Big name prisoners from Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer and fixer, and former politicians and others are all over the courts trying to gain release, often successfully. Others are not so lucky. A recent report indicated that in Texas where prisons are a huge portion of the surge, authorities have stopped 15,000 prisoners that were released from actually leaving because of the lockdown or fabricated additional programs that they suddenly had to complete that might not be available. Parchman Prison in Mississippi was among those to see strikes. Prisons in Arkansas have gotten national attention – again – for the poor conditions and plantation working conditions.
All of this came to mind as I was talked to Professor Erin Hatton about her new book, Coerced: Work Under Threat of Punishment on Wade’s World. As a sociologist at the University of Buffalo she had looked at the actual work of prisoners and the subjugation involved. Perhaps more interestingly, she also looked at three other groups, and while underlining their differences, was clear that their level of coercion was a straight line through each. The other groups were welfare recipients on workfare, graduate students, and college athletes.
Having organized welfare recipients against workfare for over fifty years, she had picked a never healed scab. The fact that state workers can now threaten – and impose – sanctions for the least miscue heightens the coercion on both the reporting, bureaucratic requirements, and frequently menial, make-work projects posing as jobs. The sanctions mean no income, and remember in the main, we’re talking about mothers with children. Furthermore, now that there is a life-time limit on the benefits of only 60 months, a six-month sentence is also deducted from the potential allowance. The appeal process is stacked and unwieldly. It’s no wonder that many studies indicate that applications are down because barriers and punishments are up, making welfare out of reach even for those desperate.
College athletes and graduate students are in different worlds from prisoners and welfare recipients of course. Hatton detailed how coercion is the foundation of coach-power and oppression for athletes in Division I in the same way that for science PhD candidates the professor running their labs is every bit the boss with the power to make or break their careers. Most of this is unpaid labor, where students in both categories are expected to thank their oversees for the privilege of their subjugation. In these two cases there have been efforts, some successful, to organize unions and advocate for change, although for graduate students the Trump NLRB has pulled the rug out of many of these efforts. Reading Science and Scientific America, I get the sense that the industry is becoming more attuned to sexual, and perhaps someday, racial and ethnic bias, in their professions, but we’ll have to see. There’s hope.
For welfare recipients and prisoners, I asked Professor Hatton whether she could see any light in their deep tunnel. The need and interest from both prisoners and recipients were clear: real training for real jobs with a real future. But, as hard as we tried, it was a depressing note at the finish, since the only true answer is that if there is any light of hope for change for either to escape coerced work, it is distant and dim.