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Halfway Home, Half a Chance

The Covid-19 pandemic has made clear that jails and prisons are not as separate from our communities as they seem, and that carceral environments are seriously ill-equipped to stem the spread of a virus. People incarcerated at halfway houses (or “transitional centers”, as they’re known in Georgia) are uniquely at risk. As the state has reopened for business, so have the transitional centers (TCs), where workers ride public transportation to mostly minimum-wage jobs and return each night to prison-like conditions, making social distancing impossible. And busloads of new residents arrive each week from prisons across the state, where infections are neglected and under-reported and testing is virtually non-existent. 

Nearing the end of their sentences, TC residents have been deemed “safe” for society and are allowed to go to work in the larger community. Housed in close confines, sharing bathrooms, and working in factories and meat-packing plants, they live in a constant state of exposure — to one another, to staff, and to coworkers. If residents are worried about the risk of getting sick on the job, they must weigh those concerns against the risk of being sent back. “They’re basically telling us if you don’t like it, then you can go back to prison,” a resident at a halfway house in Brooklyn told The Appeal in March. “I just don’t know what to do about it. I got no choice except to risk getting sick.” 

Poultry workers cut chickens on the line. Source: National Poultry Council

Although the TC offers a step closer to freedom as well as an actual income, many say it is the hardest time, with the stress of hard labor and long hours six days a week combined with the threat of losing it all at any moment. You can almost taste your new life, but not quite. The virus now adds even more anxiety, literally threatening the life and freedom you have only just begun to glimpse.

In Georgia, people who spend their prison sentences working for free covet the chance to earn a paycheck and begin saving for a new start. But TCs generate a much larger cash flow for the Georgia Department of Corrections. The department holds contracts with employers that often delegate the lowest-paying jobs to the residents, who then pay a third of their meager paychecks to the TC for “rent” and transportation, up to $100 each per week. The Southern Foodways Alliance reported that Georgia earns about $16 million from TC residents annually.

The Georgia Department of Corrections stopped all visitors and outside volunteers from entering prisons and TCs on March 12. But instead of confining residents to the center in a version of “stay-at-home,” most TCs continued to send residents to work until they reported their first official positive COVID-19 test. This sent a clear message: it’s fine for TCs to put residents at risk in order to keep their contracts, but they could not afford to be seen as a public health risk. When some TCs were forced to shut down in this manner, the department took a financial hit. 

Some TCs just continued to send their residents to work throughout the pandemic. “We have to report to work — if we don’t, we get sent back to prison,” one Georgia poultry plant worker told SCHR. “It’s finally caused some of the guys that work with me to get sick. We’re at 3 already over the past week.” 

“We only make $9 an hour, which is less than most other employees at the plant,” another worker, who wished to remain anonymous, told SCHR. “We get stuck with the crap jobs. I’ve never been through anything like this before.” His job, “hanging birds,” is “pretty much the worst job to have… because of what it does to your hands.” 

A 2018 Southern Poverty Law Center report noted the increasing demand for prison labor in chicken plants. The “most vulnerable workforce in the country,” incarcerated employees can’t change jobs or claim protections afforded to other laborers. SPLC documented at least 24 on-the-job injuries sustained by people doing poultry work while incarcerated in Georgia and North Carolina over a three-year period.

Meatpacking is already dangerous, menial work, but the industry has proven to be one of the least safe environments for workers during the pandemic. The meat industry was an early and aggressive spreader of the virus, leading to a “tidal wave” of lawsuits over factories’ failure to protect their employees, deemed “essential workers” back in April as the industry struggled to supply the nation’s demand.

“It’s a good environment for the virus to flow. It’s cold, people are close to each other, having to shout at each other because of the noise,” WUNC reported on July 28 after a spike of cases in Raleigh, North Carolina was partially attributed to the state’s meat industry.

The men and women who work in environments such as “blood rooms” are often already the most marginalized, including immigrants and people who are incarcerated. TC workers find themselves caught between the two riskiest spaces, both working and living in unsafe conditions. 

Georgia is not alone in putting its incarcerated workers at risk. In Louisiana, many work-release programs remained in operation throughout the pandemic, reported The Appeal. Face masks are now mandatory at many meat-packing plants, but conditions at those facilities have already made them the number-one factor in Covid-19 clusters in the country — beside prisons and jails.

Since March, SCHR has sent three letters to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles urging them to utilize their power to release vulnerable individuals, including transitional center residents, who are categorized “low-risk” and therefore ready to reintegrate into society. These men and women are working in our communities, but have not been allowed to see their families for months. They may never make it home to them at all, if they are continually placed in harm’s way as Georgia’s infection rates reach record highs. Earlier this month, The Intercept reported on the deaths of three men in private federal halfway houses, whose sentences were nearing completion, and who seemed to be ideal candidates for home confinement.

“All of them had families who were preparing to welcome them home in the coming days. Instead, those families are planning memorial services.”