Letter to the editor – July 3, 2021

Dear editor,

The United States has history’s largest incarcerated population, and Kansas is not an outlier. We lock up about 698/100,000 of our neighbors, nearly the same rate as the height of Josef Stalin’s infamous gulags. At the Topeka Correctional Facility (the only women’s prison in the state), inmate count has ballooned by 644% since 1980, leading to overcrowded conditions in the 903-bed facility. In 2019, 77% of new inmates were imprisoned due to parole and probation violations. Those violations bring longer sentences than ever, thanks to a 2013 law prescribing escalating jail and prison time for each violation. A violation can be as simple as a weekend trip to visit a friend, smoking a cigarette, getting fired from or not finding a job fast enough, or virtually anything else a judge deems necessary.

Of those roughly 900 inmates, fully 150 — more than were even in prison in 1980 (113) — are brought to Iola to work at Russell Stover Candies, where they are paid less than their coworkers. In addition, the Department of Corrections typically takes 25% of work-release pay for room and board, 5% for a “Victim’s Fund,” as well as mandatory savings and taxes. (Yes, inmate workers pay for their own incarceration directly and through the taxes they pay.) The DOC boasted that in 2017 “more than two dozen” companies used over 800 inmates. I can only speculate how many inmates are working in the 42 companies currently enrolled.

Not that you would know much of that from the Register’s recent glowing but rather blinkered reporting. A major Iola employer, already known in our community as an employer of absolute last resort, has been using inmate labor since April. This is a business strategy expressly promised by the DOC to bring “dependable workers” (because they’re prisoners) and “reasonable wages” (lower than market pay). They can make this promise precisely because so many men and women are torn from their homes, families and communities, many if not the majority for extremely minor offenses, and locked away within the jails and prisons of Kansas. Randy Bowman, public affairs director at the facility, even enthused about the future “opportunities [for] our one facility for children here in Kansas. Yet somehow, this was presented as a feel-good tale, with only a passing mention of “controversy.”

This is a state born out of an intense, often violent struggle between slavers, intent on bringing in another slave state to the Union, and free-soilers, fervent abolitionists who saw clearly that slavery was a moral stain, a crime against not just the humanity of the enslaved, but also the enslaver. The abolition cause nearly prevailed in 1865, when the 13th amendment forbade involuntary servitude (except as punishment for crimes). The states of the old Confederacy immediately went to work imprisoning freed people and sending them right back to the same fields where they worked before, a practice known as “convict leasing.” Kansas has eagerly joined those ignoble ranks, imprisoning fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sisters and brothers and offering them to employers who can’t be bothered to improve conditions enough to keep the workers in their own communities. Is this really what you want to see in the Free State? 

— Ben Alexander, MPA

Iola, Kan.

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