Late last month, a 16-year-old inmate entrusted to work at a juvenile firefighting camp in Washington state escaped into the wilderness after sucker-punching a guard and fleeing. When deputies caught up with him eight hours later, the youth pulled out a loaded .22 caliber revolver he'd stolen from a state parks vehicle and shot himself in the head.
The practice of prisons putting inmates to work fighting fires has been been well documented, especially in California, where roughly 30 percent of the state's firefighting force is comprised of convicts. A Washington Department of Corrections spokesman said this week that around 280 adult prisoners are currently contracted by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to clear trees, staff the firehouse kitchen, and perform a range of firefighting tasks across the state. Even those battling wildfires on the frontlines receive between 70 cents and $1.60 a day.
The teenage escapee in Washington survived his self-inflicted gunshot wound, but the firefighting program at Naselle Youth Camp was temporarily shut down while officials reassess the decades-long prison-DNR partnership. The state government maintains that inmates — who are allowed access to tools like shovels and chainsaws — are closely vetted, and say the program helps prisoners build skills they'll need once they return to society.
Still, the ill-fated escape attempt has cast doubts on the program and dozens of others like it across the country. Prisoner advocates claim some of the schemes are ripe for exploitation and tantamount to slave labor.
"While prison officials often claim that prisoners are taught 'skills' such as going to work on time each day, they do so under the threat of discipline if they don't work," Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, an inmate advocacy group, told VICE News. "Much more is needed to find employment in today's economy, especially for people who have a criminal record, as all released prisoners do."
VICE News looked at some of the weirder and more controversial labor programs in American prisons.
Dental Lab Work
At Florida's Union Correctional Institution, inmates are paid roughly 50 cents an hour to make crowns, bridges, and dentures inside the Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises Inc. (PRIDE) dental lab at the state jail. If the products make it out of state, the pay increases to $8 to $13 per hour. PRIDE, which serves all of Florida's prisons, trains some 4,000 inmates each year, according to its 2014 annual report.
Puppy and Horse Training
Colorado Correctional Industries (CCI) offers a program for inmates to train wild mustangs in Canyon City. The trained horses are then sold and adopted. The Wild Horse Inmate Program, which is run in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management, started in 1986. Since then, prisoners have trained at least 5,000 horses. Similarly, CCI offers a Prison Trained Dog Program, which pairs pups with prisoners who train them to fill a number of roles. Some canines will even become police K-9 dogs.
Making Military and Police Gear
UNICOR, the trade name for Federal Prison Industries, puts prisoners to work manufacturing high-tech gear, some of which is used by military and police personnel. The items include stab vests, gun cases, duty belts, firearm targets, and lifelike tactical training sets that mimic villages or terrains where soldiers are sent into during combat. UNICOR is a semi-public, for-profit corporation run by the Bureau of Prisons. It also contracts prisoners to service electrical equipment and wash laundry, work in the construction and agriculture industries, and manufacture "Slippery When Wet" signs and similar products.
Braille Book Publishing
The National Prison Braille Network trains inmates on how to produce braille textbooks, music books, and novels. The program includes the entire production process, from the transcription stage through the packaging of the books.
Call Center Work
That annoying call center operator who contacts you in the middle of dinner? That could be an inmate — especially if the company belongs to the federal government. For example, female inmates at New York's Bedford Hills Correctional Facility answer calls for the DMV, while marketing company Televerde get inmates from Arizona state prisons to make calls on behalf of major clients, including Microsoft and Cisco. But no need to panic if you rudely hung up on your last telemarketer. Officials say that all personal information is protected, and inmates do not have access to computers with personal details, so the chance of a future knock on the door from a pissed off prisoner is low.
Rodeo Clowning and Picking Cotton
Angola prison is famous for housing some of Louisiana's most violent criminals, but also for the once-a-year rodeo it holds for prisoners, who act as cowboys, rodeo clowns, and vendors of arts and crafts made throughout the year. All sales from business are reportedly returned to the Louisiana State Penitentiary Inmate Welfare Fund, which provides inmates with education and recreational supplies.
Angola is also known for its controversial agriculture project, which is based on over 28 square miles of former slave plantation land, where inmates grow and harvest corn, soybeans, and cotton. Prisoner advocates have protested the program on behalf of inmates, three quarters of whom are black, and work in backbreaking conditions while armed guards stand watch on horseback. Activists have also filed lawsuits over prisons exposing inmates to extreme heat while working in Louisiana, Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Delaware.
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VICE News' Tess Owen contributed to this report