Polar Vortex Shows Incarcerated Workers Bear the Brunt of Extreme Weather

On January 28, an image of Cook County Jail prisoners shoveling snow went viral after it was posted on the La Villita community Facebook page and then shared by the Chicago Community Bond Fund. The city of Chicago was preparing for an arctic blast and the prisoners were seen working in cold temperatures wearing orange jumpsuits. Thousands of people shared the image and expressed concern about the well-being of the prisoners. This scenario is yet another example of how incarcerated workers — toiling for little or no pay — are on the frontlines of extreme weather.

Predictably, the office of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart sought to exonerate itself in the press. “The situation was entirely and intentionally misrepresented,” said Cara Smith, chief spokesperson for Dart’s office. Smith claimed the prisoners were actually wearing insulated jumpsuits, that there was a warming van nearby, and that prisoners were not allowed to work if the temperature dropped under 20 degrees. Numerous news outlets reported Smith’s quotes without digging into their veracity, even though she presented no evidence.

Smith admitted that prisoners were only paid $2 for the work assignment, in a jail where at roughly 2,700 people are incarcerated simply because they can’t afford to pay their bond. Smith sought to justify the nothing wage by claiming the prisoners were doing work as part of a vocational job training program called RENEW. Yet, as Sharlyn Grace, co-executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, put it to The Chicago Tribune, “I don’t think that anyone is seriously suggesting that shoveling snow is a skilled form of labor that’s going to lead to job opportunities upon release.” Prisoners have little-to-no access to the press, and reporters often make no effort to contact them, so it’s no surprise that none have been quoted on the subject.

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