With the coldest weather in decades bearing down on the Midwest, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office defended its use of inmates to shovel snow—fueling the debate of modern slavery in the nation’s prison system.
A social media furor was ignited after a picture circulated on social media of about six inmates in orange jumpsuits shoveling snow on Monday in Chicago.
On Tuesday, Kara Smith, of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, said the department did nothing wrong, NBC Chicago reported.
“We take our responsibilities to those in our custody very seriously and that extends to when we have people working out in the elements,” she said.
Smith stated that the inmates had insulated jumpsuits, gloves and a warming van nearby. She added that they were also paid $2 for the job, according to the Chicago Tribune.
That defense was hardly reassuring to inmate advocate groups. Sharlyn Grace, co-executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, said she had concerns about whether the prisoners’ were properly compensated for the work, as well as concerns about their safety in the extreme weather.
The temperature at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport fell to minus 23 degrees Wednesday morning, the coldest temperature in 34 years, according to Weather.com. The extreme temperature was blamed on “displacement of a lobe of the polar vortex to a position over the Great Lakes.” Windchills in some parts of the region fell to minus 60.
Bitter cold was expected to linger for days and caused many inmate advocates to fear that the prison system was once again exploiting inmates.
That issue bubbled to the surface in August 2018 with a nationwide prisoner strike.
“One of the most passionately held demands is an immediate end to imposed labor in return for paltry wages, a widespread practice in US prisons that the strike organizers call a modern form of slavery. More than 800,000 prisoners are daily put to work, in some states compulsorily, in roles such as cleaning, cooking and lawn mowing,” the Guardian reported.
In its defense, the sheriff’s office explained that the inmates were part of a community restoration program that involves tearing down buildings in the effort to clean up blight.
However, Grace was not placated by that explanation. She wanted to know how shoveling snow in frigid temperatures achieved that goal.