by David Underhill
MOBILE, Ala. — When BayFest relinquished the downtown streets, I could reach the main post office again. But I paused at the entrance to study the scene in the vacant block across the street.
Workers were dismantling the stage and other remnants of the BayFest venue which had filled that tract. A few appeared to be employees of the company providing these structures. But most were prisoners.
A sheriff’s department van sat at the curb, and a couple of armed guards sat beside it in the shade idly watching the scurrying inmates in their orange jumpsuits. They were carrying away sections of the stage and stacking them on pallets and trucks. Overhead riggers were taking apart the large canopy that had covered the stage.
But few of the prisoners had hard hats. None wore gloves. Among the feet shuffling the heavy loads, some were sneaker-shod. Some might have been clad only in slippers. The baggy pants and dust made it hard to be sure. But I couldn’t see any obvious hard-toed work boots.
In any laboring site where the boss gives a damn about the workers, or where safety agencies are allowed to function, or where the workers can assert their own interests, footwear will be sturdy enough to protect against heavy objects that might slip from a grip. And all will have gloves when handling bulky, rough materials. And all will wear hard hats—especially when work is underway directly above.
None of this applied at the BayFest site opposite the post office. The same was likely true at the other venues being removed throughout downtown. And all of this does make a warped sort of sense.
The city and its BayFest partners squeeze a financial benefit out of the free (or very cheap) prison labor. And if any of these workers are injured (or worse), they can easily and swiftly be replaced. And their penal servitude leaves them impotent to act — or even speak—against their imposed working conditions.
But it just doesn’t look good to have this happening in full view right downtown. The inmate crews should be kept in traditional places—out in the country chopping brush and collecting trash along the highways or picking crops abandoned by the run-off Mexicans.
Airbus execs and agents will soon throng the city-center highrise offices and eateries. The cultivated image of the gulf coast’s burgeoning hightech aerospace corridor will be tarnished by scenes so awkwardly reminiscent of plantation slavery.
© 2012, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.