Marty Walsh’s Boston City Government Used Prison Inmate Labor To Remove Snow

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If Joe Biden has it his way, then Boston Mayor Marty Walsh will be the Secretary of Labor for the United States.

Biden plans to nominate Walsh for the position, seeking confirmation in a U.S. Senate where Democrats will hold a slim 50-50 majority with vice president-elect Kamala Harris expected to serve as the tiebreaker.

And while labor organizations like the AFL-CIO may approve of the Walsh pick, his record on labor issues includes using prison inmate labor for low pay to remove snow for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and a couple of Boston neighborhoods in 2015. 

In February 2015, a storm dumped more than a foot of snow in Boston. The city used more than 90 prison inmates, primarily from Suffolk County Correctional Facility, to help shovel out MBTA stations and paid them $3 to $4 a day; non-inmates received $30 an hour to do the same work.

It was in the single digits outside, but it felt like it was below zero degrees Fahrenheit with the windchill, as Think Progress reported in 2015.

The pay for prison inmates was more than double the typical prison wage rate in Suffolk County for the jobs available to inmates. which tended to pay $1.50 per day at the time, according to the report.

Before that storm, the city also had used prison inmates to clear handicap ramps on Beacon Hill, as well as to clear snow from the Day Square and Central Square neighborhoods of East Boston and on Chelsea Street, according to a press release from the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department.

That same month, Walsh touted the idea of using prison labor to remove snow.

“Creating opportunities for our inmates to give back to our community is an important component in successful re–entry,” he said, according to Nonprofit Quarterly. “I am thrilled that the City is able to partner with the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office to assist in snow removal in areas critical to the safety of our residents.”

Using prison labor reportedly came about after Walsh asked city departments to use their resources more efficiently. 

The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department office said in a press release at the time that the Community Works Program, which allowed some prisoners to choose to partake in shoveling snow, “helps inmates gain work experience and build valuable skills that can help remove barriers they face to employment when their sentences are complete.”

It wasn’t the first time Massachusetts prison inmates were used to remove snow that decade. In 2011, Middlesex County prison inmates removed snow from roofs and cleared out fire hydrants. At the time, the county’s sheriff, Peter Koutoujian, explained to WBZ that the practice would save the county $250,000 that winter.

On the political Left, using prison labor and paying the workers below minimum wage sometimes receives criticism.

That includes liberal political commentator Richard Fowler, formerly of The Young Turks. In 2015, he did not necessarily oppose having prisoners shovel snow, but he disliked the pay rate.

“Let me just put this out there,” Fowler said on his show on the network. “So you guys already know how I feel about prisons and you know that I hate private prisons and I hate prison-industrial complex that we’ve created in this country, but I mean first I think they should pay these prisoners a living wage if you’re going to have them out there shoveling snow, let’s pay them a living wage.”

The AFL-CIO has also expressed its opposition to prison labor.

“The AFL-CIO opposes the widespread use of prison labor throughout the public and private sectors in the United States in unfair competition with free labor,” the union umbrella organization wrote in a statement. “We call on the federal government and the states to end any promotional programs to encourage employers to set up shop in federal or state prisons as an alternative to creating jobs and hiring workers in the general population and in direct, intentional competition with private-sector employers. We further call upon the federal government to vigorously enforce laws and regulations designed to prevent prison work programs that unfairly compete with free labor.”

The press office for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh could not be reached for comment on Friday, nor could Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Thompkins.