The organizers of the King-Kennedy Dinner, an annual fundraiser hosted by the Democratic Black Caucus to support its operations and raise money for candidates as well as scholarships that are given to students at historically black colleges and universities, in February ordered hundreds of pamphlets for the event from a print shop operated by inmates at The Wrightsville Unit; an 850-bed facility located in southeast Pulaski County, Arkansas. The order consisted of 350, 52-page booklets costing $1,135 that were later distributed at the group’s King-Kennedy Dinner on Feb. 22, according to records obtained from the Department of Corrections.
The decision to use unpaid labor from the Department of Corrections clashes with an effort launched by several lawmakers in 2019 to put forward a constitutional amendment “abolishing all forms of slavery,” including unpaid labor, at state prisons.
The legislation sponsored by Flowers and Elliott, House Joint Resolution 1007, was co-sponsored by 23 Democrats, including 16 members of the Legislative Black Caucus. The resolution proposed a constitutional amendment to be put before voters. It would have removed an existing exemption for prisoners in the Arkansas Constitution’s prohibition on slavery.
The resolution was proposed during the Legislature’s 2019 regular session. It failed to get out of committee, and received no Republican co-sponsors.
The Department of Corrections opposed the resolution in 2019, arguing that it did not have money in its budget to pay prisoners for their labor.
Dina Tyler, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, in a statement said that the only inmates in the state system who are paid for labor are those assigned to work-release programs or certain certification programs. The 56 prisoners assigned to the print shop at Wrightsville are not paid, Tyler said, but are eligible to earn good-time toward a reduction of their sentence.
Only government agencies and nonprofit organizations are allowed to purchase from the Department of Corrections’ prison industry programs, she added. Other clients of the Wrightsville print shop last month included numerous state agencies, school districts, city governments, police departments, the Baptist Health Home Health Network and both the state House and Senate.