Georgia Prisoners Fatten State Coffers With Slave Labor

posted Jun 18, 2013, 8:52 AM by GFADP staff

By Janice Buttrum, May 2013 

Most of what is and has been written about prison life in the United States is written by men. While some of it applies, much of it doesn’t touch on those of us who’ve been marginalized within the prison system.

There is such a class. We are the female lifers. We are treated as if we are not part of the mainstream prison population. We are repeatedly denied parole “due to the nature and circumstance of your crime.” We are denied access to most vocational training. We cannot go on work details outside the prison grounds.

I can’t even imagine how much money inmates are making for the state of Georgia.

It brings to mind the slavery system, in a different way. I’m not saying that I don’t deserve to be in prison. I took a life that I can never replace. But as my sisters and I age, why not treat us with a modicum of care and consideration?

Georgia doesn’t pay its inmates, as some other states do. I read in The Angolite, the magazine written and published by inmates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, that field workers there receive four cents an hour. At eight hours a day that’s 32 cents a day, or $1.60 for five days’ work. In North Carolina several years ago, one male educational aide made seven cents a day, or 35 cents a week. And if you work in prison industries, you have to meet production daily. In the sewing plant at my prison, it’s 150 completed pairs of pants on one line.

I once saw a Georgia Correctional Industries catalog of the products we make, which is sent to every city, county and state office in Georgia and to all the other states and some departments of the federal government. Every item that is manufactured in Georgia prison industries is sold in this catalog: signs, furniture, beds, lockers, uniforms, pajamas, boots, T-shirts, sweatshirts, eyeglass frames, caps, net bags and more. It boggles the mind to try to remember it all. And there is a print shop that makes $10 to $12 million a year. All of this with prison labor.

If this sounds unbelievable, it all can be researched. The print shop is at Phillips State Prison in Buford. It was at Metro State Prison in Atlanta. I worked there once until we were pulled off the job because we were lifers working outside the gates. There are sewing factories at Hardwick, Pulaski and Washington, and probably more that I don’t know about.

Hope From ‘Miss Janie’

Meanwhile, the lifer population is growing older. Most of us have already been incarcerated for many years. We get no calcium supplements, no vitamin D, no potassium. Many have artery blockages from the lard that’s used to prepare our food. High blood pressure is on the rise also. It is very stressful to have to deal with younger prisoners who think this is a lark. Or there’s the stress of watching a 19-year-old guard who thinks she doesn’t need to give respect to a 63-year- old prisoner who’s sick and needs some Tylenol.

And let’s not forget that as we get older, the families and friends who might have sent us money or packages in the past are becoming older also. They aren’t able to help us as they once did. They aren’t turning away from us, but often their financial situations have changed for the worse and so has their health. But even if we were in a place where we had money in the bank, we would still be messed up. After you’ve paid lawyer’s fees and bought shoes and personal items and maybe a few stamps and a little coffee, the money is gone in no time.

Georgia has a lot of very young inmates, especially female ones, from 15 to 21 years old. The state gets federal funding to give them proper nutrients. They receive whole milk in cartons that come from Rogers State Prison, and juice, cheese and real eggs for growing bones and bodies. The rest of us get milk that comes in crates and  is served in a cup like the ones you get in high school cafeterias. Powdered eggs and juice that is concentrated powder, sort of like Tang. We get no salt or pepper to season our food, and most of it is poorly cooked, either too done or too raw.

Older inmates are susceptible to osteoporosis, but the system has no pro- gram for them. One of my greatest fears is being helpless in prison. There was some talk years ago of opening a co-ed prison for handicapped and elderly inmates, and using lifers as aides and helpers. But now, years later, there is still no more word on it. I know several people who need that type of atmosphere.

You don’t see much respect for the elderly in prison. Many of the young prisoners feel that “if they could do the crime, they can do the time” — until you point out to them someone who has done many years and was their age when she came to prison.

As an example I’ll use someone who finally went home, Janie Gibbs. She came to prison when she was in her mid-30s. She went home in her late 60s, in a wheelchair and with Parkinson’s disease. She sent us a picture of her in her wheelchair rolling through the back gates of Washington State Prison, and one of her in her “first real bed in 35 years.”

We called her “Miss Janie.” She gives me hope for freedom. She once told me that she was ready to give up and die. I told her that she gave all the younger ones hope for the future. She laughed at me, but I was serious.

Recently a “baby lifer” told me the same thing. I laughed too. A “baby lifer” is one who’s just come into the prison system. They still believe in “truth, justice and the American way.” They want to believe it until all their appeals are denied and they’ve accepted that even if they are innocent, they’re stuck in this place until “the nature and circumstance of their crime” changes.

Several years ago at Pulaski State Prison, all the lifers had a meeting with Dr. Betty Cook of the Parole Board. Someone asked her how it was that every lifer could get the same form letter with their denial, and we were told that it was normal procedure. Just explain how the “nature and circumstance” surrounding a murder, armed robbery, rape or kidnapping is ever going to change. Can anyone explain it? I sure can’t. And what about the changes we have made in our lives?Are we even the same people who committed a crime so many years ago?

‘We Are Still Human Beings’

The purpose of this article is to hopefully get someone else to question how the system works. I could tell you about the “Jane Does” who sued over the systemic abuse at the old Georgia Women’s Correctional Institution in Hardwick. I could tell you about the sexual misconduct at Metro State Prison. I could tell you about every women’s prison that’s been opened in Georgia in recent decades. But I just want to let someone know how we feel when we can’t get the right nutrients, the right care, a tube of Colgate toothpaste from the store, a visit from someone, anyone, a letter, shampoo, lotion, a soda, a 30-cent bar of soap — any of those things the state doesn’t furnish us.

My children still think the state pays me. They think I just want extra money. I can’t tell them that their mother can’t get shampoo, lotion or good soap, deodorant or toothpaste from the state. The state soap has lye in it, I think. The deodorant breaks me out and the toothpaste will remove nail polish from concrete floors.

I know that a lot has changed in society since I was locked up more than 30 years ago. But I truly believe that if I and other lifers were allowed to go to a halfway house before release, we could adapt to society easily. I pray that I might have that opportunity some day.

I hope I’ve opened someone’s eyes to what we see daily. We may be labeled as prisoners, but we are still human beings. We are still women and we are strong women. We have been battered, abused and threatened, but we have learned from our mistakes and maybe someday the Parole Board will decide to give us another chance. Then perhaps we can help make a difference for those who follow behind us.


Janice Buttrum was convicted of murder in Whitfield County, Georgia, in 1981 and sentenced to death, making her the youngest woman ever sentenced to death in the United States. In 1989, her sentence was commuted to life in prison because she was a minor at the time of the crime.

Hospitality, May 2013 page 5