Robert 'Tiger' Hammond, president of the New Orleans AFL-CIO, at a Convention Center board meeting.

In September, the governing board of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center voted against a contract to buy a $183,000 iron fence from Prison Enterprises — a division of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections that sells services and products manufactured by Louisiana prison inmates, who receive wages ranging from zero to 20 cents per hour. 

Several members of the board, which is appointed by the governor and New Orleans mayor, expressed moral opposition to the use of unpaid or low-wage prison labor before casting their no votes. 

“I’m not sure how well-versed everyone else is on this, but prisoners make cents on the dollar for this work,” board member Bonita Robertson said at the September meeting. “And I have a problem with that.”

Despite that vote, the Convention Center went through with the purchase. And that wasn’t the first time the Convention Center patronized Prison Enterprises. The Convention Center has made hundreds of purchases over the last decade, adding up to $1.35 million in value, according to Convention Center purchase orders from 2009 to 2019 obtained by The Lens. 

Some board members who spoke with The Lens were not aware of the center’s history purchasing products made by prison inmates. 

“I can’t honestly say I’m aware of any bids that were granted to Prison Enterprises during my tenure other than [the fence],” board member Ronald Guidry told The Lens. “I object to it on a social basis. I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do to have any industry make hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars off of prison labor.”

And now, board member Robert “Tiger” Hammond told The Lens he’s going to try to create a living wage requirement for Convention Center contractors. Unlike the New Orleans city government, the Convention Center doesn’t have conditions for how much its contractors have to pay their workers. The Convention Center board made an attempt to create a living wage requirement in 2017, but it didn’t get off the ground.

“Stay tuned on that, because next month I’m bringing that up as a proposal again,” Hammond told The Lens. “We have a much friendlier board now and next month I will be bringing that issue back up to light on the living wage.”

Hammond is the President of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO, a union and labor advocacy organization.

“As a guy who represents labor, it doesn’t sit well when a person comes to me and says, ‘Wow, looks like you have to go to prison to get a job with the Convention Center these days,’ “ he said. 

Hammond said he will propose that the Convention Center simply adopt and mirror the living wage ordinance used by the city, which requires contractors to pay employees a little over $11.19 per hour, adjusted each year for inflation.

‘I would like to see us stop using prison labor’

The Convention Center has purchased shirts, ponchos, aluminum signs, laundry detergent and mahogany furniture from Prison Enterprises over the last 10 years. According to the Prison Enterprises website, the laundry detergent was made at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel. A $2,850 mahogany conference table was likely made at the Allen Correctional Center. The clothing could have come from any of three prisons, including the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel. The fence was likely built at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. 

“I can’t see using prison labor in 2020, it’s not something I’m comfortable with,” Convention Center board member Freddie King III told The Lens. “Especially when there are people, everyday people who need a job who could use that contract. A local company. We should be trying to find those people who live in the city, in the metro area, and not use cheap prison labor.”

In a written statement, Ken Pastorick, communications director for the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, defended the Prison Enterprises program, saying it teaches inmates valuable skills and has shown to reduce recidivism.

“Inmates are not required to work for Prison Enterprises, however, Louisiana law mandates that state inmates, necessarily serving a felony sentence, are required by law to work while incarcerated,” Pastorick wrote. “Each inmate who is capable of working, is assigned a job duty, which may include working for the prison, or for Prison Enterprises. Inmates who participate in work programs within Prison Enterprises are less likely to return to prison than those who have not.”

Inmates working for Prison Enterprises can choose to either work for pennies or for a reduced sentence, according to a 2019 state legislative audit. Prisoners ineligible to work for a sentence reduction must work for three years for no compensation at all before they can achieve the introductory rate of 2 cents per hour, according to the audit. 

There were 767 inmates working for Prison Enterprises in 2017, the audit said. Among that group, 13.6 percent received no compensation, 17 percent worked for reduced sentences and 69 percent worked for wages somewhere between two and 20 cents per hour. 

The majority of the Convention Center’s individual payments to Prison Enterprises were below $5,000 each, small in comparison to the roughly $100 million the Convention Center expects to collect in revenue this year. The majority of that money, $66.4 million, are public dollars generated from taxes in Orleans Parish. 

“The Office of State Purchasing (OSP), under the Louisiana Department of Administration, establishes statewide contracts that extend benefits of low prices on quality products and services to all local, parish and state agencies,” said an emailed statement from Convention Center President Michael Sawaya. “OSP’s list of statewide contract includes Prison Enterprises. Prison Enterprises has been administered by a State Board since 1983 and the products that have been purchased (furniture and fixtures) have been in accordance with policies of a political subdivision of the State of Louisiana.”

There is a state law that can require some public bodies to purchase from Prison Enterprises when they are offering lower prices than other state vendors. However, that doesn’t appear to apply to the Convention Center. 

“The Convention Center is not required to use Prison Enterprise,” said Tim Hemphill, the center’s vice president of sales and marketing, in an email. 

The vote in September to reject the Prison Enterprises fence was not enough to stop the deal from going through. The staff argued it didn’t need the board’s permission to go ahead with the purchase. 

“We actually won that vote, and they came in and said, ‘You don’t have authority on this,’ ” Hammond said.

There was a debate over the interpretation of three resolutions passed in 2018 and 2019 which set limits on how much the Convention Center can spend on an individual purchase without getting board approval. In the end, the Convention Center’s general counsel said that due to the agreement with Prison Enterprises, the center was legally obligated to purchase the fence, regardless of internal rules. And the Convention Center ended up paying the bill. 

Now, some board members wonder if their disapproval will be enough to stop the convention center from patronizing Prison Enterprises going forward. 

“I would like to see us stop using prison labor,” King said.

The documents obtained by The Lens only showed transactions through October 2019. Although they show payments to Prison Enterprises that were made or scheduled after the September vote, they are for items that were ordered and billed before the vote. 

Hammond told The Lens that while he supported hiring and training people released from prison, he didn’t think the low or no wage work offered to the inmates was necessarily helping. As he said at the September board meeting, a contract with Prison Enterprises means “we’re paying the prison rather than the prisoner.” 

Alfred Marshall, an organizer with Stand with Dignity and a former Louisiana state inmate, agreed that it was far more important to help inmates re-enter society once they’ve been released. 

“We gotta end free labor,” he said. “That same inmate, when they get home after doing free labor, he’s still a convicted felon and now he’s gotta find another low wage job. So it’s continuous slavery. No one wants to take a chance with me so I gotta take a restaurant job that’s paying me $7.25 per hour. I can’t pay my bills.”

A living wage requirement

One way to ensure that the Convention Center isn’t contracting with prison labor would be to implement a living wage requirement for contractors. 

The New Orleans city government passed a living wage ordinance in 2015, requiring companies with city contracts worth more than $25,000 to pay employees $10.55, increased each year to adjust for inflation. Louisiana does not have its own minimum wage, so the state uses the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour. It was lauded by some labor advocates as an important first step, though the city initially renewed some existing contracts at lower rates. 

The Convention Center board — which is also a government body with annual revenues equal to roughly 14 percent of the city government’s general fund — has no such wage requirement. 

There was a failed attempt in 2017 by some board members to implement something akin to the city’s rule. Board member Ryan Berni introduced two motions at a September 2017 meeting. The first was to seek an opinion from the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office on the legality of a wage requirement. The second was to “instruct legal counsel to work with staff on permissible ‘living wage’ language.” 

The votes for both were tied 6-6, and the motions failed. 

“We did lose 6-6 to the hospitality people, but that will be brought before the board again,” Hammond told The Lens. 

Guidry agreed with Hammond that the current board is more likely to take action on a living wage requirement than the 2017 board.

“I think it may be more favorable now if we’re able to bring it up again at some point,” he said.

That point will be in February, Hammond said. Hammond told The Lens he plans to bring up a wage requirement next month. He said that to make things easier, he’s suggesting that the Convention Center simply adopt the city’s living wage ordinance.

“What we’re going to do is have a memorandum of understanding that we adopt the city rule on living wage,” he told The Lens. “Every time they give a living wage increase, we give the same one. We don’t have to sit here and negotiate it ever again because the city will do it for us, and we’ll go directly to the $11 rate for everybody here.”

King said that while he couldn’t stake a position on proposals he didn’t have the details for, he was supportive of the idea.

“Anything that can help the citizens of the city to feed their family and make an honest living, I’m all for,” he said. 

This story has been updated with a statement from the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, which was provided to The Lens after publication.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...