Back in July, New Mexico’s KRQE News reported that officials in Bernalillo County were “scrambling to resurrect a long-dormant investigation into why a group of jail inmates on house arrest was sent to the upscale South Valley homes of Bernalillo County Commissioner Art De La Cruz and some of his friends with weed whackers, rakes and hedge trimmers to do some clean-up work.”
Bernalillo officials were also supposed to examine why this ‘clean team’ spent so much time in Cruz’s district as compared to others in the state. According to KRQE, the clean team spent “more than 70 percent of its work time in Da La Cruz’s district, one of five in the county, during the past year.”
This was not the first time De La Cruz has been alleged to have abused his position and, unsurprisingly, he vehemently denied the accusations outright. He specifically claimed that “No one (from the clean team) ever stepped on my property.”
Similar claims were made by De La Cruz’s friend and associate Ernie Metzgar, who oversees the inmate program. De La Cruz did, however, admit that “his office asked Metzgar to send the clean team to his neighborhood and to the neighborhoods of at least two of his friends.”
“I was part of the annual Albuquerque Garden Center garden tour,” De La Cruz said, adding that his friends were, too. “And so I was asked by representatives of the garden center, a non-profit organization, to try to make sure that the roadways leading to the homes were in relatively good condition.”
Now De La Cruz will have to answer for GPS data obtained by News 13 showing that the clean team “spent nearly as much time on private property as on public rights of way during a four-day stretch last summer” — including property owned by De La Cruz himself.
The investigation is still ongoing, but for now, Deputy County Manager for Public Safety Tom Swisstack said he might prohibit county commissioners from contacting Metzgar directly to hire the clean team and might ban the team from residential areas entirely. These are both good ideas, as prison laborers are only supposed to work on public lands. If the allegations are found to be true, De La Cruz should resign immediately.
In addition to highlighting potential corruption like this, we should be asking after the treatment and compensation of prison laborers in general. Let’s not confuse opportunity with exploitation. After all, one of the reasons why governments like that of Bernalillo County prefer inmate labor in the first place is because they can get away with paying them virtually nothing.
Prisoners are not protected by the 13th amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery or involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. Prisoners are therefore the only legally sanctioned indentured work force in the country, and everyone from corporations to governments have taken advantage of them to reap enormous profits.
Prison laborers are brought in to do tough jobs for a fraction of the cost, including battling forest fires in 24-hour shifts for just $2 a day. Prison laborers were even called in to clean up the toxic BP oil spill.
This is not to say that inmates shouldn’t be allowed to work, but they should be paid at least a minimum wage like the rest of us. For many, being able to work gives back some meaning to an otherwise oppressively static life behind bars. But given the unique circumstance prisoners are in, as people under complete control of the State, special consideration should be given to the nature of their work and whether it constitutes a clear conflict of interest, as could be the case in Bernalillo County.