“Using one disenfranchised community to displace and disrupt the lives of another,” the Seattle Human Rights Commission said in a statement, “... raises serious moral issues.”
The Seattle Human Rights Commission this week questioned the city’s use of state corrections crews to clean up unauthorized homeless encampments, raising concerns about prison labor.
In response, officials said Seattle recently stopped using the crews for encampment cleanups. And the officials sought to draw a distinction between prison labor and the crews of people working in lieu of jail time or for community service.
The city has used state Department of Corrections (DOC) crews for 23 years, said Jeremy Barclay, a DOC spokesman.
The crews clean up illegal-dumping sites under an agreement with Seattle Public Utilities, said Julie Moore, a city spokeswoman.
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The work has historically included cleaning up unauthorized encampments, but Seattle began winding down that practice over the summer and ended it completely last month, Moore said.
The Human Rights Commission, an advisory group whose members are appointed by the mayor and City Council, adopted a resolution Monday calling on the city to stop using the DOC crews and to disclose information about them.
The commission blasted Seattle’s encampment sweeps, which involve cleanups and forcing people to move. The sweeps have come under fire for being disorganized and for disrupting lives, though officials say improvements have been made.
The commission also raised worries about the DOC crews. Prison labor “is widely considered a vestige of slavery,” it said in a news release.
“The commission is concerned with the ethical implications of using DOC work crews to sweep encampments,” the release said. “The members of such crews often come from backgrounds of housing insecurity and are at greater risk of homelessness due to the lack of adequate re-entry infrastructure. Using one disenfranchised community to displace and disrupt the lives of another … raises serious moral issues.”
In September, a federal judge in Tacoma ruled that Clark County corrections crews had violated the constitutional rights of homeless campers by throwing out important belongings such as tents and medication during sweeps.
“Sweeps inherently jeopardize unsheltered individuals’ valuables and necessaries and must be done with the utmost care,” the commission’s release said.
“By employing DOC labor rather than city employees, the city is outsourcing an essential government function (with constitutional implications) to workers who are neither fairly compensated nor directly accountable to the municipality.”
Moore, the Seattle spokeswoman, said the city has stopped using DOC crews at encampments for logistical reasons. The city has begun trying to schedule sweeps in advance for specific times, but DOC doesn’t assign crew members until the day they work, she said.
Barclay, the DOC spokesman, said participants in the crews include people convicted of misdemeanors, federal probationers and people under DOC community supervision and work release.
He said the participants serve on crews either as part of a judicial sanction or as an alternative to jail time. Last year, the crews cleaned up nearly 1.6 million pounds of litter and dumped material in Seattle, Barclay said.
Though Seattle is no longer using DOC crews to clean up encampments, the city is using two different private contractors, Cascadia Cleaning & Removal and Belfor Property Restoration, Moore said. The city is paying Cascadia $80 per worker per hour.
Trained city employees sort through items at encampments to determine what to store and what to throw away, Moore said. Only afterward do contract workers move in to deal with the trash, she said.
Jeremy Wood, a member of the Human Rights Commission, hailed Seattle’s decision to stop using DOC crews for sweeps.
But Wood said the city should have been more transparent about the crews earlier. He said the commission has had trouble obtaining information.