Charlotte City Council approves paint purchase from company that uses prison labor

CHARLOTTE — The Charlotte City Council’s most intense debate of the week was about paint at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

The city was poised to run with it within 30 days, according to the aviation director.

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The debate centered around whether the city should be doing business with a company that uses prison labor, even if the product being purchased isn’t made by people incarcerated.

It’s something many passengers most likely never give a thought to -- the paint on the ground at the airport.

Charlotte-Douglas International Airport uses a lot of it.

“We paint every week in various places around the airfield,” said Haley Gentry, aviation director. “It is a constant inspection and response from our team.”

Since 2014, the city has been buying it from the Florida-based company Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises (PRIDE).

The paint division of PRIDE includes 16 workers, five of whom were formerly incarcerated. They get $15 an hour, housing and transportation while they work for the program.

City Councilman Ed Driggs said that should be celebrated.

“Frankly, I think it is commendable,” he said. “We are sourcing paint from there and it is a happy circumstance that the best product is available from a company that is doing good work. It is being described by some as if the inmates are obligated to do some compulsive behavior. It’s an opportunity for them.”

The paint division is a small part of PRIDE. The company uses people currently incarcerated to make other products. Their pay can range from 20 cents to $1 an hour

“While there does seem to be on first blush on positive aspects to the program, there is the undoubted shade and stench of shadiness,” said Councilman Braxton Winston, who led the opposition to the project.

A vote to approve the contract was deadlocked, 5-5. Council members Tariq Bokhari, Driggs, Larken Egleston, Malcolm Graham and Greg Phipps voted in favor of the contract. Council members Dimple Ajmera, Matt Newton, Renee Johnson, Victoria Watlington and Winston voted no. Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt was absent. Mayor Vi Lyles broke the tie and voted yes to authorize the $120,000 purchase, citing safety.

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“We are running an airport that needs paint,” Lyles said. “There is a safety issue for planes landing and where they go and for the workers out there.”

Founder and executive director of Freedom Fighting Missionaries Kenny Robinson said he is disappointed by the council’s vote. His Charlotte-based nonprofit assists people who are formerly incarcerated and says councilmembers are correct to be skeptical.

“The company itself is based off of prison labor,” he said. “It is a prison industry.”

Robinson said the city shouldn’t be doing business with a company that relies on low-wage inmate work. He is evaluating whether he wants to consider partnerships with the city in the future.

“I am not sure about partnering with the city because I simply do not want to do business with the city that does business with a company that uses prison labor,” he said.

The city’s $120,000 purchase comes from the airport fund, and not directly from taxpayers. That means purchases and expenses at the airport, such as parking, funded the purchase; not property tax bills.

Charlotte city officials said if the contract wasn’t approved, they would have to bring in another contractor to supply and apply the paint. According to Gentry, that could cost three times as much, and there is no guarantee the contractor wouldn’t use the product by PRIDE anyway.

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The city said PRIDE’s product is superior, and previous paint products had to be consistently reapplied. PRIDE was also the lowest bid when the city last put the project through the RFP process.

Statement by PRIDE:

“PRIDE Enterprises has been providing highway paint to the City of Charlotte since 2014, and we have an excellent working relationship with them.

“The PRIDE industry that manufactures traffic paint is not staffed by inmate workers. In addition to regular PRIDE supervisors, the staff at this location are part of a unique transition program for formerly incarcerated individuals who have participated in a PRIDE work program as an inmate worker.

This transition program facilitates their re-entry into society and into the workforce. This rehabilitation program provides them with transportation to the workplace, subsidized housing (apartment), and pays them approximately $15.00/hour. They will remain in the program for 18 months at which time they will be able to find permanent jobs in a location and vocation of their choice.”

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