That’s why it’s disturbing that Cleburne County Commissioner Emmett Owen has admitted not only to possibly breaking regulations on the county’s inmate work-release program, but also said it was because he didn’t know the rules.
Owen is an elected official. Ignorance is no excuse.
Owen’s possible offense, as detailed by Star reporter Laura Camper last Friday, is the taking of county inmates to Atlanta on a work detail. By rule, inmates signed out on work detail must remain in Alabama.
Probate Judge Ryan Robertson told The Star that the county is working with investigators from the Alabama State Ethics Commission, which is handling the case.
Let us be clear: There is no indication that Owen or others in Cleburne County have misused inmate labor in a manner that relates to the state’s past as documented by author Douglas Blackmon in his book, Slavery by Another Name. That insinuation would be unfair.
Nevertheless, elected officials in Alabama should be worldly enough to understand how the state’s abuse of inmates, most of them black, in the years before World War II remains a painful cross to bear.
As Blackmon wrote, “In Alabama alone, hundreds of thousands of pages of public documents attest to the arrests, subsequent sale, and delivery of thousands of African Americans into mines, lumber camps, quarries, farms, and factories. More than thirty thousand pages related to debt slavery cases sit in the files of the Department of Justice at the National Archives. Altogether, millions of mostly obscure entries in the public record offer details of a forced labor system of monotonous enormity.”
Those are among the reasons why there are stringent rules and regulations regarding inmate labor in Alabama. Deviating from those regulations gives the appearance that anything goes when inmates are sent out on work details. And that’s a place Alabama mustn’t return.