CBS News reports that the county is paying nine inmates to do the work. Chris Acosta, public affairs director at the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, described them as “low-level offenders” and that they have been “provided full PPE by the morgue/hospital.”
“The work is 100 percent voluntary,” she added. “It's great that these individuals are stepping up and volunteering to assist a community in dire need of help right now.”
El Paso County has about 34,000 current COVID-19 cases, with over 1,100 people in hospitals. Since the pandemic’s outset, the county has seen 769 deaths from the virus.
While prison labor is common in jails, giving inmates the assignment of moving virus victims has many wondering about the ethics of this type of work. Though the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery in 1865, it omitted people who are “duly convicted” of a crime. That exception meant prisoners can be paid nothing for labor—and Texas is one of five states where typical prison jobs go unpaid. The average wage for prisoners for non-prison jobs ranges from 14 cents to 63 cents an hour.
But the Texas inmates may have their jobs cut soon since the county has sought help from the National Guard to dispose of the bodies, according to Acosta.
The Texas Tribune reports that the county has created 10 mobile morgues to house bodies since the number of hospitalized virus patients has risen by tenfold since the beginning of September.