South Carolina has sentenced a 54-year-old restaurant owner to 10 years in prison for threatening, beating and intimidating a mentally-disabled black man into working 100 hours a week for free for 17 years.
Bobby Paul Edwards, who ran the J&J Cafeteria in Conway, pleaded to one count of forced labour, according to a report by The Root. Edwards kept Chris Smith in a small room behind the restaurant, forcing him to work in the restaurant without compensation.
A Department of Justice report also stated that Edwards for 17 years, beat Smith into submission, whipping him with a belt, knocking him with pots and pans and at one time, burning Smith with hot grease.
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Smith began working at the J&J Cafeteria when he was 12 in 1996. In 2002, Edwards took over the family business and refused to pay Smith for 17 years.
Edwards deceived Smith, telling the latter all of his wages were being kept in an account that Smith could not access until a point. Smith was, however, given no say in whether he could give his labour or not.
Smith claims that he never had a break or an off-day. And when he dared to speak up on rare occasions, Edwards would beat and torture him, amidst insults of the N-word.
Customers confirmed they had heard Smith on different occasions screaming while he was beaten.
Smith was hidden from his family when they came to visit, sometimes, in a freezer. But he also recounts that Edwards’ family refused to intervene on his behalf during his ordeal.
“They knew”, Smith is quoted as saying, “All of them knew. They knew what he was doing.”
He continued: “I wanted to get out of there a long time ago. But I didn’t have nobody I could go to. I couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t see none of my family so that was that… That’s the main basic thing I wanted to see was my mom [to] come see me.”
Fortunately for Smith, a daughter of a family friend who worked at the restaurant, took notice of the abuse that was meted out to Smith. She told her mother, who then informed the Department of Social Services and the local chapter of NAACP.
Apart from his time in prison, Edwards has also been ordered to pay $272,952.96 to Smith.
After Edwards’ sentencing, the US Attorney for the District of South Carolina, Sherri Lydon, said: “For stealing his victim’s freedom and wages, Mr. Edwards has earned every day of his sentence. The U.S. Attorney’s Office will not tolerate forced or exploitative labour in South Carolina.”
But the length of Edward’s sentence has angered a number of people who have drawn parallels between his crime and slavery in the United States.