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Pushing Back on Prison Labor

Inside Higher Ed, May 4, 2021.

Public institutions often have ties to state-run prison labor companies. Students at one university system are trying to challenge that.

By Lilah Burke

Lots of furniture at City University of New York institutions is made by inmates in prison. That’s not a secret. It’s actually a legal requirement.

Like several other states, New York requires that government agencies use Corcraft, the brand name for its state prison industry, as a “preferred source” for products. If an agency needs a new office chair and Corcraft has a product that fits the bill, officials are required to purchase it.

The link between public institutions and prison labor has been well documented, but as policing and prisons have continued to grab hold of the national conversation, some students have been pushing back, demanding their universities cut ties with what they call “prison slavery.”

At CUNY, a letter asking the university to cut ties with Corcraft and divest from private prison companies has been signed by more than 90 student, faculty and community groups, as well as 12 city and state elected officials.

“As students, every time we sit down, we touch a product that was constructed by an incarcerated person,” said Diana Kennedy, a member of CUNY for Abolition and Safety, which wrote the letter.

The effort has also been supported by the New York organization Release Aging People in Prison. Mark Shervington, an organizer with RAPP, worked in Corcraft making furniture when he was incarcerated.

“In each case, it was forced. I wasn’t asked what would you like to learn, what types of skills do you have? I was told, this is what you’re going to do,” he said at a virtual press conference.

Supporters of state-run prison industries say the employment gives incarcerated people work experiences and skills that can be useful when they are released. Successful participation in certain Corcraft positions can mean an early release from prison.

But people fighting against these industries point to the low wages employees are paid and the lack of job protections. Incarcerated workers in New York State earn a starting wage of 16 cents per hour, which can be increased to 65 cents per hour. The lowest New York State minimum wage for non-incarcerated workers is $12.50 per hour. Some other states pay nothing at all. Workers are unable to join unions and have no guarantee of compensation if they are injured on the job.

Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center and himself formerly incarcerated, said people in prison do indeed want to work. But conditions and wages need to change.

“When you force people to work, you don’t pay them and you force them to work at gunpoint, you threaten them and physically abuse them if they don’t work -- I think we have a term for that, and that’s ‘slavery,’” he said.

Wright said some federal government agencies like the Department of Defense have tried to get rid of mandatory purchasing agreements with correctional industries -- not for moral reasons, but because they’ve complained about shoddy workmanship and cost. Some of the products may be cheaper on the open civilian market, which doesn’t need to subsidize the bureaucracy and security infrastructure of correctional industries, he said.

According to documents released by the Legal Aid Society, CUNY spent more than $245,000 on Corcraft between fiscal years 2009 and 2017, though the yearly expenditure varied widely from year to year. (The State University of New York, or SUNY, spent $2.9 million in that same time.) In 2017, the Corcraft program made $53 million in revenue, profit from which goes into the state’s general fund.

Other universities have had their own fraught relationships with prison labor. This summer, the University of Florida decided to eventually end the practice of having inmates labor on its agricultural research farms. Because of state regulations, the workers were paid nothing at all.

“The symbolism of inmate labor is incompatible with our university and its principles and therefore this practice will end,” President Ken Fuchs wrote in an announcement on changes the university was making toward racial equity. The unpaid labor at the sites is valued at about $1.7 million per year.

States like Wisconsin and Virginia also have laws on the books stipulating that public colleges must buy from the corrections industry or consider it a preferred provider. But even in states that don’t have such laws, universities may still purchase their goods. After students spoke out at the University of Washington in 2019, President Ana Mari Cauce said the university’s purchases from the state prison industry weren’t legally required. The company had just won a bidding process on its own.

In October, Cauce again defended purchases from the Washington correctional industry.

"I’ve talked with many knowledgeable people about the issue, including those with first-hand experience who support the option of employment for incarcerated people because it both provides them a positive option for how to spend their time while incarcerated and a venue for developing skills for employment when their prison terms are over," she wrote in a statement. "I also believe that the incarcerated deserve to be paid fairly for their labor and that their labor should never be forced or coerced." A boycott, she said, would not be effective in addressing concerns about wages and coercion because the company is a part of the state government. Political advocacy, she said, would be more productive. Cauce also argued that correctional industries maintain something of a monopoly over dorm furniture.

For CUNY, cutting ties with Corcraft would be a difficult endeavor. Choosing to not comply with or to protest a state law could antagonize the lawmakers who determine the institution’s funding.

But students still feel the administration could do more.

“[CUNY] needs to do a lot more than just say their hands are tied because of a law,” said Amber Rivero, student government president at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Their hands are not tied about making public statements about what is injustice and what is oppression. Their hands are not tied from saying this is not the direction this university wants to go.”

Prison reform and abolition advocates differ on the importance of cutting ties with these industries. James Kilgore, a research scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a prison abolition advocate, said he supports efforts like those by students at CUNY because they draw attention to how prisons brutalize their populations and disproportionately impact Black and brown people.

But attention paid to prison labor and additionally private prisons shouldn’t overwhelm the focus on the system as a whole, he said.

“If we’re going to have mass movement activity directed at prisons, that should be activity that gets people out of prisons or substantially reduces the harm that’s being done by prisons,” said Kilgore, who was himself formerly incarcerated. “Sometimes campaigns against things like private prisons and private companies don’t always get at the structural side of what’s actually going on.”

Raising wages for inmates would mean incredible increases in budgets for corrections departments, Kilgore said, and prison abolitionists generally seek to limit the funding for mass incarceration.

Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at CUNY’s Brooklyn College and author of the book The End of Policing, said he supports the effort and drew a connection between CUNY’s own funding problems and the business of mass incarceration.

“What we’ve seen over the last 40, 50 years is the systematic defunding of CUNY by the state government, the raising of tuition and then the transfer of those resources to the building of the system of mass incarceration,” he said at the virtual press conference. “CUNY’s complicity in this system is like stabbing itself in the back.”

CUNY did not respond to requests for comment. The NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision did not comment on the record for this article.




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