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High School Journalists Garner National Attention by Exposing School’s Use of Prisoner Labor

by Douglas Ankney

Amherst-Pelham Regional High School (APRHS) English teacher Sara Barber-Just was rubbing sleep from her eyes at 5:30 a.m. while reading the June 28, 2019, online edition of The New York Times. Then her jaw dropped in amazement when she saw the story about her journalism class’ article exposing the school’s use of prisoner labor. “I think that’s a wonderful recognition for a student newspaper to have The New York Times call you and say they want to talk about your high school journalism,” Barber-Just said.

APRHS student Spencer Cliche had overheard in a conversation that the school was using prisoners from Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Norfolk to reupholster chairs in the auditorium. Cliche approached Barber-Just with the idea of investigating and reporting the story in The Graphic (APRHS’ quarterly paper).

After confirming with APRHS Superintendent Michael Morris that the school was using prisoner labor, Barber-Just encouraged Cliche and the rest of the class to not simply condemn the practice, but to investigate and write a story.

The class contacted Cara Savelli, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Correction. Savelli said prisoners perform work for schools, nursing homes, veteran’s agencies, and other public service providers with a dual purpose of giving prisoners “valuable, marketable experience,” while the recipient agencies gets “a quality product at a reasonable price.” And most prisoners value the time spent performing a meaningful skill, even though earning only a few pennies up to a dollar an hour.

Conversely, prisoners aren’t provided proper safety equipment and aren’t eligible for compensation if injured on the job. They cannot form a union or engage in collective bargaining. Plus, their labor deprives local citizens of work.

In this case, Wellspring Upholstery Cooperative (Wellspring) had lost the bid to reupholster the chairs. Wellspring hires formerly incarcerated and other low-income people and pays them up the $25 per hour for their labor. “We expected to do several school auditoriums a year, but over our five-and-a-half years in operation, we have hardly done any,” said Fred Rose, co-director of Wellspring. He attributed the lack of work to competition from the cheaper prisoner labor.

After the students’ 3,000-word essay appeared in The Graphic, Morris announced in an email to parents that APRHS would never again use prisoner labor. Cliche summed it up best by stating, “[W]hat’s exploitative is taking that need and that want [of prisoners], and then paying them such miniscule wages.” 


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