The Use of Prison Labor in Universities

By Carter Delegal on July 6, 2020

On June 18th, President Kent Fuchs of the University of Florida announced a number of school-wide policy changes as part of an effort to address the school’s racial inequities. New initiatives ranged from the provision of grants to faculty members working on the topic of racial justice to the retirement of a school fight chant with historical connections to racial terrorism. But the most eye-catching announcement was the school’s decision to discontinue its use of unpaid prison labor.

For years, UF has contracted with the Florida Department of Corrections to employ the work of incarcerated individuals on its farms for $2 an hour—all of which goes to the Department, not the laborers. The practice dates back to reconstruction-era policies aimed at maintaining a race-stratified economic hierarchy, reporter Ben Conarck writes. Such stratification is still apparent today: The prison population is disproportionately black in Florida, as is the case in the few other southern states in which this economic arrangement is still legal.

Some try to justify the use of unpaid prison labor by appealing to the fact that it gives incarcerated individuals an enjoyable activity to focus their energy on. But the work conditions are far from idyllic: the sites are often unsanitary—inmates describe them as “subhuman” — and 20% of incarcerated workers get injured on the job.

Others appeal to the rehabilitative, skill-building benefits created by unpaid prison labor contracts, but activists warn that this too is a misleading characterization. The Florida Prisoners Solidarity Group, formerly known as the Gainesville IWOC, argues that “Rehabilitation involves dignity and respect. These contracts are simply exploitation of desperate and vulnerable people, many who were dragged into the criminal justice system as youth as a result of poverty, lack of basic services and ineffective legal council [sic]”

The University of Florida isn’t the only school in the state to benefit from unpaid prison labor. Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) has exploited the labor of unpaid incarcerated workers since 1995. In correspondence with Conarck, Vice President Susan Evans defended the practice by pointing out that the University saves “significant dollars that can be used instead for academic and student support programs.” So far, FGCU has made no indication that it plans to discontinue the use of prison slave labor.

Outside of the state of Florida, many universities still rely on prison labor in one form or another. In Virginia, for example, all public universities are required to purchase dorm furniture from Virginia Correctional Enterprises. In New York and Wisconsin, public institutions have to treat inmate-produced furniture as a “preferred option” for purchasing decisions. While unpaid prison labor is not legal in any of these states, estimates indicate that inmates receive at most $1.41 and as little as 33 cents an hour.

Given the racist history associated with the use of unpaid prison labor and its continued exploitative effects, students and activists were generally pleased with UF’s decision. Ending what is largely seen as an unjust practice aligns with the growing Black Lives Matter movement, which is calling for a reexamination of the nation’s racist history and urging concrete measures to mitigate long-lasting, intergenerational harms.

Moreover, UF is a large purchaser of unpaid prison labor, benefitting from over 156,000 hours of such work since 2015. Its decision to abandon the practice might aid the larger effort to eradicate unpaid prison work in Florida. It also can potentially pave the way for other universities to make a similar commitment.

Still, many wondered why earlier campaigns to stop the practice at UF fell on deaf ears. The Florida Prisoner Solidarity Group noted on Instagram that it had been pushing for change for nearly two years. DivestUF has also brought attention to the issue for a while, often making explicit denunciations of the practice. And on Twitter, Conarck notes that UF’s decision comes two years after Alachua County, where the University is located, made the same judgment.

But optimism about ending the use of unpaid prison labor in higher education is generally rising. As stubborn as UF might have been to their demands, activists undoubtedly played a role in securing the change. Their model of success may be useful for other activists thinking about how to stop their schools from using forced prison labor. During a moment in which more Americans are starting to see the need for racial justice, prison abolition networks, student groups and many others have an opportunity to change the way the country thinks about incarceration.

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