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That’s because public universities in Virginia are required to buy from Virginia Correctional Enterprises, a state-owned company that employs inmates in state prisons. About 1,300 inmates participate in the work in Virginia, and other state agencies are also required to get their furniture from VCE.
Every U.S. state except Alaska features some sort of correctional enterprise, where inmates make goods like license plates and desk chairs. And in several states, public universities are required to buy from those entities.
For example, all campuses of the University of Wisconsin system are required to purchase products from Badger State Industries, Wisconsin’s prison-labor company. The University System of Maryland and the State University of New York system are required to use their state’s correctional enterprise as a “preferred source” along with state industries that employ the blind. Furniture is one of the most popular correctional enterprises products. At Mary Washington, VCE has partnered with the administration to create a furniture showroom.
(In all of the above cases, the university is permitted to purchase a product elsewhere if the state's correctional industry can’t meet product requirements. The process requires a release waiver.)
In some states, universities are not legally obligated to purchase from their correctional industries but do so anyway. In California, universities are exempt from purchasing requirements but still buy from CALPIA, the California correctional company, a sales rep said. That business is growing.
Supporters of correctional industries say holding a job in prison gives inmates stimulation, wages and skills for re-entry.
"We have been more than satisfied with the products and services offered by these organizations and support both the mission and the second chance they provide to so many in our state," a spokesperson for the University System of Maryland said via email.
Some activists call the process exploitative.
According to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative, Virginia pays inmates between $0.55 and $0.80 per hour for their work. Across the country, the average imprisoned employee of a correctional industry made between $0.33 and $1.41 per hour. Advocates note that prices for simple goods in prison, like hygiene products or calls to family, are often not fairly pegged to wages. For example, a call to family often can cost the equivalent of a day’s work. Corrections officials typically note that wages are so low because they’re garnished for fees like room and board and debts like child support.
In a handful of states, including Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas, inmates may be paid nothing at all.
Inmate employees are also not offered protections that are standard outside prison, like the right to organize or negotiate for better working conditions.
A Seattle Times investigation found that the enterprise in that state charged excessive prices for prefabricated furniture that inmates only unboxed. The company was also found to be competing unfairly with local businesses that paid workers minimum wage.
The issue is complicated, said Marc Howard, director of the Prison and Justice Initiative at Georgetown University and a prison-reform advocate. Low wages can be exploitative and should be addressed, he said, but ending prison labor across the board is not a solution.
“What you wind up doing is taking people out of work that they actually want to do, that they find fulfilling, that gives them a structure, that prepares them for re-entry,” he said. “Having talked to many people in prison who work, they want to have work and they seek it out, and there are often long waiting lists.”
Boycott Campaigns and Tough Questions
Some prison abolitionists have said that labor and economic exploitation are not the most pressing problems for most inmates. Instead, they point to the lack of freedom and stimulation.
Even so, students in some cases have agitated for removing prison labor from a university supply chain.
At the University of Washington, dorm furniture is made by inmates in Washington prisons. A movement led by UW United Students Against Sweatshops has demanded the university cut its ties with corrections.
“It’s time for the University of Washington to acknowledge its role in the prison industrial complex and realign its practices to put communities over profit,” the student group wrote in a letter, also signed by professors, union leaders and supporting student groups. “We demand that the University of Washington subsequently amends the Supplier Code of Conduct, banning the purchase of furniture from any company that utilizes the labor of incarcerated workers.”
UW president Ana Mari Cauce has said that although the university is not legally obligated to purchase from CI -- Washington’s correctional industry -- it is required to abide by state bid processes.
“At the time that we put out the purchase for bid, we received three responses. Our initial first choice, which was not CI, went out of business shortly after we accepted their bid, leaving us with only two choices,” Cauce wrote in a letter to students in October. “One was CI, the other was a corporation in Southeast Asia that we believed did not comply with of our code and would not allow for review of the conditions of their factory. Consequently, we were left with only one bidder (CI) who could provide the furniture in time for students to move in.”
Cauce said she believes too many people are imprisoned and mass incarceration is a problem -- the U.S. imprisons more people per capita than any other nation. But she feels work in prison can be rehabilitative and does more good than harm.
“It is not clear to me that eliminating such programs entirely are the best option,” Cauce wrote in the letter. “An alternative approach might be to lobby for having incarcerated workers receive local, state or federal minimum wage.”
UW United Students Against Sweatshops started a petition last month to continue demanding change.
Howard said boycotting correctional industries products may not be immediately beneficial for inmates.
“If the outcome of a boycott is we just cut those jobs altogether and then we just warehouse people even more than we do, then that’s not a good outcome,” Howard said. A boycott specifically to pressure corrections officials to raise wages could be more beneficial, he said.
“What we’ve done in this country for decades of dehumanizing people has been an utter failure for everyone,” Howard said. “Understanding [inmates'] humanity and recognizing and supporting people is really the main part of the solution.”
The University of Virginia, George Mason University and the University of Wisconsin did not respond to requests for comment for this article.