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  • Logan Delavan-Hoover

Prison Labor: A Pervasive Institution

I write this in my on-campus dorm room, where my furniture is provided by UMD. I sleep in a university-provided bed, keep my clothes in a university-provided dresser, and sit in a university-provided chair at my university-provided desk. At that desk, I read and write about the human cost of economic systems. Imagine my disgust when I found out that all the university-provided furniture in my room was created by prison labor.

Maryland Correctional Enterprises (MCE) is the agency in charge of labor in the state prison system. In its 2020 annual report, MCE listed the University System of Maryland as its third largest customer at $7 million worth of sales, which has been previously reported on by The Diamondback. The university system’s Director of Procurement sits on the board of MCE. MCE even displays its relationship with UMD in its product catalog. Students may recognize the second floor lounge of ESJ on page 4 of the catalog, some of their dorm furniture on pages 138-140, and some of their classroom furniture on pages 129-136. The catalog of University Loft, a partner of MCE, contains every item of furniture in my dorm on pages 3 and 15.

However, UMD’s association with this abusive system is not voluntary. Under state law, UMD and other state agencies are required to buy from MCE rather than any other source, whenever possible. But UMD isn’t necessarily an innocent middleman in this situation. As the largest recipient of state higher education funds, the University System of Maryland has a powerful pulpit to push for policy change. The administration has the option to announce that it would prefer to divest from prison labor, to push for exemptions from the law, or even to refuse to comply outright. But in order to fully understand the reasons to divest, let us first examine the history of prison labor.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the practice of convict leasing quickly emerged as a substitution for slavery. Recently freed slaves would be given long prison sentences for minor offenses, then leased out as unpaid laborers across the South. In some cases, the plantation system was all but recreated exactly on the basis of prison labor. Convict leasing often had higher death rates than slavery, since the plantation owners now had no incentive to ensure that their laborers survived. As a result, annual convict death rates could be as high as 25%, rivaling the Soviet gulags for sheer brutality. The system of leasing for private labor was incrementally replaced by state-run labor for the profit of the state governments. This system is allowed under the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery “except as punishment for a crime.”

The human rights violations in the prison labor system are a stain on the nation. In June 2022, the University of Chicago and the ACLU released a joint report on the state of human rights among incarcerated workers. They found that 70% of incarcerated workers had received no job training, with hundreds of injuries reported, including amputations, and 64% of workers worried about their safety during prison work. This work is not voluntary either, with 76% of incarcerated workers reporting being forced to work or facing punishment for not working. Some prisons punish those who refuse to work with solitary confinement or keeping them from seeing their families. Whipping was a standard punishment for refusal to work in Arkansas until 1967. Since they can legally be forced to work, prisoners have no workers’ rights even when they are being paid.

The conditions under which prisoners are forced to work are not made better by their wages. Prisoners are paid, on average, between 13 and 52 cents an hour depending on their state, and are still paid nothing in seven states. Even with wages of a few dollars a day at maximum, states then often deduct over half of the wages for room and board, taxes, fines, and other fees. They are then charged exorbitant prices for basic goods and services such as soap, medication, and calls to family, which 70% of prisoners said they could not afford on their wages. Rather than reducing recidivism by allowing prisoners to save some money to live on upon release, these wages are quickly snatched back in their entirety, while these prisoners produce $11 billion in value a year.

The effects of prison labor extend far beyond the prison’s walls, touching every person in the country. First, the practice drives down wages, by lowering the floor for cost of labor in some jobs far below minimum wage. Second, as has been well documented elsewhere, prison labor creates perverse incentives to expand mass incarceration to meet the demand for cheap forced labor. Third, a portion of this labor obscures the true cost of mass incarceration by subsidizing prison maintenance costs to avoid accountability to taxpayers.

In Maryland, and across the country, there persists an institutionalized system of forced labor for little to no pay that disproportionately exploits African-American citizens and originated as a replacement for slavery. This same system produces much of the furniture in dorms and classrooms on the University of Maryland campus and around the country. Though the University of Maryland administration can be obstinate, they have shown a willingness to listen to student demands when they are loud enough. May they be loud enough.


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