Prison labor at Amherst High? Student journalists reveal corrections contract

  • Amherst-Pelham Regional High School senior Spencer Cliche sits in his journalism classroom after school. STAFF PHOTO/GRETA JOCHEM

Staff Writer
Published: 6/5/2019 5:53:13 PM

AMHERST — This past winter, a senior at Amherst-Pelham Regional High School heard a rumor: The district was using prison labor to reupholster seats in the school auditorium.

“I was shocked,” said that student, Spencer Cliche, who graduates this week and is soon headed to Vassar College, speaking after school in an empty classroom. “I didn’t know as much about the issue — except I sort of did know about (how) prison labor is the new Jim Crow … It just seemed sketchy to me, kind of an odd choice for the school.”

At the time, Cliche was taking a high school journalism class with English teacher Sara Barber-Just, and they felt it was worth looking into for a potential story in the school newspaper, The Graphic, which is staffed by journalism students. While Cliche took the lead in reporting, he was aided by student editors as well as Barber-Just and two University of Massachusetts journalism professors, Kathy Roberts Forde and Razvan Sibii. And after some preliminary digging, the team discovered that the rumor was, in fact, true.

In March, the school district signed a contract with Massachusetts Correctional Industries, a program that provides work training and experience to inmates. Cliche, with help from the team, wrote an investigative piece about the services agreement with MassCor that was published in The Graphic online Monday and in print Tuesday.

For over a month, Cliche and his team researched the agreement, interviewed school administrators, talked to representatives from MassCor and spoke with legal and labor experts to fill out their report. They shared their notes and drafts with the consulting UMass journalism professors and revised the story multiple times.

The special report, titled “Reupholstering behind bars: prisoners repair auditorium chairs,” examines how the agreement came to be and captures different viewpoints around the issue of prison labor: Supporters say it provides job training to inmates, while critics take issue with the low wages that are paid and what they say is the exploitative nature of the work.

Some of that work was scheduled for this past April at the high school and middle school, according to the contract signed between the district and the Massachusetts Department of Correction, which The Graphic obtained for its article. More work is set to be done after school is out in June. Already, seats from the two schools were removed, with the reupholstering work being completed at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk, according to The Graphic. MCI-Norfolk,a prison for men, is the largest medium-security facility in the state.

Soon after the article was published online, readers shared their reactions on social media, said Barber-Just, adding that some were concerned.

On Tuesday, Superintendent Michael Morris emailed school families, saying that the district won’t use the vendor again.

“In the past few weeks, we have received concerns about MassCor, a vendor who completed a recent project to replace upholstery at the Middle School and High School,” he wrote. “In response to concerns expressed, the district will not utilize this vendor in the future.”

While Morris declined to answer questions from the Gazette about the project, he expanded on the district’s reasons for hiring MassCor to the student journalists in their article, saying that the state agency explained to the district that “this program benefits both incarcerated people and the municipality.”

But not everyone agrees. “Incarcerated people shouldn’t be forced to work for a dollar an hour and then be charged for basic hygiene products and medical care,” Aleks Kajstura, who lives in Sunderland and is the legal director of the think tank Prison Policy Initiative, said in the article.

She added that “schools should be funded enough so that using forced labor doesn’t start sounding like a reasonable choice to someone.”

The article “has generated a lot of public discussion,” said Sean Mangano, the district’s director of finance, in a statement emailed to the Gazette. He added that inmates opt into the program and are not forced to work in it.

“The rep from MassCor was very clear that no one is forced to participate,” he wrote.

When asked by the Gazette how much inmates are paid for their reupholstery work for the school district, a spokesperson for the state Department of Correction did not give a specific figure and wrote in an email that “offenders are compensated based on position, title and skill level.”

‘Nobody knew about this’

The Amherst-Pelham Regional School District is just one example of where incarcerated people do work in the area. Inmates from the Hampshire County Jail and House of Corrections, for example, can opt into cleaning up around Look Park, mowing the grass around the state police barracks in Northampton, or working inside the correctional facility in the kitchen or wood shop, where they are currently making cubbies for Riverside Industries clients. For all these jobs, they are paid 25 cents per hour and earn good time, said Tom Mitchell, a spokesman for the Hampshire County Sheriff’s Office.

And while prison labor isn’t a new concept, the agreement between the Amherst school district and the Department of Correction surprised a lot of people. Before The Graphic’s article came out, “Nobody knew about this,” Cliche said, “none of the teachers I spoke to.”

“Most of the responses from peers and my teachers,” he said, “they’re sort of horrified and shocked that this would happen, especially in Amherst which I feel is more socially aware of issues going on in the world.”

Writing a piece about the school administration was not easy, said Barber-Just. She said she usually sends out an email to all the staff after an issue of The Graphic is published. “This was the first time I felt nervous to send that email,” she told the Gazette.

But she sent it — and the piece is now out in the world, getting hundreds of page views at thegraphic.arps.org.

“It’s probably one of the best stories my students have written,” said Barber-Just, sitting in her classroom. 

“I have been teaching journalism for 21 years,” she said, “and my students have never embarked on an all-consuming three-month investigative project like this.”

The night before, she took to Facebook to celebrate the work of her students. “I’m so proud of my students, I want to cry,” she wrote. “Please don’t just ‘like’; read it! #real-deal #highschoolkidshaveit.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


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