Columnist Razvan Sibii: What’s a progressive community to do with prison labor?

Published: 10/31/2019 9:12:46 AM
Modified: 10/31/2019 9:12:34 AM

Early this year, in a meeting of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee, Finance Director Sean Mangano proposed that money be allocated for refurbishing the chairs in the middle and high school auditoriums.

The committee was receptive to the idea. “Not that you’re looking for cheers — but if you’re looking for cheers from the public, this would be one thing that would get cheers!” said Eric Nakajima, the committee’s chair.

Months later, the chairs got their facelift, but the cheers failed to materialize. While the reupholstered chairs may indeed have been appreciated by the community, the manner in which the renovation was performed was most definitely not.

The $101,800 contract went to MassCor, a state agency that sells the labor of incarcerated people. The committee members were accused of, at worst, sanctioning “slave labor,” and, at best, being insufficiently “woke.” To make matters worse, the contract only came to the attention of the public after a high school student, Spencer Cliche, wrote an article about it in the school paper, which then led to the story being covered by regional and national outlets, including The New York Times. (Disclosure: I was an informal adviser for the original story). The outpouring of outrage that followed led to Superintendent Michael Morris to announce that the schools will not contract with MassCor again.

Clearly, the shallow manner in which the school committee dealt with the issue was highly inadequate. But the swift public condemnation and the equally precipitated penance from the school officials belie the complexity of the issue. There is, in fact, no consensus within American progressive communities about the issue of prison labor.

On one hand, there’s widespread recognition that the American criminal justice system, including its incarceration component, is shot through with racism and classism. Additionally, the extremely low pay that incarcerated individuals earn for their work makes it difficult to characterize this labor system as anything other than exploitation.

On the other hand, progressives generally favor a “listen to the people” attitude, and incarcerated people aren’t always on board with boycott actions that might offer moral satisfaction to the already-comfortable members of the community but do not necessarily lead to positive outcomes for those behind bars.

“You have a lot of incarcerated people who tell us directly in their letters to us, and speaking with us, that having a job in prison is one of the more meaningful aspects of their daily lives in there,” says Eli Hager, the journalist whose article in The Marshall Project elevated the Amherst High School story to national prominence.

Sheriff Patrick Cahillane, whose Hampshire County Jail houses manufacturing operations but does not supply MassCor, shares that perspective. Giving the incarcerated individuals the chance to acquire skills “is more important than the pay,” he says. He’d be happy to see the men he guards earn a minimum wage for their labor, but “taxpayers do not want to put any more money into correctional systems.”

Ethical dilemmas are in the business of the lesser evil, and so whatever action you choose to take, your conscience will take a hit. Not doing anything, not having the debate, is still doing something: it is allowing the status quo to continue. Nakajima, the school committee chair, knows as much.

“I think this was a blown opportunity for the committee to think about how we think about and live our values as a school district,” he says.

Since the incident, his committee has changed the way it runs its meetings to give its members more time to “stop and think” about ethically complicated issues.

So do incarcerated people really want those jobs? No, not really, says Karen Smith, secretary of the Gainesville branch of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), who has recently mounted a successful campaign to convince local authorities to stop using prison labor.

“You’re going to sign up for anything that’s available when you’re in there. That is not a testament to skills gained or any positive influence of this work. That’s a testament to the desperation that exists on the inside... You’re not capable of making informed consent,” she says.

OK, but do these programs at least teach valuable skills? Maybe, says Smith, but most companies still avoid hiring formerly incarcerated people.

“Being a felon right off the bat is a barrier to so many jobs, especially the jobs that would be in line with the skills that they’re picking up,” she says.

The IWOC campaign in Florida pushed not just for an end to municipality-prison contracts, but also for the creation of 40 full-time, benefited jobs to take care of the town’s needs. The campaign was able to make that a reality, but failed to convince the town to prioritize the hiring of formerly incarcerated people in those jobs.

Superintendent Morris says he won’t deal with MassCor again. But what happens if the agency once again submits the lowest bid for a job? Won’t Amherst officials have to accept it? Nakajima says there’s a way that can be avoided: “What I heard was that the school district could set a minimum wage for vendors, and that would be a legal mechanism for precluding MassCor from being accepted.”

Whether the Amherst and Pelham communities would be on board with that we don’t know yet. Not until we have that public discussion.

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of Journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at razvan@umass.edu.



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