Has your town bought from Massachusetts’ prison-labor program?


Staff Writer 
Published: 9/10/2019 4:09:21 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When Amherst-Pelham Regional High School’s student newspaper, The Graphic, published an article in June about how the school district was using a prison labor program to upholster auditorium seats, few people in town knew about the $101,800 contract — and the revelation sparked controversy. The school district quickly vowed to not use Massachusetts Correctional Industries again after some residents aired their concerns.

Amherst is not the only community in Hampshire County that has relied on the program. A Gazette review found no contracts between cities or towns in Hampshire County and MassCor, though several municipalities have bought materials and products from the program. MassCor operates in seven state prisons and has 17 manufacturing shops, providing services such as upholstery and embroidery and selling products it manufactures including flags, furniture and signs. Proponents of prison labor programs say that they give incarcerated people vocational skills, while opponents take issue with the low wages paid to inmates.

Northampton has spent the most on the MassCor program, spending $27,540 since 2006 on items such as recycling bins for the city’s Department of Public Works.

Mayor David Narkewicz noted that the city has bought recycling and trash bins for downtown from MassCor and that he is supportive of the vocational training the program provides.

“I am a strong supporter of providing people in our corrections system with educational and vocational opportunities where they can attain skills and experience that can translate into stable employment when they are released,” Narkewicz wrote in an email to the Gazette. “Massachusetts Correctional Industries (MassCor) provides those training and work opportunities ... in my experience the products they manufacture are of high quality.”

Amherst has spent $2,573 over the last 20 years on items including town seals and decals, while South Hadley has spent $1,701 since 2014 on two park benches and wind-resistant nylon. This year, Hatfield spent $592 on signs and bike racks and was unable to search for other years without charging a fee. Easthampton has bought one item since 1990, envelopes this past February for $45.51.

Hadley officials got a $6,079.52 quote for custom furniture for the Select Board’s chamber in Town Hall, according to emails between David Nixon, the town administrator, and a MassCor representative. Financial constraints and other projects keeping the town busy prevented the purchase this year, Nixon told the Gazette.

Vocation or exploitation?

Incarcerated people opt into the program, and it is “100% voluntary,” said Jason Dobson, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Correction.

More than 500 people participate in MassCor, and compensation ranges between $.85 and 1.45 an hour. Around the country, in 2017, wages for inmates in state-owned businesses like MassCor averaged between $.33 and $1.41 per hour, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a research nonprofit based in Easthampton that focuses on mass incarceration and advocates for reform.

Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, said towns and cities should question purchasing items made by incarcerated people. “Prison jobs, theoretically, could train incarcerated people to get stable, in-demand jobs after they are released,” Bertram wrote in a statement to the Gazette. “They could also help incarcerated people afford life in prison, which some might be surprised to learn is actually full of bills and charges. But MassCor jobs don’t accomplish either of these goals, which means that towns should really reconsider what they are supporting by buying from the program.”

According to its website, MassCor’s mission is “Providing a rehabilitative skill set for offenders while also subsidizing offender incarceration costs and generating revenue.”

In 2017, the program’s revenue amounted to $18.26 million, according to Dobson. “This revenue is reinvested into the program,” he wrote in an email statement.

Dobson said that educational and vocational programs in prisons can reduce a person’s chance of ending up back in jail. MassCor gives participants “a positive work ethic, meaningful training, and useful skills for successful reentry while delivering a quality product at a competitive price with the highest level of customer service,” Dobson wrote.

Donald Perry, a Montague man who was incarcerated for more than 18 years in Massachusetts prisons, disagrees with Dobson.

“People are being exploited to do this kind of work,” Perry told the Gazette. “They’re not being reasonably compensated, first of all. It’s definitely not giving them a skill set to come out here and do a job … ”

Perry, 65, was convicted of armed robbery and went to prison in 1983. He served time in prisons in Walpole, Gardner and Norfolk and worked in the Walpole plate shop, which makes license plates, but said he wasn’t sure if it was a MassCor program.

Lois Ahrens, director of Northampton-based The Real Cost of Prisons Project, an organization that focuses on policy reform and alternatives to prisons, among other criminal justice issues, agrees the MassCor wages are unfair.

“They’re making a fraction of what people on the outside would be getting,” Ahrens said of the inmate-workers.

Speaking of MassCor customers and the products they’re buying, Ahrens added, “I think that people rationalize it. That it’s OK, that they’re doing a good thing by saving the money. But they don’t think about what it means in terms of the harm it’s causing.”

Perry said that the jobs, at best, “help people get through the monotony … It gives them somewhere to go and something to do,” he said.

He said that Criminal Offender Record Information — a criminal history system also known as CORI — can be a barrier for people seeking employment after leaving prison.

The most helpful program Perry had in prison, he said, was an educational one that allowed him to complete much of his work for a bachelor’s degree, which he later finished at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

MassCor said it does not keep information on what jobs participants go on to obtain after they are released.

“But anecdotally,” Dobson wrote, “MassCor staff have heard reports of former participants putting their skills to work professionally.”

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

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