Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

‘A greater systemic problem’

How students are working to address prison labor at their universities

A protest in Miami after the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. Photo: Mike Shaheen, Flickr

Across the South, students are pressuring universities to address entrenched racial inequities.

This is the last in a four-part series, published in collaboration with The Marjorie

By Hannah O. Brown, Becca Burton, and Lyndsey Gilpin 

This summer, at the height of protests against police brutality and systemic racism, University of Georgia third-year students Ciera Thomas, Sydney Phillips, and Sabina Ashurova saw an opportunity to pressure their school on its use of prison labor at the Vidalia Onion and Vegetable Research Center, which is run by UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES) and uses incarcerated workers at its farm operations. 

The students learned of the issue from Josh Howe, a former colleague of theirs in student government, who went on a spring break trip organized by the university in March. One of the stops on the tour was the research center. “They had taken students to a civil rights museum, but then at the same time took them to the [center], where human rights violations and civil rights violations are occurring,” Phillips said

Thomas and Phillips had experience running student campaigns: They recently pushed UGA to institute a mask mandate and a pass-fail system during the COVID-19 pandemic. To address the research center issue, they reached out to organizers in the greater Athens-Clarke County community who had pressured the county to end its use of prison labor in the past. They started a social media campaign and drafted emails to university administrators that, according to Thomas, around 350 students sent, demanding that the university find alternative labor sources for its research facilities. 

About a month later, the student newspaper The Red & Black reported that CAES said it would transition out of its partnership with the state to use prison labor. “We are respectful of the opinions of some of our students and have decided to investigate alternative sources of labor. Although this will be more costly to the University of Georgia, we think it is for the best,” Laura Perry Johnson, CAES associate dean for extension, told the paper.

Students at other universities are also demanding they address racial inequities. Louisiana State University students spent the summer pushing the university to rename campus buildings named after Confederate leaders, slave owners, and segregationists. Abigail Smithson and other alumni put together a petition demanding that the university compensate unpaid incarcerated workers at the state minimum wage of $7.25. 

“There’s an issue with bringing in incarcerated labor that is majority African American to clean up after situations where it’s a majority white group of people that are causing this mayhem and mess,” Smithson said, referring to LSU’s practice of using incarcerated work crews to clean up campus after football games. “I don’t want to speak on behalf of them or say what would be best for them. But I do think that everyone needs to be paid the minimum wage.”

LSU media relations director Ernie Ballard said that the university has not used prison labor since February due to COVID-19, and the university is “discussing what to do post-COVID.” 

At the University of Florida, activist Salil Bavdekar used his connections across the university to urge administrators to end the use of prison labor programs at the school. “As soon as one person is ready to be released, like clockwork the next day, there’s someone there to replace them,” said Bavdekar, organizer with the Coalition to Abolish Prison Slavery (CAPS) at UF. “It’s basically because the prisons make money out of this. They have an incentive to keep people incarcerated.”

Some university officials have raised concerns about how decisions to end these work programs will affect incarcerated people, and how they will replace the labor. 

Incarcerated people are planting at UGA’s farm this fall, said Mark McCann, assistant dean for extension at UGA. While they’re transitioning away from using prison labor, he added, there is no clear path forward. 

For one, he doesn’t have the budget to hire a dozen employees to replace incarcerated workers. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to layoffs, furloughs, and contract nonrenewals in 224 universities and colleges across the U.S., according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. More than 50,000 academic employees have been affected by the cuts. The University of Texas at San Antonio, for example, has laid off at least 312 workers since March. The University of Alabama has furloughed 325. 

Universities also expect to see decreases in state funding this year, and perhaps for many years to come, due to a 3% average revenue decline during the 2020 fiscal year, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.   

Because of the institutional and budgetary challenges universities face as they contemplate shifting away from prison and jail labor — and because prison labor practices are deeply entrenched in Southern institutions — it will be a long process to untangle them. Agricultural programs are just one piece. To address it, experts say there needs to be more data available detailing how the programs are run and more regulations at the state and federal level, as well as more effective educational and transitional programs.

“Greater scrutiny is a really important first step,” said Stian Rice, a food systems geographer and professor at the University of Maryland who studies agricultural labor in prisons. “Getting institutions to be transparent about hiring practices is one way into the otherwise black hole of prison industries.” 

President Michael Martin of Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) insists that the incarcerated people who work on the public university’s campus in Fort Myers are a part of the campus community and key to keeping tuition costs low for students.

“They were here from the beginning,” said Martin, referring to the 1997 prison labor crew who helped clear a portion of the campus’ 800 acres. “They were part of the crew that helped carve out the campus from this piece of property.”

When Martin first became FGCU president in 2017, he said several faculty members approached him about tensions surrounding the university’s use of prison labor to clear trails and remove invasive plant species from the campus grounds. They urged him to end the program with the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC), which brings incarcerated people from a minimal security facility north of Fort Myers. 

But none of them had spoken to workers yet. “They were very adamant that this was going to be my Great Leap Forward,” Martin said. “So I said, well, let me look into it, and that’s when I took the time to talk to those inmates.” 

Labor from incarcerated people was used to clear a portion of the 800 acres that make up Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. Photo by Brett Levin, Wikimedia Commons

When Martin talked to incarcerated people in the program in 2017, he said they seemed to appreciate the opportunity to be outside of a jail cell and some were proud of the work they were doing. They also told him they were fed better lunches while on the job. 

“I think they enjoy the experience of being here because it’s a lovely place to be, and I think they take a certain amount of pride in leaving behind something that is meaningful rather than sitting around doing nothing,” he said. 

At FGCU, it wouldn’t be as easy to stop the use of prison labor, Martin said. University finances primarily come from two sources: tuition and state funds. “For us, we are not a huge research institution like UF, which generates hundreds of thousands of research overhead from research projects, which gives them a little more latitude to spend money,” Martin said. Because of that, he said the university works “very hard at being efficient.” 

The program is currently on hold due to COVID-19. If it is reinstated after the pandemic, Martin said he hopes to expand it — not end it. He said he wants to integrate incarcerated workers into the campus community even more, offering them lessons on local ecology as well as the history of the campus. 

“We may need to think a little proactively about making it more than just a day out in the environment, but a day out in the environment with a little more topspin on it,” Martin said. “Because who knows, we may change someone’s life in a different way.”

Research shows that education increases the likelihood of post-release employment and decreases recidivism: A 2019 Vera Institute of Justice and Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality report found that employment rates for formerly incarcerated people increase by nearly 10% on average after they participate in a college program — and their combined wages would rise by about $45.3 million during their first year back in their communities. 

But many states in the South offer few college course programs, according to the Florida Prison Education Project at the University of Central Florida. The result is a growing population of people who can’t find post-release employment. As of 2018, formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate of over 27% — higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Nationwide, over two-thirds of incarcerated people now have a high school diploma or GED equivalent. Only 6% have a secondary degree and most have limited workforce experience. In Florida, more than a third of incarcerated people read below a sixth grade level, according to a 2019 story by the Daytona Beach News-Journal. Out of the FDC 2018-2019 budget of $2.5 billion, 2% was allocated for education.

According to a USA Today investigation, the number of incarcerated people receiving GEDs in Florida has decreased significantly over the past decade. In 2012, nearly 3,000 GEDs were awarded to incarcerated people in Florida’s correctional institutions. By 2018, the number had fallen to just over 1,100 — in part because FDC emphasized vocational programs. But many of the certificates awarded for those trainings were deemed “effectively useless” by USA Today, who found incarcerated people had trouble finding jobs in their trades upon release. 

In addition to improving educational programs — which would fall on state and federal governments —  companies and universities are responsible for assessing their use of prison labor programs, especially ones that do not pay a fair wage or provide adequate and useful skills training. Mari Schwartzer, director of shareholder activism and engagement for NorthStar Asset Management Inc., works with publicly traded companies on weeding out prison labor in their supply chains, and said that “progress has been slow.” 

“A lot of the work is getting companies to acknowledge they should be doing this research and that they are responsible for understanding this aspect of their supply chain for domestic U.S. prison labor,” she said.

Criminal justice experts recommended reforms such as job matching programs for incarcerated people after their release, oversight to ensure people are trained for those positions, and criminal record expungement. Some services are national: The Center for Employment Opportunity operates in 11 states to provide job training, job placement, and retention services to formerly incarcerated people as they transition out of prison. The organization operates what it calls paid “transitional work crews,” to provide maintenance service to customers around the U.S. 

Others are local: In New Orleans, The First 72+ provides services to people recently released from prison and jail, and works closely with a small business incubator for formerly incarcerated people that allows them to “bypass discrimination by employers.”

“But of course, this is all under the cloud of the fact that criminal legal system has so many issues to begin with: overly incarcerated, sentences harsher than they should be — so even here internally at our firm, we have had evolving conversations about the role companies can or should play if they discover prison labor in their supply chain,” Schwartzer said. “We open a dialogue with companies to find a way to make tangible change, but also keeping in mind this greater systemic problem that is out there.” 

Already, students at UF are moving on to address other uses of prison labor by the university. CAPS at UF now plans to turn its focus to the university’s food provider Aramark, which has contracts with more than 600 prisons. “Today we take a moment to celebrate, then we are quickly back to work,” they wrote on Facebook

Disclaimer: Hannah O. Brown and Becca Burton are employed by the University of Florida. Their contributions to this story were completed as private citizens and not as employees, agents or spokespeople of the university.

Carly Berlin and Anna Hamilton contributed reporting and editing.