Universities tout prison labor benefits, but data doesn’t back them up
Proponents of prison labor programs say they provide valuable job skills for post-incarceration life. But there is insufficient data to back up these claims from universities and correctional institutions.
This is the third in a four-part series, published in collaboration with The Marjorie.
By Hannah O. Brown, Becca Burton, and Lyndsey Gilpin
As part of his sentence for violating probation, Josh Jenkins runs the tractor at the Marion County Inmate Work Farm. A native of Ocala, Florida, running farm equipment and working with livestock are jobs he’s comfortable with.
“I am just a regular country boy,” said Jenkins during an interview set up by the Marion County Sheriff’s Office at the farm on a clear day in August. Jenkins had been working at the farm for about five months. On top of being an equipment operator, he helps tend to the farm’s pigs and 3,000 egg-laying hens.
The Marion County Inmate Work Farm is a 58-acre farm in Ocala where nonviolent offenders from the Marion County Jail can volunteer to work as part of their sentence. They are responsible for growing and harvesting crops, tending to livestock, and maintaining the farm.
Strawberries, sweet potatoes, sweet corn, and other agricultural products grown at the work farm are used to feed incarcerated people — fresh produce that’s a welcomed alternative to the bologna sandwiches they receive for lunch nearly every day.
For Jenkins, workdays in the Florida sun are a welcome respite from his jail cell. “I only spend the night in jail,” Jenkins said. “That’s really what the best part about it is. I get to come out here and be free, so to speak. Time goes by a lot faster.”
In the past, the Marion County Inmate Work Farm partnered with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) to supply labor needed at the IFAS Plant Science Research and Education Unit in Citra, located about 35 minutes north of the work farm. The jail is not under the jurisdiction of the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC), so contracts were between the sheriff’s office and the university.
Jenkins is one of about 100 incarcerated people who, at any given time, participated in the IFAS prison labor program through its various partnerships with correctional institutions around the state. On the day of The Marjorie’s visit to the Marion County Inmate Work Farm, the majority of his fellow laborers were white (Jenkins is white as well). The sheriff’s office said it does not track racial or other demographic data of program participants. Neither the university nor the sheriff’s office track the exact numbers of how many incarcerated people participate in the work program.
The Marjorie and Southerly spoke to multiple prison and university officials who touted the benefits of the work program. The sheriff’s office said the program instills important life skills like accountability, responsibility, and teamwork. “You see the pride in their work, you see their encouragement of each other,” said Sergeant Paul Bloom, director of the public information office for the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.
Historians, researchers, and experts The Marjorie and Southerly spoke to said there is a lack of research on the ways universities use prison labor, or how effective those programs are.
UF administrators say work programs provide training and preparation for post-incarceration work, but there’s little data or research readily available to back up that claim. Jeanna Mastrodicasa, associate vice president for operations at IFAS, said the university’s role in the partnership with the prisons was to simply “provide a safe, positive, and organized work environment.”
The process of matching workers to its research farms was the responsibility of FDC and other correctional institutions they partnered with, and IFAS “did not maintain inmate rosters nor have access to employment outcomes or recidivism rates,” Mastrodicasa said. At the time of publication, FDC did not provide data on employment and recidivism outcomes.
Stories of incarcerated people finding employment after they leave the farm do sometimes make their way back to the guards at the Marion County Jail, but the work farm has no formalized way of keeping track of whether they are successfully employed or not.
In 2015, three researchers working in the agricultural industry published a study about the Marion County Inmate Work Farm in the Journal of Correctional Education, a publication of the professional organization Correctional Education Association.The researchers interviewed 16 people who were willing to talk, and said all but one reported having a positive experience overall.
The incarcerated people they interviewed reported a sense of autonomy, a positive learning environment and, as one person said, “something to look forward to each day.” Negatives of the program included the difficult and monotonous work, feeling undercompensated for their labor, and being served poor quality food while on the job.
Jenkins said he thinks critiques of the program as exploitative and inhumane are unfounded. “You don’t have to be here, you know what I mean?” he said. “The way I see it is everybody that I’ve worked with out here previously, they all liked their job. They all wanted to be here. You got a choice to make. You can sit in there and do nothing, or you can come out here and work. Now it was hard work, but it’s what we signed up for.”
When he was sentenced to jail in 2018 and started the work program, Jenkins was bussed to the farm in Citra each weekday to work at the IFAS center, which researches turfgrass in addition to crops like watermelon and wheat. One of the careers he’s interested in pursuing is turf management; he said he learned how to maintain golf courses and run equipment.
“I had some bad choices in the past, and these things are opening my mind back up to what I should be doing, working every day,” he said. “They’ll have me back comfortable working again when I get out.”
This year, Southern public universities including the University of Georgia and Louisiana State University are also facing a public reckoning over prison labor programs that help power their operations.
The Vidalia Onion and Vegetable Research Center, a facility operated by the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES), has used incarcerated workers ever since it launched in 1999, said Mark McCann, assistant dean for extension at UGA.
Before UGA established the center, the Georgia Forestry Commission owned the property and incarcerated people from nearby Rogers State Prison farmed the land. The prison itself still has a large agricultural complex, including a dairy and a canning plant. The center typically has up to 12 incarcerated people from Rogers at a time working the fields in what McCann described as a voluntary — but unpaid — program.
McCann said he typically sees a steady group of workers without much turnover. Staff from the state Department of Corrections told him that working at the center is a “badge of honor” for incarcerated people and is seen as a plus when someone is up for parole. When asked about post-incarceration employment of the workers, however, Georgia Department of Corrections spokesperson Lori Benoit said “GDC does not track this data.”
“None of them come as onion farmers,” McCann said, so they learn on the job. The program teaches personal safety practices around chemicals and pesticides — although McCann emphasized incarcerated people don’t apply these themselves — as well as how to operate farm equipment. McCann said that sometimes incarcerated people ask for a job reference from the center after they’re released.
While some incarcerated people go on to work in agriculture, McCann acknowledged that the line of work isn’t of interest to everyone — a criticism that criminal justice experts and opponents of farm labor programs also expressed. “If the inmate’s from Atlanta, then living in the rural countryside might not appeal to them,” McCann said.“Not everybody wants to live in a farming community.”
But the connection between public universities’ agricultural programs and prisons or jails is relatively common. For instance, in July, Tennessee State University and the state Department of Corrections signed an agreement to grow hay on prison land that will be used to feed livestock for the school’s agricultural sciences program. The agreement is expected to save the university more than $50,000.
Farm work is only one use of prison labor by universities. There are many ways they benefit — especially when it comes to supplies they purchase — and that relationship is often embedded in state laws: Virginia requires all universities that receive state funding to purchase equipment like dorm furniture and desks from Virginia Correctional Enterprises, a self-funded state agency that operates prison labor programs. Alabama Correctional Enterprises makes dorm furniture that state universities can purchase. Texas purchased $383,874 in merchandise from Texas Correctional Industries in 2019; some state universities, including the University of Texas Medical Branch, Texas A&M, and the University of Texas, Austin bought thousands or tens of thousands of dollars worth of products made by incarcerated people.
LSU has used prison labor for decades. Robert Mann, LSU professor of media and public affairs, said he saw prisoners in green jumpsuits spreading mulch and pulling weeds around the journalism building where he works. In the past, on Sunday mornings in the fall, dozens of prisoners also cleaned up trash across campus after football games.
“The few people who were driving through the LSU campus at 7:30 on a Sunday morning might know about it,” Mann said. “But most people probably are just blissfully unaware that this goes on.”
LSU media relations director Ernie Ballard said that the university has “not utilized any prison labor since February when the state halted the program due to COVID concerns,” and that they are “discussing what to do post-COVID but don’t have an answer on that at the moment.”
In 2018, NorthStar Asset Management Inc., an investment firm in Boston, released a report that found “prison labor is pervasive … but the extent to which that labor is used to supply American corporations with goods and services is shrouded in secrecy.” The research was led by Mari Schwartzer, director of shareholder activism and engagement. The firm focuses more on companies, not state agencies, but Schwartzer said the report’s conclusions are applicable to state agencies as well.
Work needs to be voluntary, Schwartzer said — “with the caveat that, by its nature, being in prison and being offered work is a coercive experience.” Incarcerated people need to earn wages “similar to someone in that field in that area who is not incarcerated would be making,” and should have a “bare minimum of humane working conditions.”
Kevin Scott, a formerly incarcerated person who now advocates for criminal justice reform in Florida, said that there’s a long way to go until programs achieve those bare minimums. The little money incarcerated people do receive may go toward medical bills, or necessities like shampoo, deodorant, and phone calls, which have inflated prices.
“You’re in prison, suffering beyond description. You’re starving, you’re freezing, you’re burning. There’s black mold everywhere. Your clothes are filthy. You’re just living in squalor,” Scott said. “It [prison] is an endless campaign against your humanity.”
So, when asked if they want to join a crew working outside, he said, many people are likely to respond: “anything to not be in here.”
“That decision, if you have any decision at all, is made under duress,” he said.
While the University of Florida offered no formal certificates for its prison labor program, the Marion County Inmate Work Farm offers certificates in agricultural trades like crop farming. The certificates are intended to demonstrate skills they built while incarcerated and, hopefully, increase their chances of employment, Bloom said.
“This is a voluntary program. It’s not forced labor or anything terrible like that,” Bloom said. “It’s something to help with recidivism to keep them from returning through our front door into that jail. We don’t want that. When they leave out the back door, we want it to stay that way and not see them back here again.”
But the benefits of the program have yet to be proven, since the sheriff’s office doesn’t track specific data on recidivism and re-employment.
“We don’t know the ending of every story, if they got out, got a good job, turned their life around,” Bloom said. “But when we say, you know, we haven’t seen this person, they haven’t come back through the system, then we just assume that it helped.”
Carly Berlin and Anna Hamilton contributed reporting and editing.
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.