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Opinion: The Washington state education system’s dark ties with the prison industrial complex

Angela Davis once said, “Mass imprisonment generates profits as it devours social wealth, and thus it tends to reproduce the very conditions that lead people to prison.” 

It is often ignored that the very constitutional amendment which supposedly abolished slavery gave birth to a new form of it: prison labor. Public and private-run prison systems across the nation have a long history of exploiting incarcerated people as unpaid or cheap labor. Incarcerated people are coerced into working under threats of isolation, violence, and increased jail time

From the production of cleaning supplies to food, prison labor has its hands in countless industries across the United States. Prisoners in California are even on the frontlines fighting wildfires, risking their lives and long-term health for just a few dollars an hour.

Because of this low-cost labor, prison-produced goods tend to cost substantially less than their competitors. The United States has, by far, the highest population of prisoners per capita of any country in the world; other so-called “first world” countries don’t even crack the top 30 list. 

One has to wonder if the legality of prison slavery is in any way tied to our shocking incarceration rates. In 2018 it was estimated that the American Prison System (APS) generated over $74 billion, a figure that eclipses the GDP of 133 nations. In 2017, CoreCivic and GEO Group, two of the largest U.S. prison-operating companies that exploit incarcerated workers, reported profits of more than $4 billion

Despite these astronomical profits, prisoners nationally are paid an average of 63 cents per hour for their work. In some states, they aren’t paid at all. 

In Washington, there is a state-run organization that utilizes cheap labor from incarcerated people for sales called Correctional Industries (CI). CI supplies furniture and cleaning supplies to the state, among other things. Workers at the Stafford Creek Correctional Center, where CI produces some of its furniture, are paid an average of $0.65 to $1.75 an hour. Workers at its 12 other prisons earn similar “wages.” 

These wages are appalling. Even more so, Washington state statute RCW 72.09.130 installs “a system that clearly links an inmate’s behavior and participation in available education and work programs with the receipt or denial of earned early release days and other privileges.” If inmates choose not to work for these absurd exploitative wages, they could be forced to stay in prison longer. 

Washington state’s higher education system also has deep ties to Correctional Industries. The University of Washington has reportedly purchased more than $11 million of goods from CI over the course of 20 years. Washington State’s Department of Enterprise Services (DES) website shows purchases from CI by practically every community college in the state, including Walla Walla, Shoreline, Highline, Tacoma, and Big Bend. 

Nationally, there has been a large push by student organizations to pressure their universities to divest from prison labor. The University of Washington (UW) has seen protests repeatedly pop up over their massive investment in the prison industrial complex. 

According to The Daily, the university’s student-run paper, the UW president has said they are required by state statute RCW 28A.335.190 to accept the most competitive offers on goods for projects costing more than $40,000. The university is also required by state statutes RCW 39.26.250 and RCW 39.26.251 to purchase goods from an inmate program of the Department of Correction if the bids made by CI are lower than the bids of private companies.  Of course, CI, which pays inmates less money than most minimum wage workers earn in China, can routinely lowball all other competitors. 

At Seattle Central College, the process doesn’t seem any simpler. Seattle College’s purchasing department disclosed that the Seattle Colleges have spent over $500,000 on goods from CI since 2011. The college school district is governed by different statutes than the University of Washington or other universities in the state. One such statute, RCW 43.19.450, gives purchasing power to the DES on public works projects that cost more than $50,000. According to Seattle Colleges’ purchasing department, this means that the DES, not the Seattle Colleges, approves many of these big-ticket items. 

This statute seems to impact all of the state community colleges. Community colleges are a place for many students, but they are also primarily working class institutions geared toward underserved communities. Those same communities are often the ones ravaged by the prison industrial complex and systemic oppression. Students from these communities spend thousands of dollars investing in their futures, and in turn, their money is used to exploit the less fortunate members of their own community. 

This system creates a cyclical type of violence — a hand up for one person and a boot in the face of another. 

The Seattle Colleges emphasized to the Seattle Collegian that they didn’t choose how this money was spent. 

Seattle Central’s current official “Campus Master Plan” shows plans for new student housing and a new student services building on campus. According to the college’s purchasing department, any new construction would be governed by the same statutes that give purchasing power to DES. This means another huge investment in the prison industry could be coming that students and administrators alike get very little say in. 

Far from saving us money, a 2014 Seattle Times article revealed that CI cost taxpayers $20 million over the course of seven years. This means that in addition to the moral problem of investing in slavery, the exploitation that’s occurring isn’t even financially beneficial to the community. 

The twisted reality of DES, a state-run organization, taking public community colleges’ money to buy products from CI, which operates at the expense of the taxpayers, is almost too much to parse. Adding the complexities of the University of Washington’s position, it seems difficult to place blame at the feet of the administration. 

Still, I can’t help but feel disappointed once more in the people who are supposed to be leading us. I am disappointed in the state for allowing the barbaric practice of prison slavery to continue, and in the colleges and universities across the state who look the other way while millions of dollars are spent on the exploitation of incarcerated people. I can’t help but feel disappointed in an administration that simply wants us to accept that “rules are rules” and that nothing can be done. 

Protests have been happening across this country for years with millions of students pushing for a more equitable world. From demonstrations in favor of disarming campus police and divesting from prisons, to creating greener campuses and more equitable financial aid processes, students have endlessly pushed colleges to do better.

Universities and colleges across the nation lag behind their students, morally and politically. It’s time that students and administrators alike push back against the oppression happening in our state. Incarcerated people deserve fair and equitable wages at the absolute least. 

It’s time for the Washington State higher education system and K-12 schools alike to divest from Correctional Industries, and it’s past time the state ended the exploitative practice of prison labor altogether. 

One Comment

  1. Jordan Somers Friday, November 12, 2021

    Such a disturbing, yet beautifully written piece. I’m well aware of the implications of the prison industrial complex, but this read has taken my understanding to a whole new level. It’s such an upsetting reality, where the government works to subtly entangle of these facets of life presented to us as necessary components to living, yet ravages our communities from the inside out, pitting us against one another in the process.

    Thank you for your words and for your energy spent on this piece. As a former staff member with the Collegian, I am grateful to see such impactful, meaningful and downright necessary work being done.

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