It’s time for Maryland’s university system to divest from prison labor


The opinions expressed in the opinion columns are those of the author.

Many people believe that slavery ended in the United States with the passing of the 13th Amendment. Unfortunately, they are wrong.

The 13th Amendment states “[n]neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime the party of which has been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States. This loophole is disgusting, and the University of Maryland is not only complicit in it, but takes full advantage of it by purchasing goods made by prison workers who are paid literally to the dollar. As it stands, this university and the entire university system actively condones modern slavery and the exploitation of some of our state’s most vulnerable people.

Maryland’s university system must either disengage from prison labor or lead initiatives to recognize the work incarcerated people do as legitimate and pay them the wages they deserve.

In 2020, Maryland Correctional Enterprises—the prison labor profiteers who sell to our campus—released its annual report and detailed revenue streams and a portion of its workers’ salaries. MCE touted its annual sales figure of more than $52 million, the ninth-highest revenue stream for state corrections industry sales in the nation. The system alone accounted for nearly 13% of total sales at over $7 million. These purchases were most often in the form of university furniture – this university alone totaled $3.5 million in 2014 for furniture purchases – in addition to automotive labels and the printing and mailing of university publications. ‘State.

It should come as no surprise that the management board of the MCE is complete with the exception of three affiliations. Vacancies in the Maryland House of Delegates, Organized Labor-Private Sector and Organized Labor-Public Sector – vacancies that would specialize in workers’ rights and securing better compensation for the exploited.

As for the economy on the employee side, inmate salaries across MCE totaled $2.4 million in the report, just over 4% of its annual sale. In individual roles, shift or line leaders take the cake with the highest inmate pay at a lavish $0.39 an hour maximum for a four or five day workweek, and it’ is at the higher end of the profession. Inmate attendants, security inspectors, craftsmen and quality control officers top out at $0.36 an hour. Laundry and recycling workers earn $1.31 a day. The goods this university uses come from the blood, sweat and tears of those who are paid $0.36 an hour, or about 2.9% of Maryland’s minimum hourly wage.

For reference, the World Bank’s threshold for extreme poverty in the world is less than $1.90 a day.

Tangentially, it would still be in the interests of all competing manufacturing employees who are not incarcerated to support increased wages and the dignity of inmates to avoid undermining each other in a race to the bottom for wages. which do not materially help anyone.

Putting us consumers a few degrees apart from prison workers, we might never know that the furniture we’re sitting on at the McKeldin Library was built by people earning no more than $1.25 from the time. However, it is not incumbent on us to do everything possible to avoid McKeldin or the university facilities as a whole or any other individualistically oriented solution that deflects blame from wholesale buyers of this furniture. The university system as a whole needs a complete policy overhaul.

A particularly pernicious obstacle to reform is the legal requirement that the system be legally bound to first purchase goods from MCE before seeking other suppliers. This is an appalling norm that exists in most states, associating public universities with the persistent systemic racism caused by this country’s unjust legal and corrections system. It is hypocritical for this university and the entire university system to consider themselves anti-racist institutions when nearly 70% of the prison population in this state is black. While the racial breakdown of prison workers in this state is unclear, it’s clear the system doesn’t care as long as the products they buy are cheap.

If the university system really wanted to end this unjust practice, it has the political and economic power to do so. But until he decides to abolish or reconfigure his current contracts with MCE, he continues to profit from incarcerated individuals.

They are our fellow Marylanders, and whether we like what they did or not doesn’t mean their humanity can ever be lost. After all, once we decide that basic and universal rights and dignity can be taken away from someone, they cease to be universal. Incarceration is no excuse for dehumanization.

It’s easy to say the right things, but it’s more important to put your money where your mouth is. Denying the existence of the exploitation of real Marylanders for cheap chairs instead of addressing the problem does not help and does not match the message that this university preaches. Maryland’s university system must step up its ideals and get rid of contemporary slavery.

Rohin Mishra is a freshman government and economics major. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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