For all of the University’s proclaimed progressivism, an antiquated ball and chain remain in plain sight for those who look carefully. Virginia law requires that all public universities buy many items, notably furniture, from Virginia Correctional Enterprises, a company that exploits prison labor to manufacture its products. While prison labor can provide important skills and training for prisoners, the current prison labor system is in dire need of reform to prevent the exploitation of prisoners. Changing how prison work is defined in Virginia law is needed to ensure basic human rights for incarcerated people — the University cannot truly embody its own progressivism until the law is changed.
Prison work programs are not an inherently bad idea — these programs provide valuable skills and work experience for inmates that can aid in the search for employment after they leave prison. Regardless of theoretical benefits, in its current form, the prison labor system is hugely exploitative. Consider that Virginia’s 1,300 prison laborers employed by Virginia Correctional Enterprises are only paid between $0.55 and $0.80 per hour, after about 80 percent of their pay is garnished for supplied goods like housing and food. Prisoners are then forced to thinly spread this meager wage across necessities like toiletries, savings and child support.
This exploitative system is allowed to continue because Virginia law does not technically consider prison labor to be employment — rather, it inhabits a sort of legal gray area between employment and slavery. The 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlaws slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” This means that prison workers can legally be forced to work without pay. In Virginia, however, they are paid wages, albeit excruciatingly low wages. In this way, the status of Virginia’s prison workers is legally ambiguous since they are not enslaved but they are also not entitled to all the protections of employment laws.
Through this abuse of incarcerated workers permitted by the 13th amendment, prison labor companies are able to avoid paying normal taxes and are able to maneuver past workers’ rights. Companies that use prison labor are primarily able to charge lower prices on products due to the Prison Industry Enhancement program, which exempts prison labor companies from paying certain taxes. PIE also enables the companies to deduct additional costs from incarcerated people, hacking away at the already small amount of wages given to incarcerated workers. On top of all of this, the failure to label prison labor companies as “employers” allows these organizations to cut corners that traditional companies cannot, like providing safe working conditions. These companies “double dip” into both taxpayer dollars and prisoner wages with little regulation in order to boost their profits. As Lin-Manuel Miranda said in the musical Hamilton, “Your debts are paid [because] you don’t pay for labor.”
The government is more than just complicit in this exploitative and profit-driven endeavor, in part, because it has effectively legalized the prison labor system. Prison labor companies must bid to receive contracts with the government to sell goods to other institutions, including universities like our own. Given the prisons’ low-cost products, they regularly outbid their competitors. The University is even required by law to buy from companies that use prison labor, but in doing so, it also saves quite a bit of money because these companies keep their prices low by exploiting prisoners. Thus, the government not only legalizes prison labor abuse, but also creates incentives for prison labor abuses. There must be a change in the legal system before the University can effectively divest from the prison labor system.
However, legal reforms will not be easy. Attempts to reform this system of abuse have drawn criticism from some Virginia legislators. Proponents of the current system argue that Virginia’s low recidivism rates — the lowest in the country — are a result of prison labor and compensate for the low pay. Yet, in reality the data relating low recidivism and prison labor is more correlational than causational — we can’t be sure if the work programs create an environment where former inmates are able to readjust to society and avoid reincarceration, or if inmates that already had a low chance of recidivism are chosen for such work programs. What we do know is that low recidivism rates are directly related to adequate pay.
Proponents of the current prison labor enterprise also argue that this system allows inmates to acquire important skills for their future. While this is undoubtedly true, it must be noted that the future ability to gain employment does not in any way permit or justify exploitation in the present. In short, despite the theoretical benefits of prison labor — of which there are many — the current system is one that places profits above all else and drives prison labor companies to inexcusably and inhumanely exploit prisoners. This is unacceptable and must be changed.
Those who advocate to continue this system of exploitation are invested in short-sighted thinking. In reality, people can actually focus on acquiring skills when they are adequately paid for their labor. If the Virginia Department of Corrections truly cared about the well being of prisoners, they would prioritize the education programs, parole reform and licensing/certification that they already offer. Barring that, however, the best solutions must be imposed at a statewide level. Simply advocating for the University to avoid buying from prison labor companies is harmful to prisoners who rely on the meager pay and work training provided by these entities. Additionally, calling on universities to stop engaging with statewide policies, which mandate these purchases, is not the answer.
The most tenable solution is to change how prison labor is defined in Virginia law, officially categorizing companies like VCE as employers and imprisoned work as employment, and granting incarcerated people the same rights as any other worker in Virginia. Until this happens, the University community will continue to be complicit in the exploitation of prison workers. None of us should be comfortable with this. Prisoners are already paying their debt to society, and their exploitation in the name of profit needs to end.
Paul Kurtzweil is an opinion columnist who writes about economics, business and housing for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.