Wisconsin state statutes mandate UW-Madison and other tax-supported institutions purchase from a prison industry program that explicitly prioritizes profit over the rehabilitation of prisoners, while paying inmates a significantly lower wage than that paid in the private industry.
UW-Madison purchased $1,596,515 worth of prison-produced goods—largely furniture and signage—from Wisconsin’s prison industry program, Badger State Industries, during the 2015 fiscal year.
According to a Wisconsin state statute, a list of designated purchasing agencies, including UW-Madison and UW System schools, must “offer prison industries the opportunity to supply the materials, supplies, equipment or contractual services,” which the Department of Corrections lists periodically.
The Bureau of Correctional Enterprises, which BSI falls under, employs roughly 600 Wisconsin inmates. BSI operates in 11 correctional facilities, where inmates produce signage, desks, tables, seating and other office furniture that can be purchased by the state and any tax-supported institutions, according to the state statute.
No maximum or minimum wage has been established for inmates who work for BSI, but they typically earn roughly $1 an hour, according to a 2013 Wisconsin Watchdog article. Though this rate is higher than most other wages for inmates employed by prisons, it is still substantially lower than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and the average rate paid in the same private industries.
The statute explicitly ties inmates’ wages to the prison industries’ profits. It states that remaining profitable is a qualifier before inmates’ wages can be raised, saying "wages shall not be set at a rate such as to cause a deficit on operations."
In addition to a wage rate significantly lower than the rate paid in the private industry, the inmate workers are not directly given their entire earnings. BSI compensates employees by depositing credits to the inmates’ accounts.
The Department of Corrections can also withhold a substantial portion of the inmates’ earnings, and has the discretion to determine how much, if any, of the earnings can be spent and for what purposes.
The withholdings are used to pay for several fees, including taxes, costs associated with inmates’ convictions or court-ordered payments, which often leaves them with wages far lower than $1 an hour.
In 1993, five inmates from the Oshkosh Correctional Institution sued BSI over wage compensation. In the case George v. Badger State Industries, the judge ruled in favor of the defendant and justified the below-minimum-wage payment because the labor “is performed as part of a sentence of incarceration.”
Wisconsin state statute Chapter 303 specifies that “the primary goal of prison industries shall be to operate in a profitable manner.”
The same statute states that within this primary goal, inmates and residents shall be provided resources to help maintain employment following their release.
Campus activist group BlackOut is trying to figure out how to address BSI’s impact on UW System schools while working with university officials, according to one of the group’s leaders, UW-Madison senior Kenneth Cole.
“The goal of the prison-industrial complex is to be profitable, so basically we want to profit off of getting people in jail,” Cole said. “Sure you may have some programs set up to reduce recidivism, but you still have a stake having people in your prison system.”
Two of Wisconsin’s neighboring states, Illinois and Minnesota, also have state-established prison industries. But both emphasize rehabilitating prisoners first rather than operating in a profitable manner, which Wisconsin’s statute states as the primary goal.
Minnesota aims to provide suitable employment and educational training, while Illinois attempts to equip prisoners with marketable skills.
In a 2013 info sheet, BSI states that minimal profits assures funding for inmate re-entry programs. BSI also states that they are able to price their products competitively to save money for both taxpayers and customers.
In contrast to the state statute’s primary goal, the Wisconsin administrative code does not mention profits for prison industries. Instead of profit, the Wisconsin administrative code states that “the purposes of prison industries are to provide meaningful employment opportunities, to assist inmates in reintegration into their communities and to maintain self-supporting industries through the sale of products and services.”
Although the goal of the administrative code is to provide meaningful employment opportunities, no data is readily available for how much recidivism has dropped among BSI inmates. The last time a study was done on recidivism rates within BSI specifically was 1995, and it showed a lower rate of recidivism compared to the rest of the Wisconsin prison population.
UW-Madison Director of Community Relations Everett Mitchell said in a Jan. 29 memo to UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank that the BSI Transition Program has been a significant, though not well-publicized, partner to help inmates make a successful transition out of prison.
Of the roughly 22,000 prisoners who are incarcerated in Wisconsin, only the fewer than 600 inmates who work for BSI are eligible for the BSI Transition Program.
In a 2014 inmate profile, the Department of Corrections provided information detailing prison demographics. Of the 22,596 prisoners in Wisconsin, roughly 54 percent were white and 42 percent were black. However, there are substantial racial disparities in the prison population compared to the entire population of Wisconsin. According to 2014 estimates by the census, nearly 88 percent of Wisconsin is white, while under 7 percent of the population is black.
As racial disparities persist and contribute to a disproportionately large black prison population, they are still not the ones benefiting from the BSI Transition Program.
“The majority of those benefiting from the resources were white inmates, who were able to secure the job while incarcerated,” Mitchell said in the memo to Blank.
Wisconsin state statutes obligate UW-Madison to buy from BSI. In the 2015 fiscal year, UW-Madison purchased a total of nearly $1.6 million from the company. Despite BSI outlining a goal to reduce recidivism, Cole still objects to the university making purchases from it.
“The fact that we purchase over $1.5 million worth of goods from Badger State Industries is ridiculous,” Cole said. “It shows how much we actually don’t care about the issues that affect different communities. Of course we know that in Wisconsin, the prison-industrial complex over-incarcerates black males.”
UW System Associate Vice President for Communications Alex Hummel said the Board of Regents has not taken a specific stance other than complying with the state laws. UW-Madison Executive Director of University Communications John Lucas said that UW-Madison has no comment on the statute.
Director of Prison Industries Earl Fischer could not be reached for comment after multiple attempts to contact him.
UW-Madison has been purchasing furniture and other goods from Wisconsin’s prison industry for decades. The university’s current furniture contract has automatic renewals until Sept. 30, 2017, unless it is amended, cancelled or rebid.
“We are not actually helping people,” Cole said. “We’re making people's lives worse and we’re putting them in a perpetual cycle of the criminal justice system and turmoil.”