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Saturday, June 19, 2021
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Although UW-Madison claims to hold progressive values, their complicity in the system of prison labor says otherwise.

Breaking backs, hopes for the future: How UW perpetuates prison labor

Students have long told UW-Madison that “it is not enough for the University of Wisconsin System to demonstrate optical allyship … by means of posting on social media, tokenizing students of color and providing resources for students and alumni to combat racism on an individual level.” Instead, they have called for the UW to make good on their promises and deconstruct the systems that “uphold racial inequalities.”

One such system that is a prime example and has come under fire recently — due to over-incarcerating minority communities on Marijuana charges, wrongfully locking innocent people up and executing innocent people — is the criminal justice system. 

In 2014, the UW System signed a contract with the Bureau of Correctional Enterprises — which is made up of Badger State Industries, Correctional Farms, Badger State Logistics and the Transition Program — saying that the System universities “must purchase” products from this corporation. This corporation is run on the backs of prisoners — prisoners who have been grossly exploited by their employers. Products range from room number and restroom signs to milk products for Babcock Hall ice cream.

An average BCE workday includes 440 workers, and each worker earns an average of 96 cents per hour during the 2019 fiscal year, according to BluGold Media. That means that each human being — who is being subjected to the horrors of being locked up and is likely to suffer from PTSD, lost job opportunities, broken social relationships and other harmful effects post-incarceration — is earning less than one dollar per hour. For a normal eight hour work day, they get less than $8 per day. 

The hypocrisy surrounding such policies is perhaps the most stunning facet of the debate. UW-Madison takes care in promoting egalitarian beliefs, as well as states that it tries to create an atmosphere of equality for all. Publicly acknowledging the faults in our current criminal justice system is surely important, but it is hollow and devoid of meaning when your actions do not reciprocate your professed beliefs. 

UW is directly benefiting from a system which abuses its prisoners and takes advantage of them for unpaid labor. If UW’s top-ranking officials have agreed that the Wisconsin Criminal Justice system unfairly targets minorities and doles extreme sentencing for lesser crimes, is UW not complicit in this system which uses prisoners effectively as slaves?

One has to question whether or not UW is as open minded as they profess. These prisoners who are building furniture are compelled to do so under state law, and the compensation they receive is next to nothing and essentially worthless. Why are state prisoners not included under the state’s Fair Labor Standard Act? Apparently, the belief is that once one enters into the prison system, they lose the rights that would traditionally have been guaranteed to them. 

In the end, working prisoners to the bone for no compensation, and then selling their product to schools and federal buildings is deeply immoral. It seems to be a modern day form of slavery or indentured servitude rather than a system which helps rehabilitate these prisoners and reintegrate them into society; however, these actions are completely legal under the current law. UW is having a serious crisis of character regarding this issue and it is questionable as to why they support progressive ideals within the community, yet benefit directly from what is essentially legal slavery.

So, what does UW need to do to remedy this? What can they do after years of using this type of labor to buy cheap furniture for their students to write, study, draw and read upon? For their students to get a higher education while they pushed incarcerated people further into the depths of economic depression? 

UW-Madison — and the greater UW System — must no longer buy prison-made furniture, or, in fact, any items made by prisoners that are paid below minimum wage, and they must not renew their contract which is set to expire in Dec., 2021. For a college to promote its “commitment to public service,” yet turn its back on the most vulnerable class in our society is backwards and untrue to the Wisconsin Idea. How can the university be lecturing Public Policy graduate students on how to create policies that will effectively rewrite the criminal justice system while making them take notes on the backs of prisoners? How does this demonstrate UW’s belief “that education should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom”?

How can we place our trust in this UW campus if they are not furthering social justice and fighting for the minimum wage for all, but instead exploiting it for their own economic benefit? 

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