(Written by Anjali Bucci and Kristina Norgard)
It is a little known fact that much, if not all, of the furniture on campus at St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM), whether in a classroom or in a dorm room, is a product of prison labor. One need only to look under their chair or table in class, at the Daily Grind, or a multitude of other locations on campus to find a sticker that reads “Maryland Correctional Enterprises, Products & Services.” Maryland Correctional Enterprise (MCE) is a state-owned correctional industry whose workforce consists entirely of inmates in major state prisons. While it is quite literally written on much of the furniture, particularly more recent acquisitions, the ethical contention surrounding the origins of the furniture used every day remains unknown to much of the student body.
It is important to note that the decision to purchase furniture from MCE is not made by the college. “As a state agency, we are required by statute to look to MCE first for furniture procurement,” says Director of Facilities Planning, Maurice Schlesinger. According to the 2013 Maryland State Financial and Procurement Code §14-103 “The State or a State aided or controlled entity shall buy supplies and services from Maryland Correctional Enterprises […] if State Use Industries provides the supplies or services.”
A quick look at MCE’s website would have one leaving with the impression that they have their worker’s best interests at heart. “When a person is sent to prison, they can choose idleness – or they can choose productivity. They can choose to do nothing – or they can choose to do something. At MCE, we are that something,” states the literature available on their website. They claim that their program saves the state $24 million a year because inmates are not returning to prison after participating in the program. They also claim that the benefits to the program are community outreach, environmental sustainability, safety and more.
Additionally, their literature states that “previous studies comparing MCE inmates with the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) general population inmates suggest that MCE has a positive impact on reducing recidivism. In fact, studies across the nation continue to show that correctional industries have a positive effect on reducing states’ recidivism rates.”
However, Jeffrey L. Coleman, PhD, Professor of English at SMCM, remains “highly skeptical” of this statement as well as the other information available. “Everything on the site sounds great but I suspect there is a considerable amount of bias involved in the report.” He points out that “they never cite an official study or provide numbers for the prisoners who have either been rehabilitated and/or have been able to avoid a return to prison.” Coleman expressed his idea of what is probably going on at MCE. “My guess is that prison labor is free or cheap and exploitation is rampant. … I have definite feelings about the program but those feelings are based on information I have seen about other aspects of the prison system.”
Many students appear to share the same skepticism about the program as Coleman. “It seems a little scammy […] and exploitative in order to get cheap labor,” says Sarah Walsh ‘21. “It’s sort of disguised as something saying ‘Oh, we’re doing something so good for these prisoners’ and I think in theory, yes it seems like a good thing but at the same time we don’t need to keep prisons full in order to create furniture.” “I think there are better ways of going about it,” agrees Lindsay Bull, ‘21. “Like, teach them how to do stuff like that but don’t create an industry based out of it.”
This concern about exploitation should also be addressed alongside the question of what role systemic racism in the criminal justice system plays in the extraction of said cheap labor and whether or not this system exploits the labor of black inmates who make up a disproportionate amount of Maryland’s prison population. “I feel like the fact that its mandatory for all the Maryland institutions [to buy products from MCE] would almost incentivise grabbing people off the street,” says Brianna Jahromi, ‘21.
There are no definitive numbers available stating how much the inmates are paid for their labor, but the website does state that “While inmates … must be paid at least the Federal Minimum Wage, deductions are allowed from the inmates’ wages for taxes, room and board, contributions to a victims’ compensation program, and family support.” However, the extent of these deductions are unknown, leaving a real concern about the exploitation of incarcerated individuals in this system in return for cheap labor.
Linda L. Fleischer, chair of Criminal Justice Studies at the Community College of Baltimore County believes otherwise, stating in a Baltimore Sun opinion piece that “[MCE] is one of the most positive programs in the state that supports the successful re-entry into the community for inmates.” In the article, Fleischer sites the DPSCS study which concludes that recidivism rates of inmates working for MCE were 60% lower than other Division of Correction inmates. “There are many other aspects of our justice system that could be targeted for discriminatory practices against minorities,” notes Fleischer. “However, this is one program that benefits all who participate, including inmates of color.”
“I wonder if what’s exploitative or what the real harm is is more the institution and less the specific program,” considers Olivia Sherlock, ‘21. “One of the most traumatic things about prison [that people talk about] is the solitude of doing nothing and having no hobbies and you lose your ability to create and your humanity almost. I think [prisoners] probably would prefer to be doing something and to have some opportunity to have some small amount of money than to not doing anything. But at the same time it incentivises the state to profit off their unfortunate circumstances. It’s difficult because it encourages exploitation but it’s also the lesser of two evils for the prisoners who already have limited opportunities. It’s kind of like we’re trying to use our dollars to buy the least exploitative option in this incredibly exploitative system so it’s inherently futile.”
Although SMCM has no choice in the manner in which its furniture is acquired, it is still a matter of ethical contention. Since there seems to be a considerable amount of information about MCE being withheld from the public, the SMCM community doesn’t have the opportunity to decide whether or not this is something we can morally agree with or not if we are in the dark about MCE’s statistics and facts about its workers.