CU's furniture comes from prison labor. This guy wants the prisoners paid more.

CU's furniture comes from prison labor. This guy wants the prisoners paid more.

PoliticsAugust 23, 2018 By Reilly Capps

When you sit on a desk at the University of Colorado, you're probably sitting on prison labor.

The University of Colorado gets its furniture from Colorado Correctional Industries, a division of the prison system which employs prisoners to build the stuff. CU departments need a waiver to buy furniture anywhere else.

The prisoners who make these chairs and tables aren't paid much. A Prison Policy Project report says prisoners in Colorado working full-day jobs are paid between 84 cents and $2.45 per day.

"I say that's too low," says activist James Gould of Boulder. He runs a nonprofit called Can I Expunge, which helps folks figure out if they can erase their past convictions from their records. And he's pushing for higher wages in jail. "Prisoners in Colorado should at the very least be getting minimum wage," Gould says.

Colorado Correctional Industries' annual report says 1,800 prisoners across Colorado hold diverse jobs, from milking cows to building mattress to making license plates to fighting wildfires to selling cars on eBay. CCI delivered $9 million worth of furniture in 2017. CCI and its supporters say work trains prisoners and saves taxpayers money.

"The skills it teaches people … they can transfer, and it reduces the rate of recidivism when they are released," U.S. Senator Cory Gardner told the Canon City Daily Record while touring a farm that employs prisoners.  

[Prison factory workers. Associated Press photo by Dave Martin.]

But whether prison labor is in itself a good or bad thing, Colorado's prison wages are low compared to some other nearby states. New Mexican and Wyoming prisoners can make up to $8 a day for a full-time job.

Some prisons pay far less, however, especially in the South. In Alabama and Arkansas, prison workers are paid nothing at all.

To talk about wages, Rooster twice called Colorado Correctional Industries, but didn't hear back. (Gould says CCI told him they pay as high as $4 a day.)

The subject of prison wages is coming up today because some prisoners just went on strike. Inmates in California, Washington, Florida and Nova Scotia, in Canada, among others, are refusing to eat and work and spend money in the prison canteen for 19 days.

They issued 10 demands, and one of the big ones is "an end to prison slavery" — their phrase for prison labor. It's a common comparison. One striking prisoner wrote in The Guardian "slavery never ended in this country." And an essay in the Atlantic called prison labor "American Slavery, Reinvented."

The striking prisoners asked that, if prison labor is to continue, prisoners should be paid minimum wage.

CU isn't the only institution caught in a moral conundrum. Other universities and agencies in Colorado get their furniture from prison labor, including Western State in Gunnison.

Boulder activist Gould says he has pushed CCI to pay workers more. If they won't, he'd like CU to stop buying its furniture from prisons.

"CU is invested in prison labor and doesn't really need to be," Gould says.

[Cover photo from the Associated Press.]