Reupholstering behind bars: Massachusetts prisoners repair auditorium chairs at ARHS, ARMS

  • prisontruck
    The state vehicle that delivered the completed seats. Photo: Spencer Cliche
  • auditorium seats
    Seats ready for installation. Photo: Spencer Cliche
  • chairs3
    Old chairs, with vinyl seats in the front row, and newly upholstered ones, with felt seats, behind them. Photo: Spencer Cliche
  • masscorfloor
    A MassCor factory floor. Photo: masscor.us

On March 21, the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District and Massachusetts Correctional Industries (MassCor) inked a contract that set up prisoners at MCI-Norfolk to reupholster the 1,105 badly worn auditorium seats at Amherst Regional High and Middle Schools, between April and June of this year, to the tune of $101,800.

The auditorium seats needed to be repaired, the district budget was limited, and using prison labor cut costs.

Advocates claim prison work builds valuable skills, prepares inmates for gainful employment after release, decreases recidivism, and generates revenue to cover the high cost of running prisons.

Opponents claim the practice is exploitative because it pays well below minimum wage, provides little in the way of worker rights and protections, and encourages the expansion of prison populations.

Given the complexity of the issue, it’s fair to ask: Should public schools use prison labor? The staff of The Graphic explores this question in our special report.

MassCor

While the vast majority of working prisoners hold non-factory jobs like washing dishes, doing laundry, and delivering mail, only 4% work in correctional industries like MassCor. In fact, just 500 of the state’s total 8,692 inmates work in 17 manufacturing operations within eight prisons.

Reupholstery happens exclusively at MCI-Norfolk, a medium-security prison in Norfolk, Massachusetts, with an average daily population of 1,500 inmates. One of its most notable inmates was Malcolm X, who was a member of the Norfolk Debating Society while incarcerated.

According to MassCor’s Media Coordinator, Cara Savelli, who responded to The Graphic’s questions via email, Masscor is “a 129-year-old correctional industries program that benefits offenders by instilling a work ethic and teaching vocational skills.”

Ms. Savelli said the prison work program “provides high quality products for a modest price to Massachusetts residents, businesses, camps, nursing homes, schools, cities, towns, hospitals, police, fire departments, social service agencies, veteran agencies, and others.”

In order to get a specialized correctional industries job (rather than a lower-paying prison job), Ms. Savelli said, “inmates are screened and selected by security staff for employment prior to being referred to MassCor, and the best candidates are selected based upon work history, vocational programming, and relevant skill set.”

In addition to reupholstery, MassCor manufacturing includes optical, printing, embroidery, janitorial, furniture, metal work, and clothing.

Ms. Savelli said prisoners “learn a trade and develop skills under the instruction of MassCor Industrial Instructors in the facility to which they are classified.”

Because prisoners are not cleared to work on school property when school is in session, MassCor employees removed 340 seats April 4–5 and transported them to MCI-Norfolk, where prisoners reupholstered them. MassCor employees reinstalled these new seats April 17–19.

The remaining 513 seats will be removed, reupholstered, and replaced June 14–30.

At the middle school, MassCor removed all 252 seats April 8–9 and reinstalled the finished seats April 17–19.

Full payment will be made once the work is reviewed by the District, defined in the contract as the Superintendent of Schools. The contract was signed by ARPS Finance Director Sean Mangano, Superintendent Michael Morris, and the Director of Industries at MassCor, Russell Luthman.

Why now?

Superintendent Michael Morris said, “The seats at both the middle school and high school had holes and tears. The facility department’s plan for the auditorium, since the creation of a capital plan, was to reupholster the seats as opposed to full replacement because of other capital costs associated with full replacement.”

Dr. Morris said the plan to reupholster the chairs would “reuse existing equipment to reduce waste and be consistent with being as environmentally conscious as we can be,” and would “enhance the District’s outstanding theater programs by improving the comfort, longevity, and appearance of the seats.”

As to why the District used MassCor services instead of another supplier, Mr. Morris said he spoke with two references who shared positive results.

“The District [also] had a unique opportunity this year to complete the project, because of a positive budget development that was due to three factors,” he added. “Fewer charter/vocational students left the district than DESE had predicted; an unexpected Rural Aid Grant was awarded to us; and the health insurance surcharge anticipated to last for the full fiscal year was suspended after a few months.”

Since the reupholstering of the auditorium seats “had been pushed back repeatedly on the capital plan because of other capital needs that were seen as more urgent,” said Dr. Morris, he felt this budget moment required swift action. It had to be completed prior to June 30, 2019—the end of the District’s fiscal year—or it would not be completed at all.

In addition, “the District had pricing from another vendor from a year or so earlier which indicated the quote from MassCor was fair,” he said.

“We proposed the project to School Committee, who voted to allocate the funds for the project,” he said.

Because prison industries like MassCor are state agencies, their projects “do not have to go out to bid with private, for-profit companies.”

According to Dr. Morris, MassCor explained to the District that “this program benefits both incarcerated people and the municipality.”

“The incarcerated people obtain job skills that can be used when they are released (and some financial compensation); these skills have been found to be critical when being released, as employers want evidence of work experience (which is difficult to achieve while being incarcerated) before making a hiring decision,” he said. “Gaining employment is a challenge for people when they are released, and the program aims to improve that process.”

District Finance Director Sean Mangano said the earlier vendor Dr. Morris mentioned, Wellspring Cooperative, quoted approximately $130,000, about $28,000 over MassCor’s price.

Wellspring provides living wage jobs to low-income and unemployed residents of Springfield, Massachusetts, including the formerly incarcerated, and its employees have an opportunity to become worker-owners after a year on the job. The cooperative also pays workers from $13 to $25 an hour.

Wellspring has a close relationship with UMass Amherst, where the cooperative completed upholstering work at Berkshire Dining Commons and at Bowker Auditorium, as well as at local hospitals like Baystate and Mercy.  

Wellspring Sales Director Jim Dee said he had hoped to get the Amherst contract and had been in touch with Mr. Mangano a number of times over the last few years; he even called on March 19 to check in about the potential job but learned the District had hired MassCor. “We were disappointed to hear that. We would have crunched the numbers to see if we could have come down in price,” he said.

Though the company’s clientele has grown over its six years, Mr. Dee noted, “We’re still a small business and we’re constrained. Amherst would have been a godsend.”

Why is it controversial?

According to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, vocational training in prison can aid in rehabilitation and increase potential for meaningful work after prison. Inmates who worked for correctional industries “demonstrated better institutional adjustment” than those who did not.

But the use of prison labor is hotly contested. According to the NAACP, between 1980 and 2015, the number of people incarcerated in America increased from roughly 500,000 to over 2.2 million, the lion’s share (91.5%) in public prisons.

Today, the United States makes up about 5% of the world’s population and holds 21% of the world’s prisoners. “One in every 37 adults in the United States is under some form of correctional supervision,” notes the NAACP’s Criminal Justice Fact Sheet. In 2014, African Americans constituted 13% of the total U.S. population but 34% of the total correctional population.

Massachusetts both defies and is in keeping with national prison statistics. For example, according to the Vera Institute of Justice’s “People in Prison Report,” Massachusetts (which has no private prisons) has the lowest incarceration rate in the nation.

Our state’s prison population in 2019 was “8,692 people, an incarceration rate of 126 people per 100,000,” or .0126% of the population, according to wbur.org.

In April 2018, according to wbur.org, Governor Charlie Baker signed a criminal justice reform bill into law that had “over 100 separate elements,” including bail and diversion programs, repealing some mandatory minimum sentences, and looking “all the way from the beginning of policing through corrections and all the way back into the runway associated with return to society.”

US News and World Report’s national prison report card ranked Massachusetts prisons sixth in the nation for incarceration overall. This calculation came from a combination of the state’s low incarceration rate, low juvenile incarceration, and many programs to reduce recidivism, but also its 37th-in-the-nation ranking for equality in sentencing.

In Massachusetts, 7.5 blacks and 4.3 Hispanics are sentenced to 1 white prisoner, according to The Sentencing Project.

In an article in Race, Poverty, and the Environment called “Prison Labor Exploitation,” author Jaron Browne says prison industries ultimately make mass incarceration profitable.

“As the number of people without jobs increases, the number of working people actually increases—they become prison laborers,” Mr. Browne writes. “Everyone inside has a job. There are currently over 70 factories in California’s 33 prisons alone. Prisoners do everything from textile work and construction to manufacturing and service work.”

Mr. Browne adds that prisoners make “shoes, clothing, and detergent; they do dental lab work, recycling, metal production, and wood production; they operate dairies, farms, and slaughterhouses.”

He also notes that no matter the industry, prison laborers “are not protected by minimum wage laws or overtime, and are explicitly barred from the right to organize or collectively bargain.”

Though the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution barred slavery in 1865, it continues to allow infringement on the rights of incarcerated individuals with respect to labor and the use of involuntary servitude as a tool for punishment.

Following the money

MassCor’s website says that “the program benefits both offenders and state residents through a dual mission: providing a rehabilitative skill set for offenders while subsidizing offender incarceration costs and generating revenue.” That revenue is growing. In 2009, MassCor made $10.8 million. In 2016, mass.gov reported that MassCor brought in over $17 million.

Conversely, according to The Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), “prisons appear to be paying incarcerated people less today than they were in 2001. The average of the minimum daily wages paid to incarcerated workers for non-industry prison jobs [like laundry] is now 86 cents, down from 93 cents reported in 2001.”

In Massachusetts, according to PPI, “the pay ranges from 14 cents to $1 an hour for “non-industry jobs,” but data was not available for MassCor’s correctional industries. However, a story published in 2009 in the Quincy Patriot Ledger called “Prison Inc.: Business is booming for MassCor” said MassCor workers clock in at $1 per hour. A Boston Globe story published in 2005 also cited the $1 figure for MassCor’s specialized labor.

MassCor’s Ms. Savelli did not provide numbers for our questions about prison reupholsterers’ pay. She said that “offenders are compensated based on position, title, and skill level.  Pay increases within any job position are based on an individual’s performance. They are paid overtime for hours worked above their normal work hours.”

However, what prisoners do earn typically goes back to the “commissary,” the prison store where inmates buy necessities like food, clothing, toilet paper, hygiene items (including soap), and mail.

Prisoners who menstruate, in many states, according to Sojourners magazine, need to work 9.2 hours to pay for the least expensive box of tampons available. And a recent report in The New Yorker revealed that private prisons make $1.2 billion per year by charging prisoners for phone calls, usually at close to $5 for a 15-minute call. In contrast, Massachusetts prisons—run by the state rather than private companies—charge $1.50 for a 15-minute call, according to the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice of the Human Rights Defense Center.

The average per-prisoner spending in Massachusetts is $1,207 per year at the commissary, according to The Prison Policy Initiative. Even the highest-paid prisoner in Massachusetts working 30 hours a week (defined as full time in the state) for every week of the year would only earn about $1,500 per year.

Elizabeth Garland, an ARPS parent and Director at Verite, an international fair labor organization based in Amherst, flagged prison wages as a problem. “There are quasi-public for-profit companies like MassCor all over the U.S., and also a federal version (Unicor) as well as for-profit private companies that run prisons (and other detention centers) on contract for states and the federal government,” said Ms. Garland. “All of them use prison labor, and wages are a pittance.”

And while MassCor’s website reports that its industries “provide training and skills for a successful reentry into the community through work opportunities,” data on gainful employment after release is difficult to track.

The Prison Policy Initiative found that “formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate of over 27%—higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression.” On the contrary, the national unemployment rate in 2018 was 4%.

Additionally, while Ms. Savelli told The Graphic that MassCor will furnish a Work Verification Letter “to offenders who are releasing, to assist with attaining post release employment,” she added that the Massachusetts Department of Corrections “does not employ former offenders.”

What to do?

Given the complexity of this issue, should schools like ours contract with prisons?

Sunderland resident Aleks Kajstura, the Legal Director at The Prison Policy Initiative, agreed to weigh in.

“If the local taxpayers’ solution to educational budget shortfalls is to team up with the state for prison labor, something is wrong with the system,” she said.

“Incarcerated people shouldn’t be forced to work for a dollar an hour and then be charged for basic hygiene products and medical care. And that’s just the ‘lucky’ 4% of incarcerated people in our state’s prisons who get chosen for the ‘opportunity’ to work for MassCor,” said Ms. Kajstura. “If Massachusetts taxpayers support the state’s overuse of incarceration, then they should pay for it. And similarly, schools should be funded enough so that using forced labor doesn’t start sounding like a reasonable choice to someone.”

When asked to clarify the use of the term “forced labor,” Ms. Kajstura said, “I firmly believe that nobody would be doing such work for such little pay if it were not coerced to some degree.”

Similarly, a recent piece in Sojourners, a journalism outlet that “seeks to inspire hope and build a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church, and the world,” grappled with the many forces at play in a story entitled “Who Built Your Pew?” published online and dated June 2019.  

According to the article, in Iowa, “where churches were desperately in need of renovation, from rebuilding pews to other major projects, prison industry execs often portrayed themselves as humanitarian organizations; their mission, they said, [was] to reduce recidivism and bolster successful inmate re-entry.”

Lois Mather, chair of a renovation committee and a lay leader at her church, felt that “using prison labor was okay, because it gave prisoners a pat on the back, to let them know they matter.”

Still, the “availability of affordable labor ultimately did undercut the price of small manufacturers, including those that manufacture church furniture. Thus the savings that churches enjoy are part of a system that transfers wealth from the private sector to the state.”

Meanwhile, Dominique DuBois Gilliard, an Evangelical Covenant Church pastor, worried that “Iowa Prison Industries’ disproportionately black workforce is an example of churches benefiting financially from the ‘exploitation and dehumanization’ of people of color.”

Prisoners’ thoughts

MCI-Norfolk did not return our phone calls asking to speak to a site supervisor or workers in the reupholstery program.

MassCor representatives said they were unable to connect us with prisoners—or those who have been released.

But in a Boston Globe piece titled “Inside Job,” by Emily Sweeney in 2005, a 57-year-old MassCor worker at MCI-Norfolk named John Sullivan said working for $1 an hour was “‘much better than the alternative—wandering around aimlessly with nothing to do.”

Similarly, in an op-ed published in the LA Times in 2017, former prisoner Chandra Bozelko, author of Prison Diaries, noted that Whole Foods used to sell goat cheese made from milk produced on a prison farm in Colorado.

Ms. Bozelko recalled that a company spokesperson originally felt that “supporting suppliers who found a way to be part of paid, rehabilitative work being done by inmates would help people get back on their feet and eventually become contributing members of society.”

But Whole Foods ended the program in 2015, after consumer protests.

Ms. Bozelko told the LA Times she could “only assume [the complaints] came from people who’ve never been incarcerated. Anyone who’s done time wouldn’t deny a fellow prisoner that kind of lifeline.”

According to Ms. Bozelko, who served six years for identity theft and related crimes and was paid 75 cents to $1.75 a day to make and serve “a lot of casserole,” “When a prison inmate prays for release from her cell, prison industries can be her first salvation. I couldn’t wait to head to work in the kitchen of the maximum-security women’s prison.”

But Ms. Bozelko thinks there must be an increase in the participation of “socially conscious businesses and agencies” that “are likely to pay inmates higher wages, train them for better jobs, and do more to prepare them for life after prison.”

Similarly, The National Institute of Corrections released a guide in April 2019 outlining steps correctional industries could take, including “replicating private industry conditions as closely as possible within the prison” and also “providing comprehensive pre-release services for inmates.”

Human Rights Defense Director and former prisoner Paul Wright told Guardian reporter Sarah Shemkus that the only way prison labor could be done well “would be to ensure safe workplace conditions, give inmates the right to organize and negotiate, and pay all workers at least minimum wage and let them keep all their earnings.”

However, Mr. Wright said, “I hold out little hope that these conditions will ever be met. American society is too ideologically committed to using prisoners as a source of low-cost or free labor.

No one is talking about the notion that prisoners have rights or should be treated with any respect or dignity.”