Editor’s Note: This piece was written in response to an article published by The Daily on Oct. 31 titled “Senate meeting raises concerns about divestment from prison labor.”
The USAS protest of UW's purchase of prisoner-made furniture is looking at the wrong issues in the wrong place in the wrong way. Prisoners everywhere are paid at very low rates by community standards, but the jobs to be lost by canceling UW furniture contracts are the most coveted in our prisons. Being locked up is the main problem for prisoners working in Industries, not holding the best jobs available to them.
Let us consider that prisoners, as human beings, would rather put their energy into making things of value than sit idle and useless to others. If activists wish to support prisoners working in Industries, convince legislators to raise their pay. If such measures seem too mild or risk complicity in a system that needs radical change, don't start with Industries: Start with sentencing, prosecution, and probation practices. You may find that political analysis alone leaves a lot to learn about who is doing what to whom.
Prisons generally prefer to operate without outside review or intervention, which is one reason it's hard to find out what's going on inside, and also why abuses run rampant in many states. In the course of UW's work in Washington prisons, however, I have seen failing policies turned around and known prisoners whose suffering consequently was relieved. To make change in prisons, try to understand what actually matters to real prisoners and the people we've put in charge of them. People will surprise you.
Research Associate Professor Emeritus, Child, Family, and Population Health Nursing