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Wisconsin’s prisoner-made furniture business is still booming

Anti-carceral activists turn their attention to the state’s long-running “Prison Industries” program.

Illustration by American Trash.

A UW-Madison alum has started a petition bringing awareness to the UW System’s practice of purchasing furniture made using prison labor. 

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Over the past five months, Isabelle Martinez, who graduated in 2019 with degrees in biochemistry and environmental studies, has collected almost 4,000 signatures asking for state and UW System leaders to end a contract between the UW System and Badger State Industries (BSI)

Enshrined in state law, BSI is the manufacturing arm of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. It’s the current incarnation of the state’s “Prison Industries” program, established in 1913. The contract essentially makes BSI the preferred vendor whenever the UW System is looking to buy furniture or various other manufactured goods.  

After learning about the contract through social media, Martinez was infuriated. 

“How could a university system that posted #BlackLivesMatter on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, benefit from a contract that directly capitalizes on a racist system?” Martinez asks. 

Martinez was learning about a practice that’s long been common knowledge among staff in the UW System and across state government agencies: Using prison labor as a low-cost source of office furniture and other workaday products.

She compiled information through the petition website Change.org and created email templates that advocates can use to contact UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank and the UW Board of Regents. 

The Wisconsin Department of Administration’s (DOA) Mandatory Statewide Office Furniture Contract states that all state agencies and UW campuses must purchase through BSI unless they get a waiver. 

BSI manufactures metal and wood furniture, textiles, and signage under the umbrella of Bureau of Corrections Enterprises, which also operates agri-businesses, including two dairy farms in Oregon and Waupun. State agencies aren’t required to purchase only through BSI, but must come to BSI with their requested purchasing needs before going to other businesses. To buy elsewhere, agencies must establish that BSI can’t meet the needs of a specific project at equal or lesser cost.

The current contract has existed between BSI and the UW-System since August of 2014 and has been extended through the end of the calendar year, though the state government itself has long been BSI’s most reliable customer.

Martinez has not received comment from either Blank’s office or from BSI itself. Martinez did note that a peer of hers by the name of Jacob, a white male who is currently a post-Baccalaureate student at UW-Madison, has received a response from the Chancellor’s office, who explained that the purchase of products through BSI is mandated by state statute and the DOA. 

Martinez noted she, unlike her white male peer, has not received a response, and is a woman of color. 

When Tone Madison reached out to the Chancellor’s office, staff referred questions about BSI to the DOA.

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Ever since the abolition of chattel slavery in 1856, Americans have referred to prison labor as slavery by another name. The 13th Amendment forbids slavery, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” The carceral system uses that clause to put incarcerated people to work for all manner of government and private employers, often in the name of rehabilitating prisoners by instilling in them a work ethic. Prison labor in the United States can, legally, be unpaid, but more often incarcerated people earn wages of literally cents per hour. In other cases, states knock time off a sentence in exchange for work. Incarcerated people who are medically cleared to work and refuse to can be punished, including with solitary confinement

The political right and big business have worked over the decades to profit from incarcerated labor. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing nonprofit that is crafts and spearheads the passage of model bills around the country, has helped private corporations use incarcerated populations as a workforce by pushing legislation called the Prison Industries Act in various states. Former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was an ALEC member who took part in the organization’s push for ”truth in sentencing” laws, which require, in Wisconsin’s case, that prisoners serve no less than 85% of their sentences. With a captive population that has to stay put, prisons can guarantee a ready and extremely cheap labor force. 

The best of the worst jobs

BSI jobs are coveted inside prisons. 

“To get into BSI is very hard,” says Talib Akbar, a formerly incarcerated individual who worked as a janitor for BSI in 2001 and 2002 at the Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution, a medium-security facility for adult males in Plymouth. Ever since his release, Akbar has advocated against solitary confinement and spoken across the state about his own harrowing experience of being in isolation for over 360 days. 

Akbar was paid less than 50 cents an hour for his work. He says he was frequently pulled out of his position to work the main line, folding sheets and linens for BSI. 

“I began complaining about BSI staff switching me back and forth,” Akbar says “They terminated me.” 

John Beard, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, says positions with the state’s Bureau of Correctional Enterprises (of which Badger State Industries is a part) average from 90 cents an hour to over a dollar an hour, depending on the industry. Jobs outside of the BSI average anywhere from nine cents to 42 cents an hour.

Prisoners like Akbar tend to spend their wages on hygiene necessities, stamps and envelopes, and snacks at the canteen. Other common expenses include phone calls, which cost on average 26 cents a minute. When a 15 minute phone call can cost almost $4, the appeal of a BSI position with a higher wage is obvious—it’s one of the only ways prisoners can afford to stay connected to the outside world. Advocates for incarcerated people have noted food in Wisconsin’s prisons has also gotten more expensive, thanks to the involvement of private for-profit vendors.

Beard said that the state’s prison-labor practices incentivize education and good behavior. 

“Before they can apply for a BCE job,” Beard says, “people in DOC care must earn their high school diploma or equivalency degree.”

Workers must go a year without a major institution rules violation and remain free of major violations to keep their jobs. DOC Administrative Code Chapter 303 states that a major offense is a violation of a disciplinary rule for which a major penalty may be imposed. These violations range from possession of tobacco to aggravated assault. Any violation can be categorized as a major or minor offense at the discretion of a security director, adhering to outlined criteria

Beard emphasizes that the Bureau of Correctional Enterprises is almost entirely funded by sales of products incarcerated people make. 

“The higher its sales, the more people it can employ and help train/teach for greater success in Wisconsin communities,” he says. 

BCE touts a connection to community and self-improvement as the main drive for its workers: 69% of former workers don’t return to the DOC after 3 years of release, according to BCE’s most recent annual report. In 2019, BCE made $29.8 million in sales and paid out $780,000 to incarcerated workers. Of that, BSI made $18,902,946 in revenue, with $487,850 paid out to inmates manufacturing furniture and office wares for state agencies and UW campuses. The BCE program overall actually took a $1,039,265 loss in 2019, which Beard attributes to large capital purchases like replacement facilities and equipment. 

UW- Madison was the top buyer of Wisconsin’s prison-made furniture during the state’s 2020 fiscal year, Beard says. Other top customers include UW-River Falls, UW-Whitewater, the Department of Military Affairs, and UW-Green Bay.

Beard says UW campuses accounted for 52 percent of BCE furniture sales in the state’s 2020 fiscal year. 

In 1993, five formerly incarcerated people sued the State of Wisconsin, BSI, DOC, and then-Governor Tommy Thompson (who is now the UW System President), seeking minimum wage restitution under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Then-Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin Barbara Crabb more or less agreed with the state’s reasoning in her ruling, stating the lack of a minimum wage reflects the prison-labor program’s emphasis on rehabilitative objectives.

“The voluntary nature of the Prison Industries program does not manifest a bargained-for-exchange of labor,” Crabb wrote in the opinion, eventually concluding the plaintiffs were not entitled to minimum wage. 

A sick and captive population

The DOC has estimated that Wisconsin’s prison population will increase by 25,000 between 2019 and 2021, and used that to justify a budget request of more than $15 million dollars for 2019-21 biennium. While the national incarceration rate trended down between 2000 and 2016, Wisconsin’s continued to tick up. This puts strain on DOC infrastructure and makes work opportunities even more competitive. As of November, the DOC’s adult population had fallen to 20,631, though it’s not clear whether that reflects the temporary impact of the pandemic or a more long-term effort to reduce mass incarceration.

As of late November, the Wisconsin DOC had reported that 11 incarcerated people had died after contracting COVID-19 in the Wisconsin prison system since September. 

Positive test cases among incarcerated people in Wisconsin are topping 8,000 as the outbreak feverishly arches upwards inside DOC facilities across the state. And that’s not counting the more than 1,600 prison staff who have tested positive

The DOC took months to provide the public with data about COVID deaths on the inside. Activists and open-government advocates have criticized the DOC for its foot-dragging and lack of transparency. 

Prison industries have had to temporarily suspend the work of some teams at times when workers are unable to come to work, says DOC spokesperson Beard. This occurs when workers are symptomatic or their housing units are quarantined due to COVID-19 cases in an institution.  

Despite making criminal justice reform a major issue on the campaign trail, Governor Tony Evers has been slow to respond to the outbreak in the prison system. Evers has not granted pardons or reduced sentences to combat the virus, even though he has broad powers to do so unilaterally. The DOC released 1,600 inmates in early spring to slow the spread of the outbreak.

The advocacy group Ex Incarcerated People Organizing, EXPO, has staged sit-ins at the governor’s mansion since early October, and has continued to protest almost daily in hopes of getting Evers to at least acknowledge the COVID crisis in Wisconsin’s prisons and jails. 

Incarcerated people across the state have penned letters about the lack of protections inside facilities as cases rise inside prisons and jails. In June, the ACLU gave the state an F+ for its response to the pandemic inside prisons. 

As the pandemic continues to explode across Wisconsin, state officials and silent UW leaders are failing the very people who furnished their offices.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the DOC’s adult population as of November.


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