Students protest prison labor: W&M Students United gather to discuss goals, structure

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Administrators were present as the activist student group met Tuesday, Sept. 4 by the President's House to protest the College's association with Virginia Correctional Enterprises. COURTESY PHOTO / W&M STUDENTS UNITED

A group calling themselves W&M Students United gathered for their first official meeting Sept. 10 at the Meridian Coffeehouse. Alternatively referred to as a protest or an interest meeting by people involved with the event, the students met to discuss the structure of the organization, plans for future action and the issue of furniture made by prison labor on campus.

The College of William and Mary currently is contractually obligated to buy furniture made by inmates in state prisons at wages ranging from $0.50-$0.80 per hour. Virginia Correctional Enterprises sells this furniture to the College, collecting an average profit of $1,176,246 per fiscal year since 2014.

The group had previously met Tuesday, Sept. 4, by the President’s House to protest the use of furniture made by inmates at the College. Three to four administrators were present for a short period of time at the gathering.

“The college administration desperately tried to prevent us from meeting with the college community and discussing the college’s continued use of slavery in the form of Prison labor,” W&M Students United said in a written statement on their official Facebook page. “After sending us repeated threats online, they showed up at the Wren yard to attempt to disrupt our gathering. They threatened to call the cops to forcefully disperse us, and as a moral basis for their actions, they compared us to the [Ku Klux Klan].”

Referencing a history of oppression by the administration and more recent events such as the fraught March 2016 Black Lives Matter conversation with former College President Taylor Reveley, members of the group expressed their frustration with being treated in this manner.

Students who had heard about the meeting through word of mouth and over Facebook gathered outside the Meridian prior to the event, discussing issues they were passionate about that had drawn them to the meeting. Alexis Archer ’22 said that she was there because of her interest in criminal justice reform and efforts on campus to address it.

“Black people in America are incarcerated at a much higher rate than white people, and they don’t deserve to be — white people are doing the same things,” Archer said.

The meeting officially began with about 30 students gathered in the Meridian, including two Student Assembly representatives, Class of 2021 President Dave DeMarco ’21 and Sen. Anthony Joseph ’21. Many members expressed the desire for the structure of the organization to be fluid, without official leadership or even officially scheduled meetings, and for the organization to remain an unrecognized student organization in the eyes of the College. However, during the meeting, the group followed a structured procedure; a student wrote down a list of participants who wanted to speak and then invited them to do so as they moved down the list in order.

The discussion about how to structure the organization did not come to an exact conclusion, but students expressed passionate interest in taking action to divest from prison labor. Many of these students had already taken action with previous clubs, such as the Young Democratic Socialists of William and Mary, as well as on their own. Students talked about creating an art piece for the cause, contacting representatives, making signs, engaging in public protest and discussing the issue with peers. The group has also made plans to show up at the SA Senate meeting Tuesday, Sept. 11 in hopes of creating a resolution, in what they describe as a gesture of peaceful and symbolic protest against the College’s role in the prison industrial complex.

Many agreed that the problem was not convincing people that this issue was morally wrong, but rather persuading the administration to take action to rectify it.

Students involved in these efforts over the summer reached out to College President Katherine Rowe regarding the purchasing of VCE furniture. They said that they received an email back stating that their views did not align.

“We agree that student concerns are vitally important, and I appreciate you writing to share what you feel passionately about,” Rowe said in an emailed response to W&M Students United. “We also share a desire to advance just causes, though our views may not always align on that front. In regard to VCE … your efforts are best applied to the level at which meaningful change could occur — state government.”

Many students in attendance expressed support for an institutional approach to this issue, adding that it might be helpful to be open to the administration and work through these previously established avenues. However, many cautioned that creating committees to make change might not be the most effective approach because too often these constraints can slow down action.

Josh Messite ’20 is a member of the College’s chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America and said he attended the meeting because of his involvement with the issue and his desire to assist W&M Students United in their goals. He has been working on a campaign with YDSA to address the purchase of prison furniture for about a year now, and he said it was heartening to see all this support for an issue that previously had not received much at all.

“The fact that all of a sudden there are so many people and so many groups that are involved in this and are passionate about it and are fighting for it is very exciting for me and the organization that I’m with,” Messite said. “And so if we can help to further the ends of groups like Students United then we will do everything in our power to accomplish that because the system is a moral outrage, and we’ll do anything that we can to end it.”

Chris Hrdy ’19 said that he was glad he came to the event and regarded it as a way to make change and connections on campus that would be helpful in attacking the issue on every front possible.

DeMarco and Joseph, the members of SA that attended the event, said that they were interested in the cause and wanted to see if they could do anything within their role in SA to support the new group.

“I wanted to hear what was going on, their perspective, their point of view and what they’re pursuing, which is totally a worthy cause and I, as a person, advocate for people to understand what is going on here, as far as prison labor,” Joseph said. “And I wanted to get their feedback, listen to what they’re saying and see … if there’s something we can do on our end to help them with their cause.”

Students associated with the group lingered long after the official meeting had concluded, talking with interested parties and discussing what could be improved upon, as well as more ideas on how to advance their cause.

“The school needs to divest [from] prison labor,” Maura Finn ’20, who helped run the event, said. “And this is a great first step to make it happen.”