Climbing the stairs at the end of the Sunken Garden Friday, Nov. 16 were many windblown students and one lone professor. Below, a group of primarily undergraduate students at the College of William and Mary huddled together at the base of the stairs holding on to signs that decried the College’s use of furniture made by prison labor.
A few weeks prior, students, professors and community members had been invited to gather together for a rally to end prison slavery by the College’s chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists. YDSA also created a petition demanding that the General Assembly put a stop to prison labor for unfair wages, which they regard as slavery. Attendees were encouraged to sign this petition during the event.
“The petition describes the injustice and cruelty of mass incarceration and prison labor, then makes two demands of the Virginia General Assembly: 1) reclassify incarcerated workers as ‘legal employees’ rather than ‘slaves’ and 2) pay them what they have earned rather than garnishing the vast majority of their wages,” the YDSA Facebook event states.
Under its state contract with Virginia Correctional Enterprises, the College is obligated to purchase furniture made by inmates in state prisons at wages ranging from 50 to 80 cents per hour. Since 2014, they have spent an average of $1,176,246 per fiscal year on this furniture.
This contract has been under increased scrutiny during the fall 2018 semester primarily due to the actions of William and Mary Students United to protest it. These actions included an unauthorized protest that culminated in two students placed on probation. However, YDSA, whose members had previously attended Students United meetings, decided to host this rally on their own.
Speakers at the rally included representatives from YDSA, a professor, a law student and others interested in the issue. The attending crowd totaled in roughly 30 people. Speakers from YDSA expounded on the importance of their petition and steps students could take to protest this injustice, including joining their organization on the Road to Richmond — an annual event hosted by the College where students travel to Richmond to lobby their legislators.
YDSA Co-chair Josh Messite ’20 began the rally with a historical explanation of how criminalization has been used in the United States to continue legal slavery. He emphasized the race and class implications of this system and the oftentimes brutal treatment these incarcerated workers face. He also touched on how the current minimum wage across the nation is an inadequate living wage and contributes to this issue.
“If you had asked me a year ago, ‘When did America abolish slavery?’ I would have told you, ‘1865,’” Messite said. “And I would have been wrong.”
“If you had asked me a year ago, ‘When did America abolish slavery?’ I would have told you, ‘1865,’” Messite said. “And I would have been wrong. Because in fact, there are currently thousands of enslaved people in Virginia right now. That’s because when the 13th Amendment ended slavery, it made one big exception: prisons.”
Messite said the goal of this campaign to end prison slavery was for the Commonwealth to recognize prison laborers as workers and compensate them fairly. YDSA Co-founder Billy Bearden ’19 said that this rally marked the end of the awareness phase of their work and the beginning of their “concentrated agitation” phase, which will include more action in pursuit of their goals.
“Join us or some other organization seeking the end of prison slavery and write the history we wish to someday read together, without walls or iron bars separating us from one another,” Bearden said.
Included in the rally were readings from incarcerated workers, written specifically for this rally. One prisoner who provided a statement has been incarcerated for nearly 23 years in various prisons in Virginia since he was 18 years old and said he thus had an intricate understanding of the labor systems in place. In his statement, Rho explained how he came to the realization that he was being taken advantage of by VCE.
“When I was standing on the assembly line, assembling bed frames and high-quality cabinets and dressers and watched as the goods I just produced passed through quality control carefully wrapped in bubble wrap and then shipped off to some unknown destination, I couldn’t help but feel exploited,” the prisoner’s statement said as read by YDSA Co-chair Katherine Zabinski ’21.
Following these statements, anthropology professor Jonathan Glasser was introduced. He began by saying that he was hesitant to speak at this event because he has been following this issue on campus for many years now, and that as a professor, he is able to observe issues rise up and then disappear quite often.
“What’s really striking to me is that even if the issue and the attention comes in waves, the problem doesn’t go away,” Glasser said. “The problem is still there. Even if it’s beneath our consciousness.”
Glasser said that what he thought was most admirable about this movement is the awareness it is generating on campus. According to Glasser, there is a rise in students understanding that the furniture they use every day to sleep on or study with is made by people who have been denied their fundamental human rights. He said that this issue requires developing tools to help individuals act and seize the moment.
When the microphone was opened up to anyone in attendance, students took the chance to speak about their passion for the issue. Some speakers also referenced the occasionally adversarial relationship between the students and the administration regarding student protests.
“I think this institution has a really bad relationship with activism on this campus,” Ben Milburn-Town ’20 said.
“I think this institution has a really bad relationship with activism on this campus,” Ben Milburn-Town ’20 said. “The institution here arrested its own students; it didn’t just fizzle out; it wasn’t because the students graduated, it’s because William and Mary violently stopped it from happening. It’s invested in maintaining low wages for its workers. … I have been sanctioned by this campus, and I’ve gone through some bulls— because of this campus.”
Milburn-Town encouraged fellow students to become involved in a multitude of ways and not just on Facebook. They said that in order to create this change, it is necessary to band together and resist collapsing under pressure.
“Together we do have power,” Milburn-Town said. “But it’s hard. And you have to claim it, and you have to work hard for it. Because there are people trying to take it from you, and there are people here trying to take it from you, and there are people who don’t want you to have power.”
Messite said that he feels invigorated because of the collective action he sees on the road ahead.
“These bonds that we’re forming, these networks, will allow us to build on these victories, both past and present,” Messite said.