College Socialists rally against prison labor conditions


Thursday, Sept. 9, the College Socialists hosted a rally against the use of unpaid prison labor, calling for a minimum wage for incarcerated people. The rally was originally scheduled to take place on the Sunken Garden but was moved to Zoom due to COVID-19 concerns. It was part of a series of demonstrations across the country coordinated by the organization, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, which is led by incarcerated individuals. 

College Socialists co-chair Brooks Koolman ‘21 opened the rally by marking the 50th anniversary of the 1971 Attica Prison Rebellion, in which over 1,000 prisoners at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York took over the prison for four days, demanding better living conditions. The uprising left 43 people dead, both prisoners and officers, and is seen as a landmark event in the Prisoners’ Rights Movement. 

“For years the “slaves” (in their own words) of Attica spent 6 of their very limited hours outside of their cages laboring for a wage of 20 cents an hour,” Koolman said. “For years their complaints went unheard. For years the human beings incarcerated at Attica Correctional Facility were dehumanized, disregarded, and disrespected. On September 9th, 1971, almost 1,300 prisoners rose up to right these wrongs.”

Koolman highlighted the racism non-white inmates have faced at Attica and beyond. He also noted the constitutional amendment which allows for unpaid or underpaid prison labor. 

“The 13th Amendment includes in it the ‘Exception Clause,’ which allows slavery, involuntary servitude, or, most generically, illegal working conditions in the case of those who have been convicted of crimes,” Koolman said. “Obviously, this was a change in form and a few of the particularities of the exploitative and abhorrent conditions of slavery.”

Though this particular rally focused on prison labor, Koolman said a minimum wage for incarcerated people is only a first step to the ultimate goal — the abolition of prisons.

Co-chair of College Socialists Megan Fleeharty ‘24 then introduced the story of Uhuru Rowe, who was incarcerated at the age of 18 following an armed robbery that killed two people, though Rowe himself was unarmed. He was convicted of being an accomplice in the robbery and was sentenced to 93 years in prison without parole. Rowe, a Black man, says his sentence is far longer than the recommended 13 years for similar crimes, and that the judge presiding over his case had a history of issuing excessive sentences Black defendants. 

“Uhuru Rowe’s story is not unique,” Fleeharty said. “It is not an anomaly. The carceral system very often locks young people up for life because it is profitable for them to do so.”

“Uhuru Rowe’s story is not unique,” Fleeharty said. “It is not an anomaly. The carceral system very often locks young people up for life because it is profitable for them to do so.”

Fleeharty noted that incarcerated workers in Virginia make 27-80 cents per hour of work, numbers that are drawn from the Prison Policy Initiative’s 2017 nationwide study. Virginia is also one of many states that requires public universities to purchase furniture from its state-run company, Virginia Correctional Enterprises, which employs around 1,300 incarcerated individuals. 

“William and Mary, by not actively pushing back against this law, is complicit in the extreme labor exploitation of prisoners,” Fleeharty said. “And you, by attending William and Mary, are benefiting from and complicit in this exploitation as well. We all must actively push back against William and Mary’s use of prison labor. And, in doing so, we should actively push back against the existence of a carceral system at all.”

Rowe was one of those 1,300 individuals working for Virginia Correctional Enterprises. Connor Dendler ‘24, a member of College Socialists, read a Sept. 2 statement from Rowe, titled “My Days of Slaving in a Prison Sweatshop,” which was written for the rally. Dendler noted that Rowe’s only form of communication with the group is through JPay, a third-party company that provides money transfer services, email, and educational content to people in correctional facilities for a fee. Dendler emphasized this fee was high compared to the wages incarcerated individuals receive.

Rowe first took the job at VCE while incarcerated at the Greensville Correctional Center in 2008. His first role was in the “sandpit” — sanding wooden bed frames. 

“This was the dirtiest and most unhealthiest job in the shop,” Rowe wrote. “The ventilation was poor and the masks we were issued were used, dirty, and failed to filter out the dust particles. After about a week in the sandpit, I developed a bad cough that still persists to this day.”

Rowe described long days on the assembly line in which he was required to stand for nine hours at a time, without a break. 

“This work was super-exploitative, oppressive, and inhuman and is not for the purpose of providing prisoners with the skills needed to find gainful employment upon release, as corrections officials claim,” Rowe said. “It is modern-day slavery made possible not only by the Exception Clause in the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but also by Virginia Code 40.1-28.9(B)(7) which specifically disqualifies incarcerated workers from being classified as “employees” of the Commonwealth and thus ineligible to receive workers compensation or a fair wage under the Virginia Minimum Wage Act and Federal Labor Standard Act.”

Rowe called for the elevation of incarcerated voices and demands in the “working class struggle.” He also cited the manifesto published by the Attica prisoners, which called for union rights and fair wages for incarcerated people. 

“Similarly, the demand for better prison conditions, including a fare wage or a minimum wage for incarcerated workers, does not mean that we become content or that we will continue to slave inside these sweatshops,” Rowe said. “It is a demand that makes our work visible which is the first step in our attack on and challenge against our status and social role as slaves of the state. Ultimately, we want to abolish the entire prison industrial slave complex.”



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