Academical Village at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville(l), Women in prison(r)

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EXCLUSIVE: How a century-old law keeps Virginia’s prestigious public universities tied to prison labor

The law has been on the books for almost a century.

 

Hailey Closson

Tech

In Virginia, people incarcerated in its Department of Corrections (DOC) are offered a voluntary program to hone blue-collar skills in a self-supporting state-run enterprise. 

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However, the state’s public institutions are bound by a near-century-old Virginia law to patronize this service, helping sustain a prison labor system criticized by scholars and activists for circumventing the 13th Amendment.

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Records reveal hundreds of thousands pour into the Virginia Correctional Enterprise (VCE) annually across the state’s prestigious major universities, disclosing the symbiotic relationship between Virginia’s public institutions and the prison labor machine. 

The Daily Dot obtained contracts, purchase orders, and records from the past several years detailing the scope of the school’s investments and how universities—often under fire for the contracts—circumvent spending at VCE.

The Code of Virginia, the statutory law for the state of Virginia, requires all departments, institutions, and agencies of the commonwealth supported by the state treasury to purchase from VCE. 

The enterprise was created in the late 1930s and runs as an extension of the Virginia DOC, offering training and employment services to 1,300 incarcerated people, according to its website

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VCE’s “Inmate Job Program,” a voluntary training program designed to lower recidivism rates and aid inmates in reentering the workforce, offers an expansive list of specialties in carpentry, silk screening and embroidery, print, ink, and toner production, janitorial products, drug testing supplies, and range target models, according to VCE’s website. 

Some of these products, built by prisoners for paltry salaries, populate the dorms and classrooms of Virginia’s biggest schools. 

Prison labor is a nationwide problem, coming under fire in recent years for harsh working conditions and explotative wages.

In 2023, the ACLU of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina urged the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to recognize the humanity of incarcerated people and declare that the Fair Labor Standards Act, which establishes minimum wage and overtime pay benefits for workers, apply to incarcerated people. 

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The coalition filed a brief in Scott et. al v. Baltimore County, tracing the history of prison labor to the mass incarceration of Black people after emancipation, highlighting these states’ prisons’ disproportionately Black workers. 

Judges heard arguments in this case in March. But as the ruling pends, prisoners in Virginia continue to toil.

The University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville, Virginia, is home to celebrated academic programs and a university hospital ranked No. 1 in the state.

From 2022-2023, UVA purchased almost $50,000 in scrubs for its medical departments, laundry washing services, laundry carts and covers, lounge chairs, desks, desk drawers, and terraces for academic halls and dorms, according to documents obtained by the Daily Dot. 

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The products went to the Biomedical Engineering and Medical Sciences building, the Center for Comparative Medicine in their Animal Care and Use program, and its Higher Education Center.

The university’s procurement numbers are smaller than other schools in the state, as UVA relies on an exemption to the Virginia Public Procurement Act that permits the campus to outsource its business.

An amendment from 2006 under the state’s Restructuring Act exempts some larger schools from operating rigidly under the Virginia Public Procurement Act, according to John Gerding, UVA’s assistant director of procurement.

UVA spent over $5.1 million from 2022-2023 at private furniture providers. 

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Gerding said UVA and others were granted autonomy because of their size and resources, compared to smaller colleges like the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon, Virginia—which uses UVA’s purchasing system—that are bound to the Public Procurement Act.

“They basically said ‘You guys have enough people to be doing the right thing, you don’t have to follow the state rules because you guys are in a different space buying different things for medical research, patient care, and a lot of different stuff,” Gerding said.

A receipt from February 2023 shows the Southwest Higher Education Center bought $21,000 in conference room furniture from VCE using UVA’s procurement system. 

But that doesn’t mean VCE still isn’t trying to push its business. 

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Marketers from VCE call Gerding’s office to pitch new products for the university’s pharmaceutical and science departments.

And some schools exempted from the agreement nevertheless remain significant patrons of VCE.

Virginia Tech, one of the state’s largest universities—with over 38,000 students—spent hundreds of thousands on products manufactured in VCE for its campus, according to purchase orders obtained by the Daily Dot. 

In the five months between July and December 2022, Virginia Tech purchased over $316,000 in assortments of chairs and unspecified furniture installations for its residence halls and academic buildings.

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From January to June 2023, the university purchased over $218,000 in a marginally more diverse spread—16 aprons and five bookcases, ranging from $300 to $400. 

But the school is not limited to materials. Inmates in the Virginia Department of Corrections can be “purchased” for labor outside the facility. A memorandum of agreement from 2020 reveals an agreement between the department, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech is listed as the purchaser of “offender work crews” for its College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The crews are pulled from the Virginia DOC Cold Springs Correctional Unit in Greenville, Virginia. 

The contract doesn’t specify what “offender work crews” are tasked with at Virginia Tech outside of “general labor.”

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Virginia Tech did not respond to multiple inquiries from the Daily Dot. 

Located in Harrisburg, James Madison University (JMU) spent almost $1 million on inmate-produced products last year.

From January 2023 to March 2024, the university procured over $997,000 in furniture and non-technological equipment from VCE

In the first two months of 2023, the university purchased $511,000 in lounge furniture and furniture installations. One order for unspecified “furnishing” cost $332,000, part of a renovation of the school’s Convocation Center, a 6,400-person sports and entertainment arena. 

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JMU’s College of Education, Department of Physics and Astronomy, and Residence Life Warehouse also received shipments from VCE, according to purchasing records.

The rest of its purchases came from March 2023 to February 2024 and consisted of individual orders ranging from a few thousand dollars to over $70,000. 

Chad Saylor, the university’s assistant director of media relations, said school policy is for VCE to be their “first source” of furniture. If none of its facilities manufacture a certain good, the department is granted a release by JMU’s Procurement Services. 

But while the VCE program presents itself as an opportunity for incarcerated people, its work conditions and wage standards have hooked the attention of student advocacy groups and national civil liberty organizations. These groups challenge the practice of penal labor, an exception to slavery granted to correctional facilities under a clause in the 13th Amendment. 

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Shawn Weneta, a policy and advocacy analyst for the ACLU of Virginia, served 16 years in a Virginia prison after being convicted of embezzlement before being pardoned by former Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.

Weneta discovered VCE while in prison and learned that to earn credits toward reducing his sentence, he would have to work for the Virginia DOC, VCE, or an associate penal facility in the state.

“There’s a consequence for not working,” Weneta said. “If you’re incarcerated in Virginia and you want to earn the credits to take a small piece off the back of your sentence, you have to work and sometimes the only job that is available is in Virginia Correctional Enterprise.” 

VCE has 17 plants at 11 Virginia DOC sites, Gibson said. 

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Inmates seeking a job begin by applying to work for VCE at the facility they are incarcerated in, where they’re interviewed and, if hired, onboarded as new workers.

Jobs within VCE pay more than those offered in other state prisons. Often, inmates seek these jobs despite their work conditions because a few extra cents can be the difference between a day or a week until their next call home.

“Contrary to popular belief, everything is not provided for you” in prison, Weneta explained. “There’s a fine line between someone being desperate and needing to survive in prison and being able to live in prison.”

Wages are broken into categories for unskilled, semi-skilled, and skilled labor. The bottom rate begins at $0.27 an hour, but VCE offers workers in its main facility nearly double the pay, according to Weneta. 

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The starting salary at VCE facilities is $0.65 an hour, which can go up to $0.90, as workers advance to more skilled positions, Kyle Gibson, the director of communications, for the Virginia DOC said. 

Despite the low labor costs, it does not offer discounts to its buyers and sells items at market rates. 

Haynesville Correctional Center, under the Virginia DOC, runs a tailor shop where inmates do embroidery and sew uniforms. It’s located in the middle of an asphalt parking lot next to a series of solar panels. 

“We called it the Tin Can,” Weneta said about prisoners working in the dust and garbage-ridden facility without air conditioning. 

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Across Virginia, incarcerated workers’ hours depend on the demand of the facility’s patrons. If a major buyer requests a large amount of a product, workers are subject to 10-14-hour shifts, according to Weneta. 

“If Virginia Tech says, ‘Hey we need 1000 new bunk beds’ … they will work you,” Weneta said. “Sometimes they’ll create two shifts so they can run the machines 24 hours if it’s that kind of order.” 

Gibson said a typical work schedule across VCE’s plants is four days a week for 10 hours but some run five-day, eight-hour shifts. Overtime hours are only worked as needed to meet production demands and all work is compensated.

But JMU, Virginia Tech, and UVA are not anomalies in their procurement of prison-made materials in the country. 

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Louisiana State University and Ohio State University have contracts with their state’s correctional departments, according to records obtained by the Daily Dot.  

Student protestors on campuses have recently rallied against their colleges buying products made by incarcerated people.

In 2018, a student group at William and Mary’s University, another entity required to purchase from VCE, met to protest the college’s use of prison-made furniture at the university president’s house, according to the Flat Hat. And op-eds in student papers in the state have challenged the practice.

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Weneta said the Code of Virginia permits VCE to exercise a “dehumanizing” practice of insufficiently paid labor under the guise of education.

VCE, for its part, has touted that the program lowers recidivism rates. But, said Weneta, “They shouldn’t have the exemption from the Fair Labor Standards Act. Slavery wasn’t abolished in the U.S., it was taken behind prison walls.”


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