“I don’t want to sleep on this bed. I had known that Scripps had previously bought prison furniture, and I know that the other colleges have also used prison furniture. But, I had never seen the sticker,” said Sara Gonzalez-Bautista SC ’18, standing over her disassembled bed frame with a bright yellow sticker that read “Washington State Correctional Industries.”
According to a December 2014 investigation by The Seattle Times, Washington State Correctional Industries ranks as the fourth largest prison labor program in the country, bringing in $70 million revenue and employing about 1,600 incarcerated individuals.
Among its findings, The Seattle Times discovered the Washington State Correctional Industries to be “a broken program that has cost taxpayers millions of dollars, charged exorbitant markups to state agencies to make up for losses, and taken jobs from private businesses that can’t compete with cheap prison labor.”
The Seattle Times investigation found that Washington State Correctional Industries purposefully selects incarcerated individuals who have longer sentences, especially life sentences, to reduce training costs and pays workers as low as 55 cents an hour.
In addition, The Seattle Times argues the correctional facility capitalizes off of a “built-in monopoly,” in which Washington state law requires that state agencies and public universities buy from them. The investigation also found claims of decreasing recidivism and improving job preparedness to be unsubstantiated.
In an email to TSL, Binti Harvey, vice president for marketing and communications at Scripps, wrote that “the College has purchased bed frames, dressers, bookcases, desks, and desk chairs from [Washington State Correctional Industries]. All of these items are in students rooms only, not in common areas such as recreation rooms, reading rooms, living rooms, or other seating areas in suites or outdoors.”
According to Dean Calvo, vice president for business affairs and treasurer at Scripps, available records show the college’s relationship with Washington State Correctional Industries dates back to 2008. When asked whether Scripps had been buying from them before 2008, Calvo responded saying he did not know and that they did not have access to records prior to 2008. Scripps declined TSL’s inquiry to see receipts and invoices regarding this issue.
“I will say this, though, it’s been very typical in higher education for universities and colleges, especially on the West Coast…There has been a historic pattern of purchasing from companies like Washington State Correctional Industries. In a previous position that I had where I worked in the Cal State University system, it was very typical, and in some isolated cases, it was required to purchase from a prison industry within California,” said Calvo.
After TSL brought Gonzalez-Bautista’s discovery to the attention of Scripps leadership, TSL and Scripps College students, faculty, and staff received a statement from President Lara Tiedens, outlining Scripps’s decision to “prohibit purchases of prison-produced goods” as a “default approach” and to “require careful judgment and clarity of the practices of [prisons] prior to spending resources with them.”
When asked to clarify her position, Tiedens wrote in an email to TSL: “The default is that we should not purchase from companies that sell goods manufactured in prisons, but if sufficient research can establish that a particular prison manufacturing program is fair to prisoners, then that vendor will be considered.”
Not everyone shares this view of prisons, however.
“It feels like they were saying, ‘Sorry, kind of, we might do it again if there’s an ethical prison labor production,’ which in my personal opinion is contradictory. There is no ethical prison-sourced labor,” said Sabrina Gunter SC ’18, a member of Prison Abolition Club, a 5C student group that Gunter describes as “for prison abolition” and “looking for ways to support strikers in the Attica-September 9th uprising, organizing other students, and bringing awareness to these issues.”
Dr. Kara Placek, associate professor of sociology at Pitzer College, said that the prison system “needs to be completely abolished.”
“People just come out so much worse than when they went in, and it was something that I just saw everyday. It was just heartbreaking,” Placek said.
Before joining Pitzer’s faculty, Placek worked with incarcerated youth for 8 years. Describing, historically, how prisons were “inherently made in order to be a substitution for slavery following abolition,” Placek recalls that she left her work within the prison industrial complex because she was worried about how it was changing her as a person.
Gonzalez-Bautista, who now sleeps with a different bed frame, said that Scripps’ involvement in the prison industrial complex is reflective of “the continued cooption of social movements and social justice by the institutions who appear less corrupt when in reality all of these institutions are so embedded in all of the systems that oppress people and create hierarchies between people.”