Questioning U’s Minncor

The phenomenon of national prison labor leaks into the University.

As part of its realignment plan, the University contracts with Minncor, which aims to rehabilitate inmates through labor. Much is placed on the popular yet inconclusive theory connecting rehabilitation to labor, while problems with prison labor are not always examined. Questions of exploitation, success of rehabilitation and how this movement affects communities must be addressed. Is the University contracting labor to save money at the cost of current University employees and by exploiting prison labor?

Prison administrators argue that prison labor gives inmates training that will make them successful citizens outside incarceration. In many cases, inmates are screened to find appropriate placement in the work force, and thus are utilizing skills obtained before entering the institution without new training.

Even with the push for inmates to pass their general educational development tests, education or special training beyond that is unlikely. When considering the Minncor contracts, the interests of inmates, prison administrators, small competing businesses, students and the University must be considered. Would it be cheaper for students to attend the University if it purchases its furniture from Minncor instead of some department store? How are local businesses and inmates affected? All these considerations, along with the understanding that money should never compromise human dignity, are fundamental.

It would be too easy and unfair to simply eliminate the labor system, especially since some inmates prefer to work. On the contrary, it seems unfair to continue to teach inmates menial labor instead of educating them so they have options beyond making furniture for the rest of their lives. The prison labor system needs structure to prevent the exploitation of inmates. In some states, prison labor is an abusive system that pays inmates as little as 25 cents an hour and forces labor upon inmates, punishing those who do not meet their quotas.

If the University continues to maintain this contract, the situation must be monitored to ensure that inmate exploitation does not take place, and to also ensure that Minnesota’s small businesses are not suffering because of prison labor.