Closing GC and putting prisoners to work

The University's MINNCOR contracts and General College policies come at a high price in the fight for access to affordable education.

Nathan Paulsen

If University President Bob Bruininks’ administration continues on its current course, the University will be less accessible to future generations of Minnesotans and more dependent on the prison system for its basic needs. The administration is not only attempting to dismantle General College, but also is putting prisoners to work for the University by contracting with MINNCOR, an organization that aims to rehabilitate inmates through labor. These policies are a clear and present danger to the health of our state and do not reflect the interests of a vast majority of Minnesotans.

The administration’s plan to close GC will only exacerbate Minnesota’s crisis in public education. The 2004 State Report Card on Higher Education reported that 10 years ago, 37 of every 100 adults from minority ethnic groups were enrolled in college. That figure has plummeted to only 26 of 100. Studies indicate that students of color and low-income students tend to fair worse on standardized test scores than their higher-income peers. Recent findings of Minnesota’s racial disparities in test scores led the Rev. Randolph Staten of the Minnesota Coalition of Black Churches to wonder, “Why it is with so many of our children being destroyed we have not declared an emergency in the state of Minnesota?” Bruininks does not share the Rev. Staten’s concern. Instead of addressing inequalities, he intends to reduce GC admissions from 875 to 475 by fall 2007. Given the high proportion of students of color and low-income students who enroll in GC, as well as the role of admission criteria in offsetting already existing class and race inequalities, the anticipated outcome of this policy is hard to dispute. Minnesota youth will be denied equal access to education, our campus will become less diverse, and working people will have fewer opportunities to send their children to our state’s largest university.

At the same time that the administration’s task force was planning the termination of GC, the Board of Regents amended its purchasing policy to better position MINNCOR for contracts. MINNCOR’s Web site boasts that it offers “competitive prices due to the fact that we employ inmates.” The prisoners have typically received 50 cents to $1 an hour. MINNCOR has exploited the vulnerable social position of inmates to enforce labor policies and keep its workers producing for a fraction of minimum wage. In 1996, around 150 prisoners at Oak Park Heights Correctional Facility went on strike demanding that MINNCOR pay minimum wage. Authorities responded with lockdowns, cell searches, and the suspension of visits. These practices are a boon for MINNCOR and its clients. In 2004, MINNCOR netted some $2.5 million in profits and nearly $30 million in sales.

MINNCOR is part of a prison system that ranks among the most racist in the nation. Human Rights Watch lists Minnesota as one of our nation’s worst five states in terms of racial disparities in incarceration. According to the Council on Crime and Justice, “African Americans are incarcerated at 20 times the rate of Caucasians in Minnesota.” Former Hennepin County attorney Tom Johnson observed, “In 1999, in Hennepin County you had over half of all African American males between 18 and 30 arrested in that one year.” Justice Alan Page said, “We found that people of color are incarcerated more often, are given longer sentences, they receive higher bails, they are subject to less favorable plea bargains and on and on and on.”

It is evident that GC and MINNCOR policies have a negative impact on people of color and low-income households. This is a high price to pay for the administration’s goal of turning our campus into “one of the top three research Universities in the world.” As students continue to organize in the months ahead, and the public’s awareness of University policy expands, the administration will be met with increasing community resistance. Minnesota residents should sleep well tonight knowing that while it is less likely their children will attend the University, they at least might someday have the opportunity to produce its furniture for $1 an hour while languishing behind bars.

Nathan Paulsen welcomes comments at [email protected]