Stop contracting with MINNCOR

Administrators prioritize financial interests over community needs. MINNCOR is one example.

Nathan Paulsen

The Board of Regents purchasing policy assigns preferential status to MINNCOR Industries, a division of the Minnesota Department of Corrections that uses prisoners in the production of a variety of goods, ranging from office furniture to mailbox supports. MINNCOR pays its workers a small fraction of the minimum wage and depends on the racist prison system for its labor. The decision to contract with MINNCOR clearly demonstrates the administration’s disregard for the needs of Minnesota’s communities when they conflict with the University’s financial interests.

In an article titled “Increasing Diversity, Intolerable Disparities,” the Council on Crime and Justice raises one of the most urgent questions facing our nation today. The Council asks: “How can communities of color bring to bare the focus and commitment necessary to resolve issues surrounding school attendance, school suspensions, test scores and graduation rates if their belief is that Caucasians – who are correctly viewed as in charge – will continue to use the criminal justice system to intimidate, inconvenience and incarcerate people of color?”

I wonder whether administrators considered this question while choosing to encourage the University to purchase products from an organization that relies on the notoriously racist police and courts for its labor. Before contracting with MINNCOR, how much time did University administrators spend contemplating why it is that blacks are incarcerated at 20 times the rate of whites in Minnesota? Would it have been deemed inappropriate to mention that Hispanics/Latinos were over-represented by 92 percent in Minnesota’s juvenile apprehensions in 2000?

Were the Board of Regents members who drafted the University’s MINNCOR policy outraged over the conclusions of the Minnesota Supreme Court Task Force on Racial Bias, which found that people of color are incarcerated more often, receive less favorable plea bargains and are subject to longer sentences and higher bails? In the course of the Board’s deliberation, did their conversation include the fact that in 2000 alone, 44 percent of all black males in Hennepin County between 18 and 30 were arrested, with approximately 80 percent of those arrests being made for nonperson crimes such as loitering and trespassing? Who spoke about the criminal disenfranchisement laws that have left 13 percent of black men legally barred from voting? Was a comparison made between this situation and Jim Crow?

Should this nightmare have entered into the University’s decision-making process, I imagine that administrators would have comforted themselves with the false notion that MINNCOR is trying to “rehabilitate inmates through labor.” If MINNCOR set as its priority the rehabilitation of prisoners, it would begin by treating them with the basic dignity and respect that is the birthright of every human. Instead, MINNCOR has typically paid its employees 50 cents to $1 an hour and forces a variety of mandatory income reductions, including a reduction for the cost of incarceration itself. When MINNCOR employees organized to defend their labor rights, prison authorities responded by taking punitive measures against them.

A majority of state inmates that MINNCOR supposedly seeks to rehabilitate are nonviolent offenders, many of whom have fallen prey to the United States government’s war against the working poor and people of color, otherwise known as the “War on Drugs.” Whereas whites have been found to account for almost three-quarters of all illegal drug use, in 2001 blacks and Hispanics/Latinos accounted for more than 75 percent of state inmates serving time for drug offenses. Moreover, police are known to target low-income neighborhoods for surveillance and enforcement of drug laws, leading to the disproportionate imprisonment of working people. Common sense indicates that inmates are less in need of rehabilitation than the prison system itself. Perhaps the politicians and bureaucrats responsible for crafting the government’s drug policies should spend a few years laboring in prison for dimes an hour. With any luck they might learn some useful skills and one day be safe to return to our communities.

The bottom line is that the University will not be bothered with issues of racial disparity while it is presented with golden opportunities to purchase office furniture at bargain basement prices. According to the minutes of a meeting in which President Bob Bruininks was discussing strategic positioning and its chances of becoming University policy, he points out that although similar plans failed in the past, “there is more urgency now because the University has seen large budget declines and must make important decisions to position and strengthen itself in an increasingly competitive environment.” Bruininks’ goal of turning our campus into “one of the top three research universities in the world” is nothing more than a desperate attempt to secure private money as public funding for higher education runs dry. Faced with a financial crisis manufactured by politicians seeking to dismantle public education as we know it, University administrators have decided to shrug their shoulders, roll up their sleeves and get down to the dirty work of exploiting prison labor, cutting programs, raising tuition and selling our University to the highest corporate bidder. The administration must be held accountable for its complicity in the decline of our University. This will only happen as students find their way into campus-based movements demanding an end to MINNCOR contracts and related injustices.

Nathan Paulsen welcomes comments at [email protected]