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Voices from behind bars: Inside the prison where UO’s furniture is made



Most students have no idea that much of the furniture at the University of Oregon is designed and built by prisoners.

For years, UO has purchased furniture from Oregon Corrections Enterprises (OCE), a semi-independent state agency that is self-funded. Last year, UO partnered with OCE to create new dorm furniture. Students designed the furniture, and OCE manufactured it.

The Emerald visited Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem to talk to inmates about their experience working with OCE and to see the facilities. Oregon State Penitentiary has an OCE furniture factory, industrial laundry center, metal shop, and contact center.

The penitentiary is the only maximum security prison in the state. Walking into the pastel yellow prison, it’s exactly as you might imagine. There are 10 guard towers, chain link fences and 25-foot walls. It houses 2,117 inmates.

OCE made $28.5 million in revenue in 2017, a record breaking year. The program employed 1,419 inmates in several prisons across the state.

There is a noticeable difference in the atmosphere inside the OCE facilities from the rest of the prison. Far from the image of prisoners with a ball and chain making license plates all day, it looks just like any work environment.

In the contact center, there are cubicles where inmates sit in office chairs and talk to clients on the phone. Some are giving information for places like the DMV, some are making sales for OCE. In the design office, inmates sit at spacious desks in front of computers, creating virtual 3D models of pieces of furniture.

OCE was created to meet the requirement of Measure 17, a law passed in 1994, requiring all inmates to work for 40 hours a week. Job training and education can count for up to 20 of those hours.

Prison labor has been a constant reality throughout American history. The thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, has a caveat that allows involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. In some states, prisoners are not paid for their labor.

Inmate Lewis Larson sands the the edges of a table at the Oregon State Penitentiary. (Dana Sparks/Emerald)

In Oregon, inmates are paid on a merit-based point system. They make as little as $8 per month, but can earn upwards of $265 per month. Inmates earn points for completing tasks, including education and job training as well as work.

Recently on the UO campus, a group of students have protested the prison industrial complex and UO’s use of OCE furniture. Read the student protesters’ guest opinion in the Emerald here.

The student protesters call the requirement to work slavery, and demand that UO stops all interaction with OCE. There are similar protests across the country, including a national protest that took place in 23 states with at least 20,000 inmates going on strike and refusing to work, according to the LA Times.

But inmates interviewed by the Emerald say that working, especially with OCE, makes their sentence go by faster, keeps them out of trouble, helps them prepare for life outside of prison, and boosts their morale.

The inmates interviewed by the Emerald volunteered to share their experience working with OCE. Some of the names have been changed upon request of the inmate in order to protect anonymity.

James Sheppard, 42, is serving a 20 year sentence, and has been in prison for six years. He said that he thinks that calling the mandatory work hours slavery is misguided.  

“It’s very easy for people to make comments like that if they’ve never had to live on this side. I would have absolutely felt the same way, but here’s something to think about; people without purpose don’t survive. They don’t thrive,” he said.

He said that not all inmates think that way. Some agree with the protestors.

“Many folks believe that we’re being taken advantage of. That we’re assisting in our captor’s success,” he said.

He mused that victims of crimes probably don’t think that prisoners should get paid at all.

Sheppard worked in other prison jobs for two years, and with OCE for four. He worked in the metal fabrication shop for three years and now works in design. He said that there is a significant difference between other prison jobs and working with OCE.

“They’re not going to ask you for your opinion on something, they’re just going to ask you to mop the floor,” he said. Sheppard explained that with OCE, he feels valued as a team member, and that inmates are treated like experts in their fields.

“It’s the closest feeling I have to feeling like I’m free, and you can’t put a value on that,” he said.

Sheppard said that compared to the value of having a purpose, and something to focus on that makes the day go by faster, the money is not that important.

“I’m not going to get paid what I got paid on the street. But that’s part of acceptance of my life now. Would I do this job if they didn’t pay me? Most likely,” he said.

Positions with OCE are highly coveted, and inmates have to pass a rigorous interviewing process to be accepted. OCE has the best paying jobs in prison, and prisoners are able to learn skills like metalworking, design, fabrication, and more. Inmates are not forced to participate in OCE programs, but if they quit their job with OCE or if they are fired, they will be required to work somewhere else.

Michael Eric Nitschke, 58, is serving his fourth or fifth sentence, and has been in prison for 21 years for his current sentence. He has earned four college degrees while he has been in prison, and will earn a fifth from UO in general social science with a focus in crime law and society shortly before he goes on parole in May. He has worked with OCE since 1998, doing a variety of jobs.

Currently, he works with procurement in the tool room, making orders and checking in on projects. He has opportunities to mentor other inmates, and works at a computer for most of his work day.

He said that working with OCE has been a great opportunity for him and other inmates.

“I’ve seen criminals who over time, now own businesses. Own their homes and they’re tax-paying citizens and have good jobs and I think that this is a great service,” he said.

Inmate Michael Nitschke, who goes by his middle name, Eric. This is not the first time he has been in prison, but he said he is determined to make it his last. So far, Nitschke has earned four college degrees while serving time. (Dana Sparks/Emerald)

Nitschke said that the money he made with OCE helped pay for part of his college tuition in prison, and that the atmosphere of the job helps his morale on a day-to-day basis.

“You feel like you’re a human being. It’s the closest to being in the community while wearing blue, because you have purpose, you use your mind and you learn skills that will be transferable upon your release,” he said.

“Sure I’d like to get paid more money, but it’s an opportunity for people to change their lives.”

Prisoners who work with OCE make $158 per month on average,  according to OCE’s annual report. There are opportunities to earn more by working overtime, and there are bonuses that can be earned for meeting or exceeding goals or for excellent behavior.

Other jobs in the prison make between $8 and $82 per month, according to OCE records.

Jim Jones, 58, echoes Nitschke’s sentiment.

“I get to come to work, build things, be creative. I get out of my house all day long. I get a decent paycheck. Look at where I’m at. I’m a guy in prison and I’m actually happy to be here. Go figure that one,” he said. “House” is slang commonly used in prison to refer to a cell.

Jones has been incarcerated since 1996, and currently works at the furniture fabrication shop. He has worked with computers in the past, but prefers the active work of building things.

Jim Jones works quickly to remove excess glue before it dries. One aspect of the OCE job that inmates noted as important is the opportunity to care about and contribute to the design development their work. (Dana Sparks/Emerald)

He remarked proudly that the room where we sat for the interview was entirely his design. The wood used to construct the room was all reclaimed from scraps from furniture orders.

He pointed at the ceiling, which was made out of a pattern of different colors of wood.

“The student desks you have at the university, well those are the fall-off pieces from them.” He explained the problem-solving process of finding ways to build with the scraps.

“Most people have to go to work, like they got to go to work in the kitchen, they got to go wipe tables, they have to go sit over there and make phone calls, and I did that,” he said of the room.

“I picked up a lot of valuable information just working here,” he said. “I’m learning everyday something new. Another way to do something or how to improve, how to interact with people, how to mentor, how to do whatever.”

Jones explained that focusing on your work and learning new skills can not only give inmates opportunities to use upon release, but prevent them from getting involved in what he called “prison politics” or associations and conflicts with groups of inmates.

“When you come in here you basically leave your blue shirt outside the door. You’re coming here to do a job and you can put that aside,” he said.

If an inmate is not seeking a job for himself, he will be assigned one. These jobs are usually more menial. If an inmate does not find another job before he is expected to be at the job that was assigned to him, he will be expected to be there. If he is not there, he will be written up for conduct violations for being in an unauthorized area. Conduct violations can lead to penalties including time in segregation. Segregation is not the same as solitary confinement, but it is a higher security situation, like a jail within the prison.

Larry Reid, 71, has been in prison for 22 years and will be released this December. He has worked with OCE for 19 years, and has worked as a purchasing clerk and in the contact center making sales. He said that he applied to OCE to learn new skills.

“One thing OCE has done also is my standard of living has gone up. The other jobs don’t pay as well as OCE does and I’ve been able to save $6,000.” He hopes to use the money to set himself up for a good start outside of prison.

Reid said that he tries to tell younger inmates to find opportunities to go to school or learn job skills like he did through OCE.

“There’s too many kids who don’t have anything to do in here except get in trouble,” he said. “You can make a little money to support yourself in here and you can learn a job skill but you have to stay out of trouble.”

Inmates must have six months of good behavior before they qualify to apply to OCE, and conduct violations will result in the loss of their position.

“What scared me the most was the idea of going 20 years in prison and leaving with less knowledge than I came here with,” Reid said. “I wanted to make something of myself before I left here.”

Jim Jones stops from his work, but only for a moment, while he waits for the glue on his project to dry. He says that his work through OCE gives him a reason to be happy despite his circumstances. (Dana Sparks)

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Francisca "Frankie" Benitez

Francisca "Frankie" Benitez

Francisca "Frankie" Benitez is the Senior News Editor at the Emerald. She is a Senior at the UOSOJC and a lover of dogs and punk rock.

Send me a tip, a thought, or a joke: [email protected]
Follow me on twitter: @fnbenitez