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

Oregon Corrections Enterprise is a semi-independent entity from the state of Oregon and Department of Corrections. Without looking closer, the OCE workspaces in the prison look and feel like regular production sites. (Dana Sparks/Emerald)

The University of Oregon enjoys being “well known for its liberal student body” and culture. Who wouldn’t? Attracting students across the nation to a campus with a liberal identity has been extremely profitable. For many, then, walking into the dorms for the first time their freshman year can be something liberating – you might feel like you’ve finally found your progressive home.

That dorm, though, is not what it seems. The twin mattress you sit on, the closet and dresser you shove your clothes in and the table you work on were probably made through prison labor.

Granted under the 13th Amendment, which protects slavery if convicted of a crime, Oregon’s Measure 17 requires prisoners to work a minimum of 40 hours a week to cover their own cost of incarceration. Mind you, at least Oregon pays its incarcerated workers. While some horrendous states don’t pay for prison labor, the beautiful, progressive state of Oregon pays a generous average of between 5 and 47 cents an hour. Convict leasing, indentured servitude or prison labor, whatever you want to call it – it is slave labor.

And UO uses it.

In 2018, the Emerald reported that the university spent $2,041,834 to Oregon Correctional Enterprises, an agency that uses incarcerated peoples’ slave labor to build furniture. This is their site, go look at it. You’ll notice the couches, closets, beds and everything else you found comfort in your freshman year. It was slave labor.

The low pay barely scratches the surface of the horrendous conditions that incarcerated individuals must work in. Seven states, including Oregon, write “incarcerated labor” as a resource in state emergency plans. For any national disaster, states use slave labor because of its low cost. But unlike any other worker, incarcerated individuals do not have the right to not work regardless of the threat to their livelihood. Prison slave labor is not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which protects minimum wage and overtime pay, or the National Labor Relations Act, which protects collective bargaining. Prisoners are not even covered by the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration protections, which are the laws that enforce maintaining a safe working environment. As a result, this trend worsened during COVID-19; the infection rate was 10 times higher than in the rest of the state and nothing was done to protect the laborers. These are the conditions that inmates are forced to work in.

And the University of Oregon uses it.

Do not turn this dialogue into the rhetoric of, ‘It’s just the way it is.’ In 2020, the Oregon Health & Science University ceased its contract with the Oregon State Penitentiary. Since 1995, they had been using slave labor at the prison to do their laundry for the hospital. They should not get much credit for this moral correction, because the decision closely followed a heavily publicized piece that revealed this disgusting contract that excoriated OSHU’s commitment to its own values.

The problem is not nuanced nor complicated – the proud democratic state of Oregon has allowed legal slavery to persist and its institutions, like UO, have profited from it. When the university buys prison labor furniture, it endorses and legitimizes the prison industrial complex and its worst facets. It is no different for students. When we step into our dorms on campus, we buy into a lie. A lie that UO cares about racial justice beyond words in a flowery email. A lie that UO cares about equality over profit margins.

As the campus continues its construction of new dorms and buildings, the time to cut ties with the prison industrial complex and the inhumane labor practices is now. 

Writing this article, or reading it and doing nothing afterwards, does nothing for those incarcerated individuals who have lost the right to their body and agency. They are still building the damned furniture that the university will happily cut a cheap check for. If this university embodies equality and justice, it will prioritize the insurance of safe labor over the profit margins it saves. It is time to pressure the administration. Relentlessly.

The burden is on us: students, alumni and community members around UO. Institutions continue to operate in the malicious grey area of moral codes as long as the law allows it. We cannot do the same. If we fail, we are complicit in allowing modern slavery to persist in our state and nation.