Last January, at his high school’s chorus fundraiser, 17-year-old Spencer Cliche overheard a chat between a parent and a “trusted faculty member.” (As a student journalist, he told me, he does not reveal his sources.) The seats in the auditorium, Spencer says he heard the two adults saying, were going to be reupholstered using prison labor.
He didn’t think much of it at first. But later in the semester when his journalism class studied prison issues, he mentioned what he’d heard to the teacher, Sara Barber-Just, a two-decade veteran of Amherst Regional High in Massachusetts. Couldn’t the fact that the school was using incarcerated laborers—who may learn useful skills but are typically paid next to nothing—be a story for the next edition of the school’s quarterly newspaper, he asked?
Until then, the class hadn’t done much investigative journalism, sticking mostly to profiles of fellow classmates and articles on school clubs and sports teams; they had also published a feature on vaping. But the prison labor story seemed like a juicy scoop to the student newshounds.
First, with Barber-Just’s help, they searched online for the tape of the school board meeting at which the reupholstering project had been discussed. Sure enough, school officials had talked about having prisoners at a state penitentiary perform the work—which they said would be a positive opportunity for the laborers while also helping the school meet a budget deadline.
Next, Spencer sent a list of questions to the school superintendent and also contacted a spokeswoman for the state prison system. Barber-Just enlisted two University of Massachusetts journalism professors to help with reporting and structuring an investigative feature story. Together, the class workshopped drafts, and students on the newspaper staff gave it a final read, putting the print edition together after school hours.
Like many journalists waiting for their big story to drop, Spencer was a bit nervous about the reaction his article would get. But, he says, “I felt calmer knowing that whatever would come of this, they wouldn’t expel me or anything. I’m not the one doing this [using prison labor], I’m just presenting the facts.”
What also made it easier was being a senior who would be leaving soon, he said.
In early June, just before Spencer’s graduation, his school’s student newspaper, The Graphic, ran a 3,000-word special report with this opening paragraph: “On March 21, the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District and Massachusetts Correctional Industries (MassCor) inked a contract that set up prisoners at MCI-Norfolk to reupholster the 1,105 badly worn auditorium seats at Amherst Regional High and Middle Schools, between April and June of this year, to the tune of $101,800. The auditorium seats needed to be repaired, the district budget was limited, and using prison labor cut costs.” According to the report, the seats had been removed and transported to the prison to be reupholstered.
The article went online on a Monday night. Within 24 hours, it had nearly a thousand clicks, Barber-Just said. Parents and former students were sharing it widely on social media. The local newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, later picked it up, and a local radio station featured it as the “question of the morning.” Like many great exposés, the story had become a story unto itself.
And by the next afternoon, the superintendent, Michael Morris, had written an email to students’ families saying that, due to the concerns raised about how the auditorium seats had been reupholstered, the school district would not be using prison labor again in the future. (Morris did not respond to a request for comment from The Marshall Project.)
The investigative journalism conducted by Spencer and his class had real-world impact that many adult journalists only dream of, shining a light on a common practice in the United States: incarcerated workers making furniture and other products that are used by the public. While most prison labor is kept in-house—in other words, inmates cooking, cleaning and doing laundry within the prison itself—there are also state-run “prison industries” through which incarcerated laborers manufacture low-cost products for many institutions, including hospitals, police and fire departments, churches and yes, schools.
“We essentially fund departments of education through departments of correction,” Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, an advocacy group focused on the commercialization of prisons, told me. “Public school budgets would have to be much higher if they had to buy their desks from the regular market.”
At first, this arrangement seemed like such a glaring injustice that Spencer struggled to find journalistic balance. “What I’d always learned was that this is morally and ethically wrong, so it was kind of tough not to write an opinion piece,” he says.
Barber-Just says that although she had a general awareness of the injustices in the prison system from reading Michelle Alexander’s book "The New Jim Crow" and watching the Ava DuVernay documentary "13th", she knew there must be more to the story of prison labor. “I said, ‘I hear you Spencer, but we need to ask all the questions, not just jump to, This is a bad thing.’”
Prison industries programs, defenders say, provide incarcerated people with useful skills, prepare them for employment after their release and decrease their chances of recidivism. Many current and former prisoners have said that working behind bars gives otherwise empty days a sense of meaning—and the meager wages go further when your housing, food and health care are all (or mostly) paid for by the state.
Cara Savelli, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Correction, said in a statement to The Marshall Project that MassCor’s contracts with schools, nursing homes, veterans’ agencies and other important public-service providers “have a dual purpose—offenders develop valuable, marketable experience,” while the recipient agencies get “a quality product at a reasonable price.”
It’s unfortunate that the Amherst school district won’t be working with prisons anymore, Savelli said, because “the wider the variety of jobs contracted directly correlates to the skills offender[s] can acquire during their incarceration.”
Then again, prisoners are paid far below minimum wage—less than a dollar per hour in most states. Many prison systems have privatized their phone and visitation services; it’s inhumane, critics say, to pay workers so little while charging them so much to stay in touch with their loved ones. Prison workers also have few rights, such as guaranteed overtime pay, workplace safety protections or the ability to form unions and engage in collective bargaining.
Spencer says he tried to grapple with these opposing ideas. He learned that “what’s exploitative is taking that need and that want, and then paying them such miniscule wages.”
He and Barber-Just brought their questions to the rest of the class, and also contacted an expert at the Prison Policy Initiative, a think-tank. Perhaps most importantly, they asked a question familiar to many journalists: If this were not the way things worked, what would the alternative be?
As it turned out, the other vendor that had vied to reupholster the auditorium seats was the Wellspring Cooperative: a local organization that hires formerly incarcerated and other low-income people, compensates them well (up to $25 an hour, according to Spencer's article) and then makes them worker-owners of the business.
“We discovered this the day before [the article] went to layout,” said Barber-Just. “It gave the story a whole different shape.”
Barber-Just’s class will continue to have a prison journalism unit, she said, including lessons drawing on Marshall Project articles and the "Ear Hustle" podcast, which is produced by incarcerated journalists at San Quentin prison in California. As a teacher, she says Spencer’s lead helped the class gain real-world experience within the classroom setting.
“It was this moment in their education when they moved beyond being in a class,” she says, “and were operating in the world and thinking about how labor functions in their community.”