The cost of zero waste: Ohio State’s use of prison labor sparks scrutiny
More than 8,000 people and counting signed a change.org petition created June 18 that demands Ohio State end its use of prison labor in its game-day recycling efforts.
Across Ohio State’s campus, and most notably through Ohio Stadium’s Zero Waste sustainability program, bags of recycled materials are shipped to various prisons across county lines, made possible through a partnership with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, university spokesperson Ben Johnson said. Those employed in the position are paid $1.10 per hour by Ohio Penal Industries to manually sort through the recyclables, JoEllen Smith, spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, said in an email.
Brian Wise, a 2018 Ohio State alumnus and creator of the petition, said he was initially intrigued by the Zero Waste program when he heard about it as a student.
But by contracting with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, where people employed in the recycling program are paid significantly less than Ohio’s minimum wage of $8.70 per hour, Wise said the university is exploiting low-income people of color, who were more than five times more likely than white people in the U.S. to be incarcerated by the end of 2018, according to the Pew Research Center.
“Recently with everything going on for Black Lives Matter and this awakening to the rampant inequality that exists in this country, I remembered and realized that it was like, ‘Wow, you know, these people who are processing all the waste are prison labor,’” Wise said.
To understand the origins of prison labor, Tiyi Morris, associate professor of African American and African Studies at Ohio State who teaches joint classes of incarcerated and non-incarcerated students in the Inside-Out Program, said it’s crucial to look at the history behind the “explosion” of mass incarceration in the U.S., which she said was designed to compensate for the loss of free labor when slavery was abolished.
“The use of Black labor for the same types of activities that Black people were doing during slavery is what is at the heart of prison labor to begin with,” Morris said. “And so it’s simply a continuum of this desire to exploit and extract the labor of Black bodies without due compensation — basically because of anti-Blackness.”
In order to prevent exploitation of those employed, Smith said the Ohio Penal Industries established an advisory board in 2013, in which external stakeholders from a variety of industries approve or deny proposals for labor and training programs that involve institutions like Ohio State.
“We would not be involved with the partnership if we thought it was exploitative,” she said.
There are currently seven adults employed by the Ohio Penal Industries across the state for sorting and composting, all of whom submit an employment application voluntarily, Smith said. The number of people in the position ranges from six to 10.
Although several prisons have employed incarcerated people to sort recycled materials from Ohio State’s campus since the program began in 2013, Smith said Allen-Oakwood Correctional Institution in Lima, Ohio, currently receives Ohio Stadium’s recyclables. Johnson said other waste from Ohio State’s campus is sent to the London Correctional Institution, as well as other Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections locations.
Through completion of the composting and recycling program, Smith said employees receive a 10-hour safety course as well as a forklift operation certification and a Composting Operators License.
“Beyond hard skills, they learn the soft skills of applying and interviewing for jobs, managing leave, and working in a professional environment,” Smith said.
However, Morris said there is little evidence that prison employment programs lead to job opportunities once people are released from prison. Because many companies and institutions require people to disclose past convictions, many people with felony convictions are turned away from employment and educational opportunities.
“It simply is an additional barrier right after you’ve been released,” Morris said. “It inhibits people’s ability to fully, really integrate into society.”
In the first several years post-incarceration, nearly 50 percent of people have no reported earnings, according to a 2018 study performed by the Brookings Institution. Among those that do find employment, half make less than $10,090 a year.
Along with the Ohio Penal Industries’ reentry program for people incarcerated, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections partners with 13 employers in “green” industries dealing with recycling and composting to assist individuals with post-release job placement, Smith said. But she said since many people do not have obligations to report to the department after release, it is difficult to track placements.
Once the bags of recycled materials are sorted, Smith said each recycling program is encouraged to sell the materials and use half the earnings to purchase items for the recycling program itself, and the rest of the proceeds fund statewide programs for incarcerated individuals, such as an environmental literacy program and job training programs.
Across Ohio, recycling programs — including those within the prisons and not contracted with external institutions like Ohio State — earned more than $33,000 last fiscal year, Smith said.
Despite the fact that money from the sold recycled materials is reinvested into programming for inmates, Wise said this is no exception for the “criminally low” wages earned by inmates.
“The prison industrial complex has continued to capitalize on this to essentially encourage harsh sentencing laws for and cause mass incarceration for Black people and other people of color that is in violation of basic human rights.”
Mary Thomas, an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Ohio State who teaches joint classes of incarcerated and non-incarcerated students in the Inside-Out Program, said that Ohio State divesting from prison labor would be a good first step toward addressing systemic racism. But she said it is a tiny piece to the puzzle of how people of color are exploited by historically racist policies and institutions — including the over-policing of Black communities in Columbus.
“It’s a lot more nuanced than just the labor,” Thomas said.
For instance, the 2020 proposed operating budget for the city of Columbus allocates nearly $650 million toward public safety, which includes the Divisions of Police and Fire, whereas education and neighborhoods are each allocated about $6 million, according to the city’s website.
“It’s a win to divest from prisons, but let’s not think that that’s the end of our work,” Thomas said.
Raga Maddela, a fourth-year in industrial and systems engineering, said she was eager to sign the petition but worries that even if Ohio State ends its contract with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, other institutions and companies in Ohio will continue to use prison labor.
“I’m really happy that the petition brought attention to it, to the student body, because I don’t think the attention was there before,” Maddela said. “But I think that the problem is even deeper rooted than how far that petition goes.”
As an alternative to prison labor, Wise said the university can either properly compensate inmates who are employed to sort through Ohio State’s recyclables, change the way in which products at Ohio State are packaged so waste can be recycled by machines, or even end university recycling efforts altogether.
“A recycling program is not worth robbing people of their rights for,” Wise said. “Realistically, environmental policy is often enacted on the backs of poor Black people and people of color. If it comes down to a choice between recycling and human rights, we need to choose human rights every single time.”