WSU purchases furniture from privatized prisons

University has contract with Washington State Correctional Industries; last big purchase was in 2018



WSU Libraries went through Washington State Correctional Industries to have existing furniture reupholstered.

PUNEET BSANTI, Deputy news editor

Editor’s note: A follow-up to this article has been published containing more details about Correctional Industries.

WSU has furniture everywhere, from chairs and tables in the Compton Union Building to the blue dorm mattresses — but what students do not know is that some of the furniture was made by incarcerated prisoners from Washington State Correctional Industries. 

Aaron Cunningham, Auxiliary Facility Services director, said Facilities Services has a state contract that allows them to purchase from multiple vendors, including CI. The last big purchase from CI was for Waller Hall in 2018.

Mary Cook, School of Language, Cultures, and Race doctoral student and teaching assistant, said she believes CI is exploiting the prisoners who make the furniture, and that WSU should not be buying from them at all.

Cook said she prepares a lecture about prison slavery every semester for her Comparative Ethnic Studies 101: Intro to Race and Racism in the United States class. 

According to CI’s website, their mission is to promote a positive work ethic and provide work experience for prisoners who will be returning to local communities. However, Cook said she believes the reality is much darker than that. 

“[CI] is a privatized prison industry that is specifically made to run prisons as a business and maximize profits while minimizing costs at the expense of incarcerated people,” she said. 

Cook showed her class documentaries and videos on the reality of privatized prisons. She said these prisons normally have poor food and a low-quality environment because they do not want to spend money on cleaning.

In addition, prisoners only make a few cents per product for the furniture they make, she said. If buyers go onto the CI website, they sell furniture for steep prices. There are fabric chairs listed for around $450, and a wooden chair is listed for $235.

Facilities project manager Stacy Gravel said different departments have the option of going through CI for furniture. 

“WSU Libraries went through Correctional Industries to have existing lounge furniture reupholstered,” Gravel said. “I have not actually placed an order [through CI], but I have directed people there for assistance.” 

Cook said she believes CI is using their prisons as slave labor and that WSU should not be paying into it. 

Privatized prisons in Washington leave prisoners with bad mental and physical health because of the poor upkeep of the prisons. There is also no healthcare for prisoners, despite them working and making furniture, Cook said. 

She said prisons go against the 13th Amendment, which prohibits slavery except as a form of punishment for a crime.

“Because of how the 13th Amendment is directed, it has shaped the prison system to basically be a tool to continue slavery into the modern-day,” Cook said. 

While WSU has purchased furniture from CI, Cunningham said they have no obligation to do so. The newer dorms, Northside and Global Scholars, were not outfitted by CI, but through other vendors, he said. 

“We haven’t done much furniture purchasing from them in recent years,” he said.

Cunningham said they have other vendors they tend to go to for furniture purchases.

In addition, Cunningham believes WSU would never conduct business with an organization that does forced labor.

“I believe the prisoners do get compensated and they get the work skills they need. I don’t believe the state of Washington would allow [forced labor],” Cunningham said. 

Despite CI not being used for major purchases, there is still furniture produced by them around campus, such as the metal green benches outside the CUB and the green recycle and trash stations, Gravel said.