SGA Senior Vice President Kyle Carson is attempting to challenge a long-standing state law requiring the university to purchase products made by inmates by galvanizing student groups to end their support of the law.
The current law – enacted in 1989 – mandates the University System of Maryland and other government organizations buy products from Maryland Correctional Enterprises, a company that employs inmates in the state’s prison system. MCE manufactures widely used university products, including dorm beds, desks, chairs and office equipment.
Carson says this practice is a form of “modern-day slavery” because he claims inmates are treated as exploited labor. Carson said through searching the Internet and e-mailing MCE representatives, he found that MCE-employed inmates are paid very low wages for their work.
Carson has already gained the support of Jordan Atkinson, Student Government Association academic legislator, who is sponsoring a bill that would end the group’s support of the policy. The SGA is set to vote on the policy during a March 7 meeting.
The campus chapter of Community Roots has also thrown its support behind the proposal. Daniel Espinoza, the co-founder and co-president of Community Roots, said he is appalled that so few people are aware of the university’s partnership with MCE.
“The beds we sleep on are made by this enterprise, and students have no idea,” Espinoza said. “I think that this really shows the relationship between big institutions like UMD and things like MCE.”
According to Kathy Budd, manager of facilities procurement at the university. The MCE has been supplying the system with dorm and office furniture for decades.
Danielle Wilmsen, MCE Public Information Officer, said in 2006 that the system spent $1.5 million on products and services in 2006 from the MCE, making it one of the Enterprise’s largest clients.
Carson calls the law “unconstitutional” and said his biggest concern is the low wages the inmates receive.
But Kyle Saunders, MCE’s university representative, said this claim is inaccurate. She said inmates who work for the MCE shops earn more than they would if they were employed in any other job in the correctional system.
“We pay the labor force from the correctional division,” Saunders said. “It is very much a misconception that we use slave labor.”
Saunders added that employment with MCE is strictly on a volunteer basis. “We’re one of the most sought-after employers in that system,” she said. “People want to work for us.”
SGA President Emma Simson said that this would be the first time in her term that members of the SGA have attempted to change a state law.
If the SGA supports the resolution, then the Board of Regents will be notified of the SGA’s stance on the current law.
If it is dropped, Carson and Atkinson will take it on as a grassroots project.
“If it doesn’t pass, then we just don’t have SGA support,” Carson said. “At least the bill will get people thinking and talking about it.”
Contact reporter Melissa Weiss at firstname.lastname@example.org.