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CU Boulder Students Protest Against Labor, Low Wages for Colorado Inmates

September 26, 2018

From left, Gwendalynn Roebke, Frankie Donez, Cam Thomas and Lau Malaver protest Tuesday at the University Memorial Center. The students were protesting the use of prison labor to build furniture purchased by the university.

About a dozen University of Colorado students gathered outside a student leader reception Tuesday to protest the prison labor that provides university furniture.

The students congregated at the doors to the Glenn Miller Ballroom in the University Memorial Center, held cardboard signs, and chanted, “One, two, three, four — what does CU stand for? Five, six, seven, eight — profits off of inmates.”

The reception was an invite-only event for student leaders and campus administrators to mingle and talk about the upcoming year, and Chancellor Phil DiStefano entered the event as the students chanted.

The protest was the first event planned by the Organization Between Student Orgs , a self-described coalition of marginalized student voices and student organizations at CU. After chanting, they entered the event to hand out fliers.

“We have this lip service to student leaders and this lip service to caring about students who are passionate about causes, but when push comes to shove, we just sit in a room with a bunch of crusty, old administrators who don’t want to do jack, and then they give us free food and we leave,” said organizer and CU student Gwendalynn Roebke before the protest.

At issue Tuesday for the protesters was the university purchasing furniture from a prison-based work program, she said.

Colorado statutes mandate that state agencies must purchase office furniture and systems from the Colorado Correctional Industries division, a work program for inmates. Institutions of higher education do not have that mandate but must request a bid from the division and consider it in a competitive process when purchasing office furniture and systems that exceed the small purchases limit, or use the division as the sole source supplier.

The CU system has a university-wide price agreement with the division that is valid through June 30 and covers office and other furniture, according to a procurement webpage . Departments must obtain approval through a waiver process to purchase office furnishings outside the price agreement.

CU Boulder spokespeople declined to comment on the agreement or the students’ protest of it because the price agreement was determined by the university system.

Colorado Correctional Industries division administrators did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday, but the division’s 2017 annual report said the three main goals are: to reduce offender idleness; to train offenders in meaningful skills, work ethics and quality standards; and to operate in a business-like manner so revenues meet the ongoing capital equipment, working inventories and operating cash needs of the division. More than 1,800 offenders were hired to work in 70 programs, including in agribusiness, manufacturing and service-related industries.

“Our programs help make communities safer and save taxpayers millions through our job-centered approach that lowers the number of repeat offenders and reduces criminal justice costs for all citizens of Colorado,” division director Dennis Dunsmoore wrote in the report.

In 2015, Whole Foods leaders announced their stores would stop selling tilapia, trout and goat cheese products made from the work of Colorado prisoners in the division. At the time, the Denver Post reported that inmates who volunteered for the program were paid between 74 cents and $4 a day, but proponents of the program said it helped inmates develop a work ethic and learn new trades and skills. Those wages were higher than many other states, NPR reported .

Frankie Donez, another CU student and organizer, said the protesters realize the issue was a state-level one, but they hoped to raise awareness about what they described as modern-day slavery.

“The issue is a lot bigger, but we’re only students and we can’t start at that level,” Donez said. “Our plan was to start mobilizing at this level so we could educate students and the administration about some of the issues that they might not realize exist on campus.”

Roebke said she wants campus community members to be aware of where their furniture is coming from.

Personally, she added, she’d like to see better living conditions and equitable wages for prisoners, as well as more programs focused on rehabilitation beyond work skills.

The protesters’ fliers said they stood in solidarity with the national prison strike — which took place in at least 17 states in late August and early September, according to Vox — and listed demands for CU leaders, including to stop purchasing furniture from the division and to “become a leading force in dismantling unjust practices associated with the prison-industrial complex.”

Cassa Niedringhaus: 303-473-1106, cniedringhaus@dailycamera.com

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