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After Protest, Reporter Learns All Prison Labor Isn't Equal

People in Oregon prisons are required to work 40 hours a week because of a measure passed in 1994. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
People in Oregon prisons are required to work 40 hours a week because of a measure passed in 1994. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
April 16, 2018

EUGENE, Ore. — After an uproar on campus over prison labor used to make the University of Oregon's furniture, one student reporter decided to see the prison for herself.

Frankie Benitez writes for the Daily Emerald and was inspired to check out the the Oregon Corrections Enterprises furniture factory at the State Penitentiary in Salem when the Student Labor Action Project began protesting the company. Benitez said she sympathizes with the protestors, but in the factory, she found most of the people doing the work enjoyed it.

"Not only was it the best paying, but when they worked with OCE, they felt like they were free like on the outside, because they were treated like valued people who had the best knowledge for any situation,” Benitez said. “Like,the guards would ask them what they thought was a good way to proceed with a project."

Benitez said jobs with OCE - a semi-independent agency that funds itself - are some of the most coveted in the penitentiary. Average salaries in the factory are nearly $160 a month, and the workers have the opportunity to make more.

Benitez added that this isn't indicative of work in the rest of the prison. If someone doesn't choose a job, they are usually assigned to menial tasks where they can make as little as $8 a month.

People in Oregon prisons are required to work 40 hours a week because of Measure 17, passed in 1994. But Benitez said questions about forced labor and work with OCE are practically separate issues.

"This program is something that everyone who works for it wants to be working for it,” she said. “You know, they went through a rigorous application process, and they have to really want to work there to work there, and they can stop working there at any time. But that's completely different from jobs that they would be forced to work for."

While most of the people in prison said they were happy to work with OCE, Benitez knows this isn't the full story. As a follow-up, she's hoping to hear from people who have worked for OCE in the past.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - OR