This issue was published in collaboration with Southerly.
For at least a decade, the University of Florida has depended on the labor of incarcerated people to run their agricultural research farms. That labor has been essential to powering research on specialty and commodity crops — information that eventually lands in the hands of farmers across the state.
Relying on prison labor has saved the university millions of dollars, and, in the past, the university emphasized that these work programs also benefited incarcerated people as skills training. But in June 2020 — at the height of protests demanding racial justice — UF announced it was ending its contracts with prisons and jails.
While many activists and students breathed a sigh of relief, university researchers and prison officials were left scrambling to replace the essential workforce. Incarcerated people who worked the fields are caught in the middle — no longer a part of what activists call an exploitative program, but without access to the freedoms that came with a day outside on the farm.
This four-part series by The Marjorie and Southerly investigates the complicated and entrenched relationship UF and some other public universities in the U.S. South have with prisons and jails. We examine the conflicting messaging from officials and experts, the severe lack of data available to assess the benefits universities and prison officials tout, and the ways in which work programs for incarcerated people could be more beneficial to them.
Universities are facing mounting pressure to stop using the unpaid labor of incarcerated people. In June, the University of Florida announced it was ending the use of prison labor on its agricultural research farms, a practice once praised by administrators. Questions remain on whether other universities in the U.S. South will follow suit.
The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has relied on incarcerated people from state prisons and county jails for at least a decade to keep some of its agricultural research stations running. As the practice comes to an end, administrators are reallocating funds and finding new ways to power the state’s agricultural research.
Proponents of prison labor programs say they provide valuable job skills for post-incarceration life. But there is insufficient data to back up these claims from universities and correctional institutions.
Across the South, students are pressuring universities to address entrenched racial inequities. But because of the institutional and budgetary challenges universities and prisons face, finding solutions will not be straightforward.