UF’s exploitation of prison slavery: An unfulfilled promise, profit motive, administration in hiding

by Coalition to Abolish Prison Slavery (CAPS) at UFcaps.uf@gmail.com

On June 18 — following nationwide protests and rebellions against systemic anti-Black racism, murderous police, and the carceral state — University of Florida (UF) president Kent Fuchs made a statement that outlined policies aimed at taking “a step towards positive change against racism” at the university. One such policy is the purported end of the practice of exploiting prison labor at UF/IFAS agricultural facilities, as reported in the preceding Iguana issue. 

Students, staff, and community members responded with a mix of excitement that UF had made this historic move and anger that they had used prison slave labor for so long. Those who learned about UF’s exploitation of prison slavery for the first time on June 18 were particularly irate. 

While UF’s commitment to combat institutional racism on campus is certainly welcome, the lack of tangible action items calls their sincerity into question. The statement is cleverly and carefully worded, but it is vacuous and includes no specific goals, milestones, or action items.

In most of the “actions” outlined, the phrasing allows the administration to merely pay lip service to these causes with no accountability. The statement includes just the right words at the right historical moment for UF to score some PR wins, and to cover up for their own institutional racism.

This particularly extends to their commitment to end the exploitation of prison slavery at UF. President Fuchs and his PR team chose — undoubtedly after careful thought — to say that “the symbolism of inmate labor is incompatible with our university and its principles and therefore this practice will end.” 

It seems that this administration’s priority is avoiding negative press, not the actual human beings doing forced and unpaid labor in agricultural fields at the university’s whim. The administration did not apologize, nor did it accept its responsibility for exploiting prison slavery. The only details provided were hidden away in a UF/IFAS blog post. In that post the administration proudly bragged about the financial value (to the tune of $1,695,000/year) and research benefits of their violent practice. As one CAPS co-founder said in an interview with the Alligator, “it’s sick that UF decides to brag about the cost-savings that they have sucked out of prison slavery rather than to recognize the ways that they have violently exploited fellow humans.”

However, the most egregious part of the statement is that while the university purports to have ended this practice — it has not. At the time of their statement, they had no plan as to when they would stop abusing slave labor. This quickly became apparent through communications between the administration and the CAPS, who were informed that IFAS will only cease using such labor “no later than July 1, 2021.” How can the university publicly admit that prison slavery is immoral, only to turn around and continue exploiting incarcerated people for another year? 

Following additional pressure, IFAS administrators opened a line of communication with CAPS representatives, and provided some additional updates regarding their plan. However, as of the time of writing, President Fuchs (who set the July 1, 2021 deadline) has ignored all calls, emails and requests for a conversation regarding the immediate end of this practice. 

IFAS Vice President J. Scott Angle’s office, meanwhile, has not responded to consecutive emails and hung up the phone on at least two current UF students. These UF admins seem content to continue hiding from their responsibilities, hiding from the same students and Gainesville community orgs that they supposedly represent. 

Given the admins’ unwillingness to act, CAPS — a coalition of 28 student and community organizations — continues to apply pressure via phone zaps, email campaigns, and more. President Fuchs made that statement on June 18, but as of Sep. 1, UF will be exploiting prison slave labor for another 303 days. 

As Kevin Scott from Florida Prisoner Solidarity stated in CAPS’s meeting with IFAS: “I understand that this has been going on for a long time, but it is unacceptable. It was unacceptable yesterday. It’s still going to be unacceptable next July. Why not end it today? Put out a very clear and concise statement to the public to say that we are ending it today.” 

Over six weeks have passed since that meeting, and UF has yet to answer the calls to end the practice immediately.

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