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Grinnell College ends partnership with Iowa Prison Industries

People working for Iowa Prison Industries make furniture for colleges and universities around the state. Photo contributed.

Grinnell College has ended its partnership with Iowa Prison Industries (IPI), a work training program with the Iowa Department of Corrections which employs incarcerated people inside prisons to build furniture for Iowa businesses. 

Grinnell College President Anne Harris said this move was because she thinks the College should focus on “liberal arts values.” In the next several months, she plans for the College to reallocate resources from IPI to the Liberal Arts in Prison program (LAPP) which she said aligns more with the school’s values. 

The LAPP program organizes three to four faculty-taught classes a semester in the Newton Correctional Facility (NCF) and invites incarcerated people who are admitted to the program to earn up to 60 credits with the College. NCF partners with IPI and employs 38 incarcerated men in canteen production, which includes hygiene and medical products.  

“If there’s going to be a relationship with prisons, it would be through that educational lens that the Liberal Arts in Prison program presents and sustains. … What’s the college doing there [IPI] when it could be focusing on an educational mission program?” Harris said. 

In 2019, Grinnell’s chapter of Million Hoodies, a national organization focused on the rights of people of color, called on the College to end their contract with IPI. They asked the reallocate the money from IPI to helping Black and Brown communities affected by the prison-industrial complex. 

“The connection, the proximity of Grinnell to prison industries as business partners is not something that we like at all, so we are pushing the administration to recognize this,” said president of Million Hoodies, Malcolm Davis `21, in 2019.  

Million Hoodies criticized the IPI program for unfair compensation. The jobs that worked on making furniture for the college paid 67 cents to $1 per hour of labor.  

“I absolutely do believe in looking at entire systems of compensation and the idea of valued labor,” said Harris.  

As of 2005, the most recent census of incarcerated people, Iowa had 27 out of 31 state or federal facilities with work programs, with over 66 percent of the incarcerated people working in Iowa prisons. 55 percent of inmates nationwide work in prisons.  

Inmates hired by IPI work in traditional sectors, such as creating furniture and cleaning supplies. Private companies can also hire incarcerated individuals to work for their businesses.  

Grinnell has had a contract with the program for over 25 years. IPI boasts the teaching of practical skills and reduction of recidivism. According to IPI, work training reduces recidivism from 38 percent to 30 percent. 

However, Million Hoodies and other organizations have said that the disproportionate number of Black and brown incarcerated workers affected by very low-paying work outweigh any reduction in recidivism. 

“Disproportionate incarceration in Iowa is incredibly high, and because we are in Iowa, it is more than likely that we are using a labor force that is Black and brown,” Davis said.  

“And when you consider things like the fact that they have to pay like $3 to submit a health request, … that’s like a day’s work,” said Jelani McCray `21, vice president of Million Hoodies Grinnell, in 2019 

Harris said she has discussed offering additional financial compensation to the workers and laborers involved in work for the College but said it would be a challenge to get each prison partnered with IPI to divulge which specific prisoners should be compensated. 

In the meantime, Harris said her goal is to invest in the Liberal Arts in Prison program and to ensure the college will not sign another contract with IPI ever again. 

“My own focus, my own interest in development in terms of developing programs at the college, which is what I’m here to do, is to work with campus partners for good ideas,” she said. 

The Liberal Arts in Prison program hired one new term staff member in January and will continue applying for grants. Emily Marie Guenther, who runs the program, is planning to expand into the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW) in Mitchellville, the only women’s prison in Iowa.  

“That is very exciting to me, in terms of the impact that she and our students can have in that educational realm within the prison system,” said Harris.  

Harris will work with Richard Whitney, assistant vice president for Facilities Management, on where to source new furniture when the need for new furniture comes.  

 Harris said that she will make a statement on the college ending the IPI contract in the coming months. 

Correction, Dec. 1, 2021, 1:20 p.m.: A previous version of this article stated that the Liberal Arts in Prison Program hired several new staff members in the past year, when only one new staff member was hired. The S&B regrets this error. 

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