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The University of Georgia Arch on North Campus. (Photo/File)

The University of Georgia president’s office has directed the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences dean to conduct a full review of a research program that uses unpaid inmate labor for farm work in south Georgia, UGA spokesperson Rebecca Beeler said in an email Friday.

This review comes after students raised concerns about the program on social media in the last week as calls for criminal justice reform, police reform and racial justice have persisted across the country and in Athens.

A work detail of nine inmates from Rogers State Prison is assigned to the Vidalia Onion Research Center, Lori Benoit said in an email. Benoit, the Georgia Department of Corrections public affairs manager, confirmed the inmates are not paid for their work. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows “slavery or involuntary servitude” as punishment for a person convicted of a crime.

Laura Perry Johnson, CAES associate dean for extension, said in an email Friday that the farm “provides vocational training and workforce preparation experience.”

The inmates work with three full-time center employees to evaluate onion varieties, conduct research trials and develop best management practices for growing certain commodities, Johnson said in the email.

In the email, Johnson said the CAES is “currently evaluating the merits of this program.” It is unclear what the CAES review entails. Georgia banned its convict leasing system to private institutions in 1908, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia. But state, local and county governments may still use inmate labor under state law.

The research center was established in 1999 to research Vidalia onions, according to the center’s website. Researchers have since developed a new pumpkin variety and conducted fertility studies and variety trials on other crops there.

Johnson said that the inmate work program is voluntary, and the relationship between the research center and the Georgia Department of Corrections goes back approximately 20 years.

In the email, Benoit said UGA has no other agreements with the Georgia Department of Corrections to use inmate work details.

Student concerns

Sydney Phillips, a rising junior political science and public relations double major, said UGA’s use of unpaid inmate labor is unethical. She said the university should work with its black students and the black community in Athens.

“They have to realize that issues like this are why we believe that they don’t care about us,” Phillips said. “If they actually took the time to talk to black students and black activists in the community, they would realize that this whole entire system is disgusting.”

A U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report said at the end of 2018, 59.9% of the population under the Georgia state correctional authorities’ jurisdiction was black, while 35.65% was white. Georgia’s overall population was 52.2% white and 31.2% black or African American in 2018, according to U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey estimates.

Phillips said she wishes UGA would realize its behaviors and practices hurt the black community and black students.

“UGA is participating in a system that is inherently racist,” Phillips said. “They’re profiting off the bodies of black people and participating willingly in a system that incarcerates disproportionately black and brown people.”

A 2009 UGA news release said the inmate labor was worth $120,000 annually, and “a big savings for the facility.” The news release called the work “essential” and “labor-intensive.”

Johnson did not answer a question asking how much UGA would pay a group of paid employees for the same labor that the unpaid inmates perform at the center.

Phillips said she first learned about UGA’s use of inmate labor from a friend, Josh Howe. Howe, a rising junior finance major from Augusta, said he learned about the program while on the Great Commitments Student Tour of Georgia. The tour takes students on a trip to UGA facilities, state landmarks and other places during spring break.

Cecilia Vu, who also took the trip this spring, said she learned about the inmate labor during a presentation on the facility’s practices and research. The speaker dodged her question asking if UGA paid the inmates a good wage. She said he was casual when he mentioned the use of inmate labor.

“He didn’t seem shocked about it. He just said it, as-is and seemed a bit nonchalant,” said Vu, a rising senior international affairs major from Norcross.

History of inmate labor at UGA

The university has a history of using unpaid convict labor for construction projects.

A September 1928 Atlanta Constitution article said Clarke County was “turning over its entire force of convicts for labor” to build Sanford Stadium. Photographs show inmates, mostly black men, clearing the ground for the foundation of the stadium in 1928, according to a fall 2019 exhibit on convict leasing at the UGA Special Collections Library.

A 1913 annual report from the Georgia State College of Agriculture, now the CAES, said six of seven miles of roadway built through campus were constructed by state convicts in cooperation with Clarke County.

The UGA and Athens communities have criticized the university administration, especially President Jere Morehead, in the past for its response to addressing institutionalized racism and racist incidents on campus.

“How does it look for UGA to say they stand in solidarity with the Black community at this time, but they’ve been profiting off of our community especially through use of inmate labor?” Ebony Upshaw said in a text message.

Upshaw, who also took the trip to the research center, said UGA should find another way to complete the work on the farm. She said the use of unpaid inmate labor, even if it’s voluntary, is not OK.

“Think about how inmates are locked up inside … and this is their only way to get outside, but then you’re using it, and it’s a way to make them work too,” said Upshaw, a rising senior criminal justice and biology double major from Lithonia.

Upshaw said in the text message UGA should stop its use of inmate labor completely and pay people “with good wages” to harvest on the farm.

Vu said she understands that the inmates receive work training through the program, but she thinks they should receive at least minimum wage and have workers’ rights.

“[The speaker] said that a lot of the inmates were happy working at the farm and that they get their own plots of land to plant whatever fruits, vegetables, like flowers, they wanted to, which is really reminiscent of sharecropping and slavery,” Vu said.

Check back at redandblack.com and follow @redandblack on Twitter for updates on this story.

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