Incarcerated Workers and Discomfort on Fordham’s Campus

by Megan Townsend, FCRH ’18 and Reyna Wang, FCRH ’18

Two weeks ago, several Fordham students organized actions on and off campus in solidarity with striking prison laborers during their national week of solidarity. Since September 9th, prisoners have been organizing the biggest prison strike in US history. Major news media – NBC, CNN (until Sunday evening) – are deliberately failing to cover the strike due to their association with corporations that profit from prison labor. These corporations include (but are not limited to): Aramark, Bank of America, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Victoria’s Secret, Costco, Johnson & Johnson, and Koch Industries.

Prison workers are paid on average between twelve and forty cents an hour, and the corporate exploitation is endless: phone companies like Verizon and AT&T charge so much for phone calls to families that incarcerated persons spend about two hours worth of wages for ten minutes on the phone, and the banks that manage funds to help them ‘save’ money to support their families charge them triple the interest rate than average.

The reasons for the strike are complex and deeply rooted in our nation’s history of racism and class warfare.  To comprehend them, one must understand the unjust ways in which the United States’ racist carceral system targets people of color for nonviolent crimes at disproportionate rates and fails to scratch the surface of meaningful rehabilitation- that in fact rehabilitation does not seem to be the end goal of incarceration in the United States at all. Fordham Students United’s goal in demonstrating was to distribute information and to start a campus conversation about the rights of prisoners and our role as students in this movement. The way these protests were met, both on and off campus, was very telling of the attitudes and cultures that surround us here at Fordham.

On Wednesday we stood outside of the McGinley Center for four hours and handed out information about the strike. We had some productive conversations and affirmations but the overwhelming reaction was averted eyes or an apathetic “not right now, no thank you.” In a disturbing number of instances, we heard things along these lines: They’re in prison. They deserve it. They lose those rights when they get arrested. It is entirely unproductive to shame the Fordham community for its disconnect with this issue. Because of the nature of private education and, the obstacles that universities present to those convicted of a felony regarding college applications, and the intense social pressures placed on students to succeed, Fordham students are unlikely to be people who have experienced these problems firsthand, nor are they forced to learn about them.

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14962376_10209732881832352_55255523_n.jpgIn contrast, South Bronx neighborhoods have the highest incarceration rates in all of New York City. When distributing the same information in Fordham Plaza the next day, we were almost immediately met by a security guard from the corporate building who thanked us for talking about an issue that she felt was largely invisible and uncared for. She told us that she had just had her record cleared after serving six years for a nonviolent crime, and that harsh treatment of prisoners and prison workers is not deserved or just. We then met a number of people throughout the demonstration with similar personal stories, questions, and a willingness to teach us as well as talk to us about the rights of workers worldwide, including prison workers. A group of school aged girls actively approached us, eager to learn about what was going on what what they could do to help. What happened outside of campus gates that day felt like community and solidarity, two of Fordham’s favorite words.

If under the “Preferential Option for the Poor,” as outlined by Catholic Social Teaching (that ‘central and essential element of our faith’), we are supposed to judge our society by the treatment of its most vulnerable members, then we are failing. We are broken and we are suffering. Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium that, “whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of God’s love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.”

Is Fordham too caught up in its interior life? In the goings on of classes and arbitrary deadlines, landscaping and the tranquility of our campus? One of the points we want to make is that the deeply insulated and sheltered community we have created hurts Fordham students and Bronx residents alike. The borders of gentrification that Fordham continues to push creates a culture and environment that is increasingly hostile toward meaningful social change. The problems that plague the Bronx community, like racist policing and strategic criminalization, feed the rapidly growing economy that so largely depends on the prison industrial complex and cheap prison labor. And we, as Fordham students, must approach our spending and leasing property in this community from a place of mindfulness about how all of our actions affect our community. Fordham is much more intimately connected to this issue than we are aware of or comfortable with.

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According to our mission statement, not only is Fordham “committed to research and education that assist in the alleviation of poverty, the promotion of justice, the protection of human rights and respect for the environment,” but we are also “privileged to share a history and a destiny with New York City. The University recognizes its debt of gratitude to the City and its own responsibility to share its gifts for the enrichment of our City, our nation and our world.”

If you have seen any of Fordham’s newest recruiting ads placed in subway stations and D train cars, you might have heard that Fordham is for students who are “privileged with purpose”. Truthfully, many Fordham students are privileged with much more than that. Most Fordham students will never experience the psychological trauma of solitary confinement; being overworked on a prison farm or in a chain gang; being removed from and forgotten by society; or being faced with assertions that they are worthless dangerous, and guilty. One exchange that we had with a student was particularly upsetting, especially because the student did not stop to talk, only yelled as they passed, “they lose their rights when they go to prison.” In response, one of us yelled back, “I hope you never end up in prison!”, to which they responded, “I don’t plan on it.”

Most of us don’t plan on going to prison. The real difference between “us” and “them” is that when most of “us” make our mistakes, we don’t get caught, tried, and incarcerated. Besides the fact that many people in jail or in prison are put there for breaking laws that were strategically written to criminalize the,  there are also cases of political prisoners, people who were racially profiled and assumed to be guilty, people who were stealing food who would literally starve to death otherwise, people who are locked in immigration detention camps…the list of innocent prisoners of the United States continues. Our privileges shield us from the knowledge and empathy required to understand the depth of these situations.

The Corporal Works of Mercy name visiting the imprisoned as one of the most important ways to care for another human body. We must then ask ourselves the difficult question: do we ever think a human body loses its dignity? Its right to agency, fulfillment, and humanity? For we cannot continue if we think that prisoners are not humans. As indigenous rights activist Lilla Watson said: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” If we think that our personal liberations have nothing to do with the liberations of our brothers and sisters in jail,  we are wasting our education. If we think that we are free while we imprison and enslave our brothers and sisters, we are wrong.

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For most Fordham students, imprisonment won’t be a part of our reality. It is not something we must fear or worry about. We are most often told that we are worthy, intelligent, precious; we are told that we are going to graduate and be world leaders and policymakers. We may never know what it is like to be on the other side of power. And this majority sentiment and experience does contribute to the problem of erasure for our students who come from the Bronx and have understood the frustrations of being judged because of where they come from, by students who are overriding and holding undeserved power in the Bronx. If we are meant to be empowered with knowledge, in what ways are we called to use that power? Some students who did stop to ask questions and discuss prison labor thanked us for what we were doing because they had learned about the issue and the strikes in their classes. These positive responses show how important it is to include education pertaining to our surrounding community in our curriculums and to ensure that students are being exposed to the entire story of the U.S.’s exploitative history, including those uncomfortable parts of it that some members of our community, it seems, would like to ignore. Fordham’s gates act not only as a physical divide between Fordham students and the surrounding Bronx neighborhood, but as a crucial symbolic representation of the profoundly racialized class divide between the university and the larger community that it inhabits. The administration and students’ complicity in upholding Fordham’s ivory tower prevents us from expressing compassion and solidarity for the greater community, as well as understanding the impact of our actions on the residents of the Bronx.  

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