Black Lives Matter on Campus– Universities Must Rethink Reliance on Campus Policing and Prison Labor

Protest march against bigotry and hate speech at the University of Minnesota, October 2016 (Photo: Fibonacci Blue, Flickr).

In the wake of the devastating murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, people have taken to the streets in national protest against a system of racialized policing that destroys far too many Black and Brown communities through mass incarceration and that all too often renders Black lives as simply disposable. As protestors take up the rallying cry of “Defund the Police!,” college students that have joined the street protests can bring that struggle to their college campuses to demand that their universities divest from policing and the exploitation of prison labor on campus, which has accelerated since civil rights and anti-war protests of the 1960s.

Since their inception during the 1960s, Black Student Unions have been at the forefront of crafting demands that urged universities to cut ties with local police departments, reimagining their own university police forces, and divesting from the use of prison labor.   Following the Black Lives Matter movement, Black and Latinx students in particular, have critiqued the existence of campus police as well as called for “a divestment from prisons and an investment in communities,” something that the larger public is just now starting to contemplate.   At the University of Minnesota, it was Jael Kerandi, a Black woman undergraduate student and student body president who originally called for the university to “cease any partnership with the Minneapolis Police Department immediately.” The struggle for Black Lives is thus deeply intertwined with historical campaigns to make police violence and mass incarceration as publicly legible forms of state repression that are historical and ongoing not only on our city streets, but also on our college campuses.

From the mid-1960s through the decade of the 1970s, American public universities admitted more Black and Latinx students in the hopes of expanding social mobility, but even as public universities opened their campuses to first-generation students they simultaneously developed new patterns of campus policing and surveillance. In 1967, the Houston police department fired thousands of shots at Black protestors at Texas Houston University. In 1970, the Mississippi police department opened fire on a women’s dormitory at Jackson State College, killing two students and injuring twelve others. In 1970, the Buffalo City Police department occupied the SUNY Buffalo campus for nearly three weeks in order to restore order after shots had been fired after a student-athlete strike. As student protests continued to expand, universities quickly came under external pressure by state and national legislatures to get campuses “under control.” As a result, universities often established their own police departments, subsequently leading to contested debates over the arming of officers.

Today, seven in ten campus police departments have agreements with local law enforcement that allow campus police forces to join with local police during sports games, concerts, protests, and investigations. These are the types of agreements that the University of Minnesota has now revoked. However, the pervasiveness of these agreements was also seen in 1992 when a university administrator at SUNY Oneonta, who was later demoted, handed state police a list of their 125 Black male students in order to aid in the investigation of an off-campus assault.

While addressing these ties with local law enforcement is important, the reality of university policing is that many campuses possess their very own police force, equipped with firearms and the ability to conduct arrests. Nine in ten public universities have stand-alone police departments. Like many of the nation’s universities and university systems, the State University of New York’s police departments have expanded over the past thirty years from small units of unarmed patrolmen to forces with over 600 officers whose jurisdiction extends beyond the university. Campus police are also increasingly militarized. For instance, the California National Guard provided military surveillance equipment to the University Police Department at the University of California at Santa Cruz during the recent COLA graduate student strike.

Internal university police departments have often been at the heart of student critiques. For example, in 2013 three Black female students were asked for identification by campus security while doing laundry at Vassar College. In the Spring of 2018 Lolade Siyonbola, a Black graduate student at Yale University, took a nap in her common room only to be awoken by University Police demanding her identification. Instances of racially targeted policing on campus include other students of color as well, as was the case when Thomas Kanewakeron Gray and Lloyd Skanahwati Gray, two Native American brothers, were removed from a standard university tour at Colorado State by campus police for “looking suspicious.” In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, university police departments are under increased scrutiny. While some university police departments have responded by calling the video of Floyd’s murder “brutal and an embarrassment to all the honest, caring Police Officers in this country,” as was the case at SUNY Stony Brook, others posted on their Facebook page, “if you are anti-police, unfriend me,” as was the case at SUNY Potsdam. Although the post was deleted and the university president subsequently apologized, it further reinforces the question of university police.

This question, however, is not new to many Black and Brown student leaders, who have often worked locally to challenge racialized practices by protesting the policing of their classrooms, residential halls, dining locations, and recreational facilities. In 1970, the Black Student Union was among the student organizations calling special attention to the presence of the Buffalo City Police Department on their campus during a strike by the Black student athletes during a basketball game. The presence of the police shifted a protest about the racism perpetrated by coaches and the institution against these basketball players, into a protest about police presence on campus. Subsequently, SUNY Buffalo became the site of violent clashes between students and the campus police who at the time had joined forces with the Buffalo City Police Department, thereby making the task of telling these forces apart nearly impossible. Chilling accounts of students watching blood run down the faces of their fellow students as they were beaten by police both on-campus and off-campus forces, combined with the examples of violence at Jackson State University, Texas Houston University, and countless others indicate to us what is at stake when policing enters university spaces.

It did not take long for universities to begin to move away from heavily relying on local law enforcement and instead develop their own police departments. However, as we saw in 2015, stand-alone university police departments have also been plagued with problems. It was a university police officer at the University of Cincinnati that shot a local Black man off-campus. The expansion of these departments raised concerns among students who tried to fight it at every turn. Students at SUNY Albany, the first SUNY institution to arm their officers in 1972, raised concerns about having a constant armed presence on campus. In response, the head of security predicted that “it will be rare for a student, faculty member, or visitor on campus to encounter an armed security officer.” We have strayed far from the original role of campus policing and college students today are looking to turn back the clock.


As part of the project to dismantle the links between their campuses and the crisis of policing and mass incarceration, college students have increasingly put pressure on universities to end their reliance on prison labor. Divestment from campus policing parallels divestment from prison-made goods on college campuses. To make state spending more transparent, we filed two state-level freedom of information (open source) requests to reveal what state universities in New York and Texas spend on unpaid and low-paid prison labor. The resulting numbers that came back from were revealing. In 2019, for instance, public universities in Texas purchased $383,874 in merchandise from Texas Correctional Industries (TCI). The state universities buying prisoner-made products includes the University of Texas Medical Branch ($107,409); Sam Houston State University ($96,8893); Trinity Valley Community College ($42,341); Texas A&M ($14,098); the University of Texas, Austin ($4,161); the University of Texas, San Antonio ($2,250); Texas Tech University ($1,956); as well as a host of other state universities relying on coerced and unpaid prisoner labor.

In New York, our home institution, Stony Brook University (State University of New York-SUNY) and its hospital, spent in 2019 nearly $40,000 in prison-made goods, $19,974 on prison-made goods for Stony Brook University and Stony Brook University Hospital spent $19,112.1   When tallied together, the entire SUNY system spends $484,295 on prison-made goods. SUNY Cortland spent the most on prison-made goods as they bought $63,344 of prison-made goods.   The sales of prison-made goods extends to community colleges as well, as Nassau Community College had the second largest merchandise haul of $52,178.

As historians of mass incarceration and civil rights, we chose New York and Texas because both states had a vibrant prisoners’ rights movement. In New York, the 1971 prisoner uprising at Attica ended with a bloody state assault that left forty-three people dead—thirty-three prisoners and ten correctional employees who’d been held as hostages—and eighty-nine wounded. As told in historian Heather Ann Thompson’s Pulitzer prize winning Blood in the Water, the state succeeded in preventing the public from learning that nearly all casualties were caused by state forces storming the prison, not by the prisoners. Indeed, the state engaged in a conspiracy by blaming the deaths on the prisoners, portraying them as butchers in order to discredit their political demands. In Attica at the time of the uprising, most prisoners earned only 6–29 cents a day for their labor, while the prison made $1.2 million in sales a year from the prisoners’ work. Moreover, labor was not distributed fairly among the prisoners. Whites were only 37 percent of the prisoner population but held more than two-thirds of the highest-paid jobs, while prisoners of color held 76 percent of positions in the low-paid metal shop.

Nearly a decade later, Texas prisoners rose in rebellion against the southern prison practice of “deputizing” select prisoners, many of them white, to act as terrorizing prison guards in a system of divided prison labor that constructed internal racial and sexual hierarchies. The Texas prison administration allowed selected prisoner trustees to openly carry hand-made weapons so that they could insure prisoner discipline and administrative control.   In return for their service, the prison administration provided these trustees with certain privileges that allowed them control over the prison’s system sub rosa internal economy. The prisoners whom the prison system placed in charge also ran an internal prison economy in which money, food, human beings, reputations, favors, and sex all became commodities to be bought and sold. While prisoners worked the fields as coerced prison labor, privileged trusty prisoners known as “building tenders” constructed an internal slave trade economy where they bought and sold the bodies of other prisoners as sexual slaves, subjects of rape, and as domestic cell servants.   To reveal the brutality, Texas prisoners inspired by the civil rights, Black Power, and Chicana/o movements learned the law and filed a civil rights case, Ruiz v. Estelle, which became the longest civil rights trial in the history of American jurisprudence up to that point. It convened in October 1978 and offered testimony from 349 witnesses, of which over 100 were prisoners, before adjourning in late December 1980 with a damning indictment that declared Texas prisons as unconstitutional and threw them into federal receivership. As a major civil rights case, Ruiz challenged the notion that prison labor was simply work by showing that prison labor also ordered prison society through state-orchestrated sexual violence and racial hierarchy.

Despite these remarkable prisoners’ rights campaigns, coerced and entirely unpaid prisoner labor continues to benefit both states.   In the same stroke that the Thirteenth Amendment abolished the private ownership of human beings, it also expanded states’ control over the lives and work of convicted criminals. By establishing that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States,” the amendment allowed slave labor to persist within prisons. For much of the twentieth century, New Deal–era legislation prohibited prison labor for private profit by restricting prison labor to state-made goods. In 1979, however, Congress began with the passage of the Prison Industries Enhancement (PIE) Certification Program to chip away at this prohibition by allowing certain exceptions. Then, in 1993, Ray Allen, Texas State representative and key member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), expanded the PIE program by leading the passage of the Texas Prison Industries Act. ALEC has subsequently lobbied other states to pass their own version of the Prison Industries Act. This legislation further diluted the New Deal–era block on selling items made from prison labor across state lines by allowing third-party vendors to establish local businesses in states and then sell prison-made goods across state lines to national corporations. Since then, both individual states and private companies have greatly profited from unpaid and low-paid prison labor due to the explosive prison population associated with mass incarceration.

Nationally, a total laboring prison population of nearly 900,000 people is coerced to work for a $2 billion-a-year prison industry. The average daily wage is 86 cents, which represents a declining wage that had been 91 cents in 2001, and the average maximum daily wage for the same prison jobs declined from $4.73 in 2001 to $3.45 today. Yet up to 80 percent of these meager wages can be withheld for reasons such as “room and board.” Three states, all in the South, pay no wages at all: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas. Indeed, while Texas prisoners work without any pay whatsoever, Texas Correctional Industries (TCI), a for-profit corporation operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, posted nearly $89 million in profits during 2014.  Prisoners working in state prison industries make such items as desks and chairs for state universities, assembled mops and brooms, and made license plates.  Even some of the NYPD metal crowd control barricades used against the recent protest movement is a product of New York’s prison labor.

The prisoners that produce these items, however, are paid nothing in Texas and in New York they are compensated only a paltry average of just 62 cents an hour (about $1,092 per year) to make products for New York state’s thriving $50-million-a-year prison labor industry. Known as “Corcraft,” the business holds a monopoly on state and local government purchases as the law requires them to purchase prison-made goods if Corcraft has a product that they want to buy. In the wake of COVID-19, Governor Cuomo recently touted Corcraft’s “NYS Clean” prison-made hand sanitizer as a “superior product,” but New York prisoners made that hand sanitizer while their own lives were at risk. Moreover, New York’s prisoners have not seen a pay raise since the governor’s father, Mario Cuomo, was governor in 1993. As coerced labor, prisoners cannot form unions. They do not have a right to workers’ compensation if injured while working, and if they refuse their work assignment they face the threat of being placed in solitary confinement or losing their “good time” towards their sentence. Some prisoners attest that they want the opportunity to work while incarcerated, but incarceration should not mean forced labor exploitation for state profit and campus benefit.

In 2016 a national network of incarcerated Americans made their human and labor exploitation clear when they conducted the first-ever coordinated prison strike against coerced U.S. prison labor by declaring a “Call to Action Against Slavery in America.” Meant to connect past struggles with the current cry against racist practices in our criminal justice system, the 2016 strike purposefully began on the same day, forty years later, as the Attica prison uprising of 1971. As Kinetik Justice, a founder of the Free Alabama Movement (FAM) put it: “These strikes are our method for challenging mass incarceration…We understood that our incarceration was pretty much about our labor and the money that was being generated through the prison system.”

The history of prisoner organizing for civil and human rights in both New York and Texas is not disconnected from this current crisis decrying abusive policing and the demand to respect Black Lives, nor is it disconnected from our college campuses or the lives of our students. College students looking to make changes in the world around them can take up the lens of   prison and policing abolitionist Mariame Kaba who reminds us that “the system of mass criminalization we have isn’t the result of failure. Thinking in this way allows me to look at what’s going on right now in a clear-eyed way. I understand that white supremacy is maintained and reproduced through criminal punishment apparatus.” This apparatus is at work on our campuses as well as on our city streets. In a moment of budgetary austerity on campuses where states like New York are preparing to announce as much as $10 billion in budget cuts, university faculty and their students can join the protest movement’s declaration to “defund the police” as a deeper critique to redistribute society’s resources away from the high fiscal, social, and racial costs of the criminal justice apparatus on campus. Some universities are already attempting to take up this call. In the midst of these expected cuts, universities such as SUNY Binghamton have already committed to “reallocat[ing] a proportion of funds from the police department to other campus services that are more appropriate to respond to campus emergencies related to issues such as mental health.”

As universities plan to re-open in the midst of COVID-19, we see the crisis of policing and public health on a collision course, as universities may be thinking about entrusting university police departments with enforcing mask wearing and social distancing on college campuses. In all likelihood, the summer of protest may well continue into the fall on both city streets and college campuses. It is therefore more important than ever to consider diminishing or eliminating the presence of police at on-campus protests and to rethink whether campus police need to be openly armed. Moreover, campuses can end the practice of prison labor exploitation by insisting that incarcerated people receive a minimum wage and that we advocate for more humane alternatives to mass incarceration. Campuses can reorient such expensive policing and prison-made expenditures towards mental health resources and a restorative justice approach when it comes to the university’s disciplinary process. In this moment of protest as democratic expression of collective outrage, college campuses must take a hard look at their own practices to ask how they contribute to racialized policing, a potentially all-encompassing surveillance apparatus, and how they might have benefitted from mass incarceration.

  1. In author’s possession via Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request dated May 20, 2020 with the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision of New York (NY-DCCS)and an open source record request dated Sept 13, 2019 with Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).
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Robert T. Chase & Yalile Suriel

Robert T. Chase is associate professor in the Department of History at SUNY Stony Brook. He is author of We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners’ Rights in Postwar America (UNC, 2020). Yalile Suriel is a Ph.D. Candidate at SUNY Stony Brook. She is a Turner Fellow and an AERA Diversity Fellow and is working on a dissertation titled “Campus Eyes: University Surveillance and the Policing of Brown and Black Student Activism in the Age of Mass Incarceration, 1960-1990.”