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How student journalists discovered a school district used prison labor

Student reporter exposes use of prison labor

Student journalists at a Massachusetts high school found that school district officials were using prison laborers to repair seating in the school's auditorium. Spencer Cliche, 18, documented how the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District signed a contract with the state's prison industry program. They also posed the question: "Should public schools use prison labor?"

Cliche, who published his "first-ever investigative report" in The Graphic school newspaper, discussed his 3,000 word expose with CBSN.

Months before the report, Cliche said he decided to pursue the story when he overheard a parent and faculty member discussing prisoners working in the school. "I was just taken aback — our area is very progressive," Cliche said. "I just found it to be a very surprising decision. I did not know much about the issue before the article — I was just taken aback."

His report found that the school district signed a contract with Massachusetts Correctional Industries (MassCor) that called for 1,105 seats to be reupholstered between April and June of this year. It cost the district a total of $101,800. 

Administrators said they believed they had a duty to seek the best deal with taxpayer money and the prison company argued it was giving prisoners an opportunity to learn a skill. But in Cliche's eyes, this argument isn't entirely accurate.  

"They earn like a dollar an hour," he said. "Some of that is taken to pay for court fees, and to pay for the actual cost of being incarcerated. So, they don't earn much actually being in prison."

Prisoners typically buy necessities like food, clothing, toilet paper and hygiene items at a prison store known as commissary. Cliche's article questioned MassCore's stated mission of offering inmates "the opportunity to enhance their successful re-entry into the community by developing their professional and vocational skills and work ethic."

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Spencer Cliche CBS News

"The aspect of the actual system that I found surprising is that you have people that want to work and want to do something, because while you're an inmate, there's literally nothing happening, it's like you're sitting around all day," Cliche said. "The skills they have an opportunity to learn, at least through MassCor, seem like they don't really help with the job market afterwards."   

The school district did look around at other organizations to work inside the auditorium, including one called Wellspring that employs ex-felons and underemployed Americans. But the district said that option would've cost $28,000 more than working with MassCore. 

"I find it odd because they had been in talks for at least a year. After interviewing them afterwards, they definitely would talk up the price," Cliche said. "They did not have to go through the bidding process of local organizations, which would have taken more time to get everything together." 

Cliche said most of his teachers and fellow students were shocked by the revelation. "The day after the article was published, the superintendent sent out an email to parents that the school district would no longer the [MassCore] services in the future because of the community outcry," he said. 

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