Students protest prison labor, discrimination


Mason Mathes, Iowa State student, holds up a sign during a protest against prison labor. The students stood outside Parks Library to protest before heading to Beardshear Hall on Apr. 7.

Talon Delaney

More than 40 students protested across Central Campus on Friday afternoon to voice their outrage over Iowa State’s use of prison labor to acquire furniture.

ISU Student Action, a student organization focused on activism, organized the protest on the basis that prisoners may be paid as little as 15 cents per hour. It also protested the use of prison labor to build furnishings for residence halls and other buildings across campus. 

“Iowa prison industries should be more interested in reform and community change but are instead interested in profiting off nearly-free labor,” Apple Amos, a junior in biology who spoke at the protest, said. 

Amos and other protesters called Iowa State’s relationship with Iowa prisons “modern day slavery” and demanded that students “hold this institution accountable.”

The protesters’ charges broadened as they directed their attention to racial problems within Iowa Prison Industries. African-Americans make up about 3 percent of Iowa’s population, but nearly 26 percent of all Iowa prisoners are black, according to participants in the protest.

“If we’re really concerned with creating a better future, we need to start on college campuses by ending these injustices,” David Karayof, vice president of the Iowa State Young Democratic Socialists said. Amos then led the group in a march to Beardshear Hall, chanting as they went.

“The people’s rights are under attack! We stand up and we fight back!” the protesters chanted.

Once in Beardshear, protestors continued to follow Amos’ lead. They began phoning Iowa State’s Board of Regents, leaving dozens of messages voicing their disdain for present policies. Protesters moved outside to the Beardshear steps to hear some words from Sean Carlton-Appleton, a local Black Lives Matter affiliate and alumnus of Iowa State.

“The profit prison industry needs to be destroyed,” Carlton-Appleton said. “They go after people who can’t afford good lawyers; poor people, poor black people, poor brown people, trans people, people who society doesn’t really care too much about.”

“That ain’t right,” protesters said in response to Carlton-Appleton. 

Carlton-Appleton discussed in detail the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization he and other protesters say profit from the deliberate misfortune of America’s disenfranchised.

Carlton-Appleton said ALEC combines the power of legislators and corporations to increase prison populations nationwide for the sake of profits. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad is a founding member of ALEC.

“They pay legislators … and give them financial incentives to target certain demographics of people … to police and incarcerate them at alarmingly high rates,” Carlton-Appleton said.

Carlton-Appleton said the Nixon administration was the starting point of this discrimination. Mihir Sathuvalli, freshman in mechanical engineering, spoke for ISU Student Action and brought the protest to its close.

“This is the first of many actions that ISU Student Action will be taking in a long-term effort to end the use of prison labor on our campus, and … hopefully throughout the entire country,” Sathuvalli said.

Sathuvalli also asked the students of Iowa State to join him and his cohort in a boycott against furniture made by prison labor. They will be standing or sitting on the floor during classes and avoiding prison-made goods.