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Working Nine

Jan 17, 2024Jan 17, 2024

Around 30,000 pounds of trash are estimated to fill the stands of the Ohio Stadium on game day. Credit: Brody Serravalli | For The Lantern

Zero waste goals have become a top priority at football stadiums across the Big Ten, but Ohio Stadium's approach to processing its recycling is novel among its peers.

It's game day in Columbus and just over 104,000 Buckeyes fans are packed into Ohio Stadium to watch the Buckeyes take on Iowa.

With just 3 1/2 minutes until halftime, fourth-year linebacker Tommy Eichenberg intercepts Iowa fifth-year senior quarterback Spencer Petras’ pass and returns it for a touchdown. The stadium ground shakes as a roar erupts from the stands, with the Buckeyes building toward a 54-10 victory.

Thirty miles away, the noise rattles out of the built-in speakers of a communal television. Kevin Matthews sits on his bed at the London Correctional Institution watching the game with his fellow inmates.

While everyone's eyes are fixated on the play, Matthews — serving a three-year sentence on an assault and two firearms convictions — can't help but focus on the fans in the background.

He knows by the time the second half is over, the sellout crowd will have produced up to 30,000 pounds of trash — or at least that was his best guess when his supervisor took predictions earlier that day, Oct. 22, 2022.

"It's hard not to notice stuff like that once you’ve been out here," Matthews said.

What most people don't know is Matthews and the tight-knit group of inmates he works with are the MVPs of Ohio Stadium's recycling program.

Each time fans throw cans, cups, trays and plastic food wrappers in the ‘Shoe, whether on the ground or at one of the 75-plus zero waste stations throughout the stadium, it lands in the hands of a prison worker like Matthews.

Since 2012, up to 1,000 tons of compost and recycling waste has been hauled from Ohio Stadium to a prison facility in central Ohio as part of the university's ongoing partnership with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

At this facility, inmates are tasked with sorting waste before it is packed and shipped to manufacturers across the state for repurposing.

An investigation by The Lantern found Ohio State is the only public school in the Big Ten to employ prison labor to recycle football game waste.

Information obtained from the 13 public universities in the conference shows the majority of these institutions send their stadium waste to private companies for sorting. The rest rely on either local county material recovery facilities or facilities owned and operated by the universities themselves.

At Michigan State's Spartan Stadium, game-day waste is taken to the MSU Surplus Store and Recycling Center, a material recovery facility the university operates in-house.

At Penn State's Beaver Stadium, recycling is hauled to the Centre County Recycling & Refuse Authority to be processed by county employees.

At Indiana's Memorial Stadium, recycling duties are contracted to Republic Services, one of the U.S.'s biggest private waste hauling and recycling companies.

Northwestern, the only private university in the conference, did not respond to requests for information about stadium recycling.

However, Ohio State's long-standing use of prison labor has proven controversial among the student body.

Marina DeNunzio, director of sustainability for Undergraduate Student Government and a second-year in history, said she is conflicted about the university's continued partnership with the ODRC because it doesn't align with the ideals of environmental justice and advocacy

"As an advocate for a more sustainable campus, I want to be excited about our increasing diversion rate," DeNunzio said. "But being the only Big Ten school that decided to use prison labor for waste diversion is terrible."

One of the biggest issues was how little inmates, like Matthews, were paid to sort game day garbage. The $1.10 hourly wage inspired objections from civil rights advocates, who argued the prisoners were being exploited as recently as 2020.

Many of these objections appear to have been wiped away by a summer 2021 decision by OPI that required Ohio State — and any other contractor — pay the state-mandated minimum wage. As of Jan. 1, that rate is $10.10 an hour.

Ann King, chief of OPI within the state's prison system, said it's fair to require this level of pay for inmates because it's likely the same amount someone working outside prison walls would receive.

University spokesperson Ben Johnson said in an email the new arrangement ensures the partnership continues to align with the university's values.

"Ohio State is committed to ensuring this relationship and program is positive for all involved parties and meets weekly with Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction/Ohio Penal Industries to discuss status updates and address any issues," Johnson said.

Gabriel Kaule, an inmate at London Correctional Institution, operates a bobcat to flatten bags of food waste before being run through a grinder. Credit: Brody Serravalli | For The Lanter

The recycling passes through many hands before it reaches manufacturers for repurposing. The journey begins at Ohio Stadium, where a team of high school volunteers and college interns are tasked with ensuring waste is separated into recycling and compost bins.

Cecil Okotah, environment and sustainability specialist with the Department of Athletics and Business Advancement, said the primary objective of the zero waste stadium operation is to limit the contamination of recycling waste at the source before it ever reaches London Correctional Institution.

"The university strives to become zero waste by 2025. How do we do that? We do that by making sure that there are no contaminations in the receptacles," Okotah said. "What students do is to decontaminate, whilst educating fans."

This process involves monitoring stations scattered through the stadium concourse and directing patrons to place their waste in the correct bins, Okotah said. Volunteers will periodically sift through the bins with a trash picker to make sure nothing has found its way into the wrong receptacle.

The day after the game, ROTC volunteers clear the stands with leaf blowers before manually sorting loose waste into recycling and compost bags for its final journey to London Correctional Institution, Okotah said.

All inmates in the recycling program apply, and the process is fiercely competitive. Brian Ryan, the penal workshop specialist at OPI, said he interviews countless inmates, many of whom are recommended by existing crew members.

The work primarily takes place in a barn just outside the fence at the London Correctional Institution. Because the program involves leaving the confines of the prison, only low-risk, level one inmates — called "tans"— are permitted to participate.

The inmates work approximately 6 1/2 hours a day, five days a week, sorting through the trash received from Ohio Stadium. The majority of the sorting takes place at tables where inmates separate cardboard, aluminum, plastic, metal and glass into individual bins to be packed and shipped to manufacturers for repurposing.

While certain materials, like aluminum wrappers and contaminated food packaging, cannot be recycled, the primary goal is to ensure as little waste goes to landfill as possible.

"We’ll bury a mouse, so we don't have to throw it away," Chelsey Stillings, a regional industry manager at OPI, said.

Due to the materials the inmates sort being sold for profit, the ODRC does not charge Ohio State a tipping fee for its stadium recycling waste. Composting, on the other hand, costs the university $40 per ton.

For the past seven years, Ohio Stadium's 90 percent diversion rate — the amount of garbage kept from landfills — has ranked first in the Big Ten.

Ohio Penal Industries credits this success to the program's use of hand sorting. While other operations rely on semi-automated systems to sort materials, Ohio State's partnership with the ODRC means recycling waste from Ohio Stadium is sorted by hand for a fraction of the cost.

By comparison, the University of Michigan has a 74 percent diversion rate and pays $45 per ton to have its waste recycled, in agreement with a nonprofit recycling program run through several Washtenaw County communities.

Alison Richardson, program manager for the office of campus sustainability at Michigan, said the university's approach to zero waste is fairly uniform between the campus and stadium.

The remnants of an Ohio State football program in a bag of shredded compost at London Correctional Institution. Credit: Brody Serravalli | For The Lanter

When Ohio State first began its zero waste initiative at Ohio Stadium in 2011, it more closely resembled the programs at other Big Ten schools, like Michigan.

The university established a partnership with Rumpke Waste and Recycling to haul stadium recycling to its Columbus facility for sorting. However, the automated system struggled to process the materials coming from the stadium — namely, food wrappers, plastic bags and contaminated containers.

As a result, Rumpke had to cease accepting recycling waste from Ohio Stadium the following year. In order to continue its zero waste initiative, Ohio State sought a new partner for stadium recycling — the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

Mary Leciejewski, zero waste manager for facilities operations and development, said the program operated out of the Southeastern Correctional Complex in Fairfield county before being relocated to the Allen-Oakwood Correctional Institution due to labor shortages. The program was moved again in 2020 to London Correctional Institution after the interruptions to the football schedule caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program's arrival at London Correctional Institution coincided with significant student pushback against the program. An online petition demanding the university end its partnership with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction garnered over 8,000 signatures, catching the attention of university administration.

Among concerns about pay, petition-signing students were concerned the practice was racially discriminatory, given the disproportionately high levels of incarceration among African Americans.

University spokesperson Chris Booker said in an email the University Task Force on Racism and Racial Inequities formed a Zero Waste Subcommittee in summer 2020 in response to the mounting pressure on campus.

"The review was initiated after the administration received questions from the student body about Ohio State's use of incarcerated labor," Booker said.

A year later, the subcommittee filed its report. While it had "considered cancellation of the program based on the dollar wage alone," it ultimately decided to recommend continuation due to the program's potential to "positively affect" inmates.

The subcommittee made recommendations to improve the program for participants — including providing opportunities to earn training and certifications, creating tangible connections to the university and tracking outcomes for participants.

Gary Daniels, a chief lobbyist at the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said reforms such as these — and higher pay — can go a long way toward improving the quality of prison labor programs.

"Prison labor in and of itself is not a bad idea, as long as it's done a certain way," Daniels said. "If you’re taking people and teaching them, or improving skills that they already have and making it easier for them to get professional licenses and things of that nature — that's sort of making lemonade out of lemons."

Daniels said providing these benefits does not compensate for inadequate wages. He said he remains concerned inmates who don't work for Ohio State or another outside party are still paid much less per hour.

"You can do all of that and still pay people," Daniels said. "If they’re doing the same type of work in the same type of jobs inside prison, they should be getting paid and enjoying the same employment protections that people enjoy outside of prison."

King said the same state statutes allowing OPI to raise third-party wages also require the program to pay workers using revenue generated by the operation rather than taxpayer funds. This is the reason wages are typically so low for incarcerated workers, King said.

"I would love to pay all 1,200 people $10 an hour, but we’re not going to be sustainable if we do that," King said. "But we can certainly require people we’re doing work for to pay them that wage."

State statutes dictating inmate compensation also mean that, despite a higher rate of pay, incarcerated workers keep significantly less of their paycheck than non-incarcerated workers. Up to 25 percent of net earnings are automatically deducted to pay outstanding fees owed, such as court costs and restitution.

Additionally, because OPI workers are considered independent contractors, they are also required to pay self-employment income tax up to 20 percent of their gross income.

After these deductions, the next $200 of income is deposited into a personal account that can be accessed while incarcerated. Any earnings over this $200 limit are deposited into a mandatory savings account that is only accessible upon release.

"We’ve had people leave with over $7,000 in their mandatory savings," King said. "What that means for somebody that's been incarcerated is huge. They’re not dependent upon anyone, they don't have to go back to doing something inappropriate to have a living."

Daniels said automatic deductions serve to undermine the potential good done by raising wages, leaving inmates with "only a small amount" of what they actually earned.

Despite these mandatory seizures, inmates involved in the Ohio State program say any extra income they can get their hands on is life-changing in prison.

"You can tell your family ‘I’m good’. And I mean, that's a big weight off your shoulders," said Lenny May, an inmate in the program serving 10 years for aggravated robbery and felony assault. "You can even send them money to help."

London Correctional Institution inmates Lenny May (left) and Joshua Berger (right) plan out the day's duties in the work barn as part of Ohio State's zero waste initiative. Credit: Brody Serravalli | For The Lantern

For others, like Matthews, the higher wage means being able to invest in his future success.

"One big one for me is my [driver's] license. I still owe a thousand-something on my license and being able to have my license when I get out is going to be very vital to my success in staying out," Matthews said. "I work concrete, so I might be in Cincinnati today and Wapakoneta [Ohio] tomorrow. So, I’d have to drive and I don't want to be out here driving illegally without a license, because that can cause a whole other chain of events."

In addition to minimum wage, they also earn what the inmates refer to as "good time" — days off the end of their sentence.

"If they are present in their job 75 percent of the month, they get up to five days off per month at the end of their sentence," King said. "There's incentive to do the right thing and get that earned credit."

The number of earned credit days an inmate can earn depends on the nature of their crime. Nonviolent offenders can earn up to five days a month, while violent offenders can only earn one. Inmates with mandatory sentences cannot earn any days off.

Daniels said though improvements to compensation and benefits may not wipe away all the flaws in the criminal justice system, any improvements to material conditions for incarcerated individuals should be welcomed.

"I’m not saying that we should have all this prison labor, or even that we should have so many people in prison, but if you are going to have people in prison, one of the things that we should be doing as a state as a society is trying to make their, again, reentry into society as smooth as possible," Daniels said.

Cassidy Jenney, the ODRC's energy conservation and sustainability administrator, said her goal was to ensure inmates are able to leave London Correctional Institution with practical skills.

"Something that excites me is that this is not a dying industry," Jenney said. "More and more jobs are coming to fruition in the green jobs space. So for me, that's really exciting, because it's not like ‘maybe there's not going to be opportunities’ – there's always going to be opportunities."

From the university perspective, Booker said in an email Ohio State stands by its partnership with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and has expanded it.

In addition to stadium recycling and compost, Ohio State now sends London Correctional Institution compost from campus dining and residence halls, and bedding material from lab operations.

"We’re probably getting anywhere from 11-16 tons a week, between the bedding and food waste, just from them without any of the stadium stuff," Ryan said.

"It's so crazy to me that they don't talk about that more," Jenney said.

Plastic waste is packed into cubes with a baler and loaded onto pallets to be shipped to manufacturers for repurposing. Credit: Brody Serravalli | For The Lantern

For critics of the program, like DeNunzio, there is no simple solution to Ohio Stadium's reliance on prison labor.

"It's really complicated and hard to grapple with as a student who cares about sustainability on campus and the amount of waste our football games produce," DeNunzio said. "Should the university have started using prison labor when this program initially began? No. But the usage of prison labor at the university and in the state of Ohio won't go away overnight, so completely dismantling the program hurts its participants."

With another football season in the books, Matthews can finally take his eyes off crowds at Ohio Stadium and focus on his impending release Feb 1.

"I was worried about, when I get out, will I be able to do eight-hour shifts? Will I be able to do 12-hour shifts and not give up?" Matthews said. "Being out here for seven hours-plus every day has got me back into working and getting used to mingling with different people. We’ve been on that scheduling routine. I can get out of here and have an opportunity to make some money, to have a launch path when I get out."