Oregon Health & Science University President Dr. Danny Jacobs announced Friday that the largest research institution in the state has terminated its contract with Oregon Corrections Enterprises to pay prison laborers to clean the hospital's laundry for less than $1 an hour.
Since 1995, OHSU has sent its laundry to Oregon State Penitentiary, a maximum security prison in Salem, an OHSU spokeswoman previously told WW.
Now, following a nationwide reckoning against racial injustice and demands for criminal justice reform, OHSU says the use of prison labor runs counter to its values.
"The foundation on which our prison systems lie, and on which programs like laundry services operate, is antithetical to our values," Jacobs said in a statement. "I know the Department of Corrections is working to address these complicated matters, and I applaud those efforts, but at this moment in time, the best decision is to end this contractual relationship by transitioning this needed service to other vendors over the next several months."
OHSU's use of prison labor to do laundry garnered renewed scrutiny back in April, when WW published a story about laundry workers at Oregon State Penitentiary and Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla who were concerned about contracting the COVID-19 virus while cleaning soiled hospital linens.
Prisons in Oregon operate their laundry services through Oregon Corrections Enterprises, a highly unusual private entity within the Oregon Department of Corrections that manages outside labor contracts, like the one with OHSU.
Because Oregon Corrections Enterprises is a private entity, spokeswoman Jennifer Starbuck said, it is not obligated to disclose who its 33 clients are, though she acknowledged that the companies who use prison labor to do laundry are almost exclusively hospitals.
OHSU's reconsideration of its laundry contract, two months after WW's story, comes as the hospital grapples with new criticism of its working environment.
The hospital made headlines earlier this month when it announced that an employee posted photos of a noose in an online chatroom—the third incident of its kind in the past three years, Jacobs said.
The employee was disciplined—not terminated—raising concerns among OHSU nurses, who said the employee should have been fired.
Kevin Mealy, a spokesman for the Oregon Nurses Association, says the union has been advocating for reforms for a more equitable workplace for months. He applauded OHSU's decision to terminate the contract.
"People being forced to work for pennies isn't right and it's disproportionately affecting people of color," Mealy said. "So this change is an acknowledgement that it's a policy founded on racist beliefs."
Mealy added that this change is the "exact type of soul searching" ONA hopes to see other hospitals carry out as they strive to be actively antiracist.
Terri Niles, an OHSU nurse who is also the vice president of the OHSU nurses' bargaining unit, says the change would not have happened without pressure from staff.
Since the nurses began renegotiating their contracts in January, Niles says, they've been advocating for racial equity policies, including stopping the hospital's use of prison labor and to no longer have armed security guards staffing the hospital.
"I'm really impressed and I have to give [Jacobs] credit for those changes," Niles said. "Hopefully it won't just be happening at OHSU, but at other hospitals, too."