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PLN editor Paul Wright quoted in article on WA DOC prison industry

Spokesman Review, Jan. 1, 1998.
PLN editor Paul Wright quoted in article on WA DOC prison industry - Spokesman Review 1998


Spokesman Review (Spokane, WA) June 18, 1998, Thursday

by Karen Dorn Steele Staff writer


Rick Walsh recently turned away four experienced upholsterers looking for jobs.

"There's just not enough work around town right now,'' says Walsh, who owns Sure-Fit Seat Covers in North Spokane.

The upholsterers' jobs may have gone behind bars.

At Airway Heights Corrections Center, inmates reupholster furniture and make millions of metal mountain climbing tools called carabiners.

At other state prisons, they've packed computer parts for Microsoft, made telephone calls for political campaigns, wrapped goods for Costco and made caps for Planet Hollywood.

Washington is a national leader in a new and controversial program that gives private companies subsidies to put inmates to work inside state prisons.

The jobs program has the blessing of Congress, the prison bureaucracy and the state Legislature, which wants it to grow statewide from 463 jobs this year to 1,500 by the year 2000. It's also popular with inmates because the jobs pay far more than other prison work, offering them a chance to pay restitution and help support their families.

The eventual goal: a decent-paying job for at least 20 percent of the state's 13,800 felons.

"These jobs teach inmates a skill and a work ethic. One day, they are going to be your neighbors,'' says Cathy Carlson, who manages the program in Olympia.

Before allowing a company to operate behind bars, Carlson asks employment experts to assure it won't displace community jobs.

But critics say the state doesn't look closely enough at community impacts, like the Spokane workers Rick Walsh couldn't hire this spring.

"This costs jobs on the outside. We are very disturbed that the state is allowing this,'' says David Groves, spokesman for the 400,000-member Washington State Labor Council in Seattle.

Two of the state's 17 private companies that operate inside prisons are at Airway Heights.

Omega Pacific Inc. was the first to set up shop inside the prison after state approval in December 1995. Omega employs 59 inmates to make carabiners -- D-shaped metal rings used in mountain climbing, factories and rescue operations. Some were used in a North Ridge ascent of Mount Everest.

Starting in 1983, owner Bert Atwater ran his factory in Redmond for nearly a decade. But as the Puget Sound economy heated up, he began to lose workers to Boeing and Microsoft.

Atwater considered moving his business to Asia or Mexico. He also checked out Sandpoint and Colville. Then he heard about the prison program.

Atwater says his new convict workforce is not only stable, but talented, bright and conscientious.

"They are a great, great workforce. To them, it's a privilege to work, not a right. On the outside, it's the opposite," he says.

Inmates cut, bend, forge, polish and safety-test the carabiners. They learn metalworking, accounting, report-writing and teamwork skills as they cycle through the factory jobs.

"Some of these guys couldn't even sit down with another guy without a fight. Now, they are working together," Atwater says.

Inmate Don Byers, who is finishing a sentence for armed robbery, earned $6 an hour at Omega. "They are the best jobs inside, the cream of the crop," he says.

Not all inmates agree. Paul Wright, a leading prison activist at the Washington State Reformatory at Monroe, says prison industries "represent a Third World labor model in the heart of America."

State law forbids a company to lay off nonprison workers to hire inmates. But Omega was able to bend that rule when it closed its Redmond factory. Some 30 workers earning $7 an hour lost their jobs and benefits.

If not for the prison program, the company would have left the state, Carlson says.

That logic is flawed, says the Labor Council's Groves.

"When Omega Pacific moved, it left 30 people without jobs. If that isn't displacing workers, I don't know what is," he says.

Omega Pacific has grown since it moved to prison. But the company's recent catalog doesn't mention it's located in one.

The company's products come "from our new home located on an arid plateau above the Spokane Valley," the catalog says.

The state offers private employers some big incentives to operate inside the prison.

Companies get factory space for $1 a year in a 25,000-square-foot warehouse on the prison grounds. The medical costs of inmate employees are paid by taxpayers.

State-paid correctional officers watch the prisoners at work, and utilities are free for the first year unless the company is an unusually heavy energy user.

Taxpayers do get something back, though.

Up to 70 percent of inmate salaries are withheld for incarceration costs, taxes, victims' compensation, legal fees, child support and a mandatory savings account.

The companies pay for their own production supervisors, on-the-job training and warehouse improvements.

About 20 Airway Heights inmates work for Cal's Mobile Upholstery, a 25-year-old North Spokane business that opened a branch inside the prison last year.

The company is expanding its prison operation and plans to hire up to 30 more inmates, says Cal's spokesman and partner Jonathan Ferraiuolo.

The inmates are already trained in a state-funded apprenticeship program and are eager to work, says Ron Pearson of Spokane Community College. He runs the upholstery program across the hall from Cal's prison shop.

Inmates working for Cal's get $5.15 an hour to start, and can work up to more than $ 7an hour. They can also earn production bonuses, Ferraiuolo says.

The typical prison job pays 35 cents to $1.10 an hour. In Spokane, the average upholsterer's job pays $10 an hour, says Cal's competitor Walsh.

"I don't have anything against inmates learning a trade. But it isn't fair for Cal's to be getting by cheaper than the rest of us," he says.

Walsh says he can't afford to give his four workers health insurance, but he pays their vacations.

Cal's is benefiting from the state, but Ferraiuolo says the company also has to deal with the realities of prison life, including security checks and lockdowns that keep workers from their jobs.

Carlson was back in Spokane recently, pitching prison industries to local economic development officials.

"We tell them there's space available and a ready workforce. There are still 10,000 square feet available in Spokane," Carlson says.



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