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Prisoners as Workers in Washington State: New Law Will Increase Exploitation

By Ed Mead

The 1993 session of the Washington State Legislature has passed a new law that will dramatically increase the number of prisoners working in this state's institutional industries. Governor Lowry should have signed Senate Bill 5989 into law by the time you read this. In addition to increasing the number of industrial workers, the new legislation authorizes the state to take more than 50 percent of the wages earned by inmate workers.

The bill requires that state agencies purchase goods and services produced in whole or in part by industrial work programs operated by the Department of Corrections, provided that such prisoner-produced products meet the requirements of the purchasing agency or department, are equal to or better quality than can be obtained elsewhere, and that the price is not higher than can be found in the private sector.

The act requires that the secretary of corrections deduct from the gross wages of all prisoners working in either class I or class II industries, or any prisoner earning more than the state minimum wage, the following amounts:

1.Ten percent to the crime victims' compensation account.

2.Ten percent to a personal savings account until the amount of $950 is reached, after which this deduction will be used to contribute to the cost of corrections.

3.Thirty percent to the department of correction to contribute to the cost of incarceration (this amount will jump to 40% once the inmate's savings account reaches $950).

Understanding that prisoners will most likely not want to work under such rip-off wages, the law provides a clause authorizing DOC to develop incentive programs that will offer inmates "benefits and amenities paid for only from wages earned while working in correctional industries work programs." In other words, those currently working in industries will pay for the bribes the government will use to entice others to become slaves of the state.

This law is to take effect on June 30, 1994. And each year from then on, until the year 2000, the Department of Corrections is required by law to increase the number of prisoners working in prison industries until it has achieved a net growth of at least 1,500 industrial workers.

The new law has a provision mandating thata newly created industries board of directors offer inmates "meaningful employment, work experience, and training in vocations that are specifically designed to reduce recidivism and thereby enhance public safety by providing opportunities for legitimate means of livelihood upon their release from custody." While that sounds nice, in a following section the act mandates that the board shall invest available funds in correctional industries enterprises and meaningful work programs "that minimize the impact on in-state jobs and businesses ." How can the state provide prisoners with "a legitimate means of livelihood upon their release" while at the same time training them to do work that will "minimize the impact on in-state jobs and businesses"? You can readily guess which of these conflicting priorities will win out.

In addition to paying for the cost of their confinement, the money paid to DOC by prison industrial workers will also pay the cost of developing and implementing the growing correctional industries programs. Moreover, when the secretary of corrections wants to, he can further increase the level of deductions taken from an inmate worker's wages in order to pay family support.

A handy example of how this law will effect those currently working in industries is that of a friend of mine who currently earns $4.25 an hour and nets $2.62 an hour. Under this act his earning would go down to only $1.77 per hour. Although it looks as if wages will be going up under the new act, the truth is that the actual amount earned will go down by approximately a third. The appropriate response to this latest attack should be the same as that used by workers around the world to defend themselves--the union!

In the early 1970s I organized the Washington State Prisoners Labor Union. In 1974 I stood outside this very prison, where 97 percent of the prisoners were card-carrying union members. Prisoners were on strike demanding that the union be their sole bargaining agent. I was leading a demonstration in their support on the other side of the walls, handing out leaflets and hollering over a bullhorn. We lost that struggle. But seeds that did not take root in 1974 may well grow in 1994. As Comrade Bill Dunne regularly reminds us, the future holds promise.

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