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WA State DOC "Work Ethic" Program: Capitalist Training Camp, or Liberal Rehabilitation Scheme?

WA State DOC "Work Ethic" Program: Capitalist Training Camp, or Liberal Rehabilitation Scheme?

By P. L. G.

During the last session of the Washington State legislature, there was a bill passed mandating that DOC implement a "Work Ethic Program" by November 1, 1993. The McNeil Island Annex, a minimum security work camp, was the site chosen, and being housed there myself, I have had the opportunity to see the camp staff hired, new additions to the facility built, and now the first class of prisoners arrive to begin their "Work Ethic" experience. [This is a so- called boot camp.]

When I first heard of the "Work Ethic" camp my first reaction was: "Who in DOC knows anything about work, or ethics"? And then I thought about the obvious, and blatant capitalist message that was being sent by the powers that be, that if paraphrased would go like this: "If someone breaks the law, what they need is a little capitalist training, so they can become manageable, exploitable, good little worker bees."

On the other hand this is the first time since the Sentencing Reform Act took effect, in 1984, that there has been law that provided for a alternative to long prison terms. Part of the idea of the "Work Ethic" program is that if a prisoner "successfully" completes the 4 month program, he/she will forgo a 28 to 52 month prison term. (I have not read a copy of the exact law that created the program, and am going by what propaganda I have picked up from DOC staff, so some of the particulars of the law may be different than what I report.) In this day of the infamous three strikes you're out, any new, more liberal approach to sentencing is good news for the people. I truly believe that the only thing long prison terms cure is heterosexuality. It is also a pro-social approach that affirms that people can change if given the chance. Again since the SRA took effect this is the first time that rehabilitation has become a factor in sentencing. To only have the choice of putting someone in prison, as the sole option for judges to pick from, makes for a bleak picture for anyone found guilty of a crime. Any move toward a more humane sentencing system is a move in the right direction.

So as far as the answer to the question that I posed at the beginning of this article, the jury is still out. The best thing to do is for me to describe how the State is implementing the program, and let the reader discern if the new program has any value, or if the Powers That Be have thought up a new weapon in the war of the classes.

To be eligible for the program, a man or woman must be between the ages of 18 and 28. Not be mentally or physically handicapped. Have no history of violence, and the crime for which they are sentenced is non-violent. The prisoner also cannot have served an adult term in prison. Contrary to press reports, one does not have to be a first time offender. Someone may have a felony conviction, and still be eligible for the program, but the conviction must have only resulted in county jail time, like the 90 day sentences handed out for auto theft and forgery. A prisoner must agree not to appeal his conviction, even if they are kicked out of the program. They also must agree to not use the DOC Offender Grievance program that other prisoners use to address problems that arise while being locked up, such as abusive treatment by guards, poor health care, etc. The sentence must be between 28 and 52 months, the judge at sentencing must recommend the program, and DOC can refuse any person it wants to admission into the program.

Once the prisoner is screened and accepted, he/she is shipped to the McNeil Island Annex. A new thirty member class starts on the first of each month. The first class which arrived here, on the 1st of November, consisted of 31 people: 5 women, and 26 men. The racial breakdown was: of the 5 women, 3 were African American, and 2 were white. Of the men, 12 were Hispanic, 13 African American, and 2 were white. They start their day out at 5:00 am with a 40 minute para-military work out. They then eat breakfast and go out on the island doing all sorts of heavy labor, this lasts until 3:00. pm. I have had the chance to observe them, and they look like the old chain gangs that I used to see as a child in Florida, all except for the chain, but given that this is an island, one would have to be a world class swimmer to escape. Their evenings are spent until 9:00 pm in classes that range from drug education, to self esteem training. The para-military part of the program is minimal, everyone thought that it would be a "boot camp" ala Paris Island, but at least for the first group, it seems to be more of a work training/get in touch with your feelings program. After 4 months of this "Work Ethic" training, the successful graduates are placed back in the community where they will be extensively "monitored" by a parole-like officer for at least a year.

The Powers That Be seem to want this program to be a success They hired three women for the three top positions, and they all seem to be a cut above the average DOC dolt. They have shipped out any staff that was in anyway "macho," and seem to be trying to be as caring to everyone as possible. But on the other hand DOC is up to its old tricks; of the 12 Hispanic men, 11 have immigration holds and will be shipped back to their country of origin upon completing the program. This means that there is a high chance that they will not come back to Washington State, knowing that they have a prison term waiting for them if they do. This means that DOC can turn and say: "Look how effective this program is, of the first class we have had only a 40 percent recidivism rate, so we need more money to fund this type of program," so yes, it appears that DOC has stacked the deck. Imagine that.

Whatever DOCs plans, the young prisoners may have other ideas. The fifth night that they were here on the island, they had a fist fight break out over the TV channel, there were a total of 21 men involved. Instead of taking all of them to the hole, they decided that they would single out just three and make an object lesson out of them. How they decided on just who to single out, is one of the correctional mysteries that we have all seen in the past, but they found three warm bodies, and with a stroke of a pen made them the first "failures" of the program. On day ten of the program, one of the young lads decided that he no longer wanted to do any more of the work tasks that he had been given, and told the staff to take him to a "real prison." Needless to say, staff obliged.

So you, the reader, can make up your own mind as to whether this program is of any value to the people. In reality the vast majority of the prisoners that will go through this program are drug offenders, and until the powers that be realize that the drug problem is a medical issue, that is best handled by the medical, and psychological communities (like it is in England), and not by the police, courts, and prisons, any program in a prison-like setting is a feeble attempt at best. We live in a capitalist society, and the primary purpose of any institution in this society is to enhance the profits of the few at the expense of the many, i.e. the lower classes. The purpose of prisons is to profiteer off the misery of others, and until true democracy is bestowed upon the people, and the people are empowered with the means of production, we will have prisons whose only purpose is pain and suffering. Social change happens in two ways; one through revolution, the other through incremental, methodical education of the people. As prisoner advocates we must be pragmatic, which means we should wait and see if the "Work Ethic" program is all stick and no carrot, or if it is a more liberal attempt to sentencing which provides for shorter prison terms. Needless to say those of us who have watched the state muck up everything it touches, find it hard to be confident.

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