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WA Prisoners Help Elect Republican

By Paul Wright

From 1981 to 1993 Jack Metcalf held office in the Washington state Senate. In 1994 he was elected on the Republican ticket to represent Washingtons second congressional district. This is a story about prison slave labor, opportunism and hypocrisy by politicians and prisoners and media collusion. Metcalf is extreme right wing even by current Republican standards. In 1987 Metcalf launched Referendum 41 challenging the constitutionality of the Federal Reserve System. In its coverage of the referendum the Wall Street Journal commented that Metcalf was a "frequent speaker at right wing rallies and conferences across the country, [who] keeps company with gold bugs, tax protesters, and conspiracy theorists." Right wingers have long attacked the Federal Reserve as a tool of the "Jewish Banking Conspiracy."  

In 1988 Metcalf was criticized in a hate group report issued by the Center for Democratic Renewal. The report stated that Metcalf had been a speaker at the 1984 convention of the neofascist Populist Party. Readers may recall that in 1988 the Populist Party nominated David Duke for president. In 1994 Metcalf was listed on the masthead of the National Educator, an anti-Semitic and racist magazine published by James Townsend. Metcalf states he has requested that Townsend remove him from the magazines masthead and he disavowed the publications racist views. While in the state senate Metcalf chaired the Natural Resources and Environment Committee. A long time opponent of Native American treaty rights, Metcalf used the position to battle the nomination of Curt Smitch to the directorship of the State Department of Wildlife. The Church Council of Seattle commented that "Anti-Indian groups, led by Senator Jack Metcalf, have used the issue as a launching pad for racist invective against Native Americans." Metcalf again denied being a racist.  

The 1994 race for the 2nd district congressional seat pitted Metcalf against Harriet Spanel, a Democratic state representative. Backed by the Christian Right and the gun owners lobby, Metcalf campaigned as a "Tough on Crime" pro death penalty candidate. What was hypocritical about this stance is that he used prisoners to do his campaigning for him.  

The Washington Marketing Group (WMG) is a privately owned telemarketing (boiler room) business at the Washington State Reformatory (WSR) in Monroe, WA. WMG employs some 18 prisoners to do telemarketing. They are paid $4.90 an hour of which some 55% is deducted to pay the cost of their captivity, taxes, crime victim compensation, etc. According to the February 4, 1995, edition of the Seattle Times, WMG owner Jim Paton called Metcalfs campaign manger, Chris Strow, ten days before the election and offered "polling services." The Metcalf campaign paid WMG $9,000 to have prisoners call up voters in the second district and conduct a phony "poll."

WMG prisoners were provided with the names, addresses and phone numbers of 2nd district voters by the Metcalf campaign. Titled "Political Polling Project 1" the prisoners read a script stating in part "Hello, Im calling from the Marketing group. Id like to read you brief profiles of the candidates for Congress in the 2nd District and get your response. . ." The script sketches out Metcalfs and Spanels positions on the death penalty (hes heavily for it), new taxes and compensation for property owners. Voters were then asked who they were now more likely to vote for on election day: Metcalf or Spanel. The prisoners did not tell voters that they were paid by the Metcalf campaign nor the fact that they were in prison.

Prisoners employed at WMG worked the phones for at least five days, right up until one in the afternoon on election day to encourage people to vote for Metcalf. Needless to say, they didnt mention any of Metcalfs past associations with racist and fascist groups. On election day the prisoners were treated to a video and other goodies for a job well done.  

One of the first things Metcalf voted in support of, once esconced in the Congress, was HR 667 which aims to remove weights, televisions and what other small creature comforts remain from federal prisoners. This episode perfectly illustrates the hypocrisy of such tactics. When a prisoner watches television or lifts weights people on the outside arent deprived of a TVor exercise. Yet when Metcalf takes jobs from the community and sends them into prison, as he did in his campaign, someone in the community is deprived of a job. WMG, like all other private industry ventures in the Washington DOC, does not pay for rent or utilities. It pays its slave labor force minimum wage while employment ads in the Seattle Times say that telemarketers on the outside earn between $6 and $11 an hour. The prison laborers cannot organize a union, go on strike, get sick leave, etc. WMG does not pay health benefits, workmans compensation or any of the other costs normal employers who dont employ slave labor must pay. No wonder WMG was able to underbid any other competitors when hawking their services. WMG has conducted similar lobbying for politicians in the past but its usual clientele consists of the American Cancer Society, insurance companies, magazines, etc.

Of course, it is certainly ironic that politicians like Metcalf are willing to bash prisoners, quite literally kill us, yet at the same time turn a fast buck by using prison slave labor. It also doesnt say much about prisoners who will take their thirty pieces of silver to help elect the hand that has vowed to beat them. Indeed, Metcalf is already making good on his promise to make the lives of prisoners more miserable and he is able to make good on such promises due, in part, to prisoner slave labor.  

One would think that a story like this would have the media jumping all over it. Think again. Shortly before the election in November is when I learned of Metcalfs using the prison boiler room to advance his political ambitions. His opponent, Spanel, was advised of this yet she did nothing about it. I informed Wayne Wurzer, a Seattle Times reporter about the incident and at first he told me it was a good story. A week later he told me he had discussed it with his editor and they decided "it just isnt newsworthy." The Seattle Times had endorsed Metcalf in both the primary and general elections. The information about his racist and fascist ties were all culled from Seattle Times articles from years past.  

The story was initially broken by Ken Silverstein, editor of CounterPunch, a Washington D.C. investigative weekly. The story ran in the January 15, 1995, issue titled "Crime Buster: Metcalf s Secret Boiler Room." Metcalf wouldnt comment on the story when contacted. His press secretary Kevin McDermott told CounterPunch he had been instructed not to talk about the election. Asked why, he said it would violate federal law for him, as a congressional staff member, to discuss the election campaign. The Federal Election Commission and the House Ethics Committee said they were unaware of any such restriction. Metcalfs campaign co-chair Della Newman (George Bushs former ambassador to New Zealand) confirmed their use of WMG but denied knowing it used prison labor. She told Silverstein that if true, the story "raises a significant question" about Metcalfs public stance on crime.  

On January 31, 1995, the story was broken locally in Washington state by George Howland, editor of The Stranger, a Seattle alternative weekly. Howland contacted WMG on-site supervisor Roy Harvey who confirmed the "polling" script. Both Harvey and the DOC confirmed that WMG has no other work sites outside of WSR, it is solely a slave labor operation. Harvey referred other inquiries to the owner, Jim Paton, who refused to make any comment through his attorney. Newman told Howland that she did not believe the campaign had done anything wrong and she was not troubled enough to contact Metcalf about the story for cornment. Repeated inquiries by The Stranger for comment from Metcalf were ignored. Howland states: "It seems likely that Metcalf would like this story to be lost among the many curiosities that have marked his life as a public servant. Unfortunately, given the current crime hysteria, the American electorate might be ready to make campaign work mandatory for prisoners. Perhaps Metcalf will start trumpeting the fact that he beat his opponent by forcing hardened felons to do an honest days labor."

On February 1, 1995, Howlands story appeared on Page One of the Everett Herald, which is the biggest paper in Metcalfs district. Both Silverstein and Howland cited myself as their source and included my comments in their story. On February 4, 1995, the Seattle Times ran the story on page one. In a classic case of media bias and distortion they managed to turn this into a prisoner bashing story (and they didnt do so by laughing at prisoners willing to campaign for someone like Metcalf in exchange for $2.50 an hour and some donuts either)!  

Times reporter Barbara Serrano contacted Ida Ballasiotes, the professional prison basher who chairs the state house corrections committee and got some quotes from her. Ballasiotes stated that "Inmates shouldnt be doing any job that involves using information about the citizenry." However, if Serrano had bothered to look in the Seattle Times archives she would have encountered a 1989 article by then columnist Rick Anderson that discussed not only the WSR boiler room but the fact that Ballasiotes was exploring prisoner ties to the boiler room as part of a $3 million dollar suit she had filed against the state because her daughter had been killed by a former WSR prisoner. Obviously Ballasiotes is and was well aware of prison boiler room operations in Washington yet she feigned ignorance about it when it involves one of her fellow "tough on crime" Republicans.  

After the Times article appeared I contacted at least three Seattle Times reporters and editors to ask them why the Metcalf story wasnt "newsworthy" when I first told them about it back in November of 1994 but was newsworthy in February, 1995, but only after three other papers had run the story. To date no one has answered this question.  

In the aftermath of the Metcalf story legislation was introduced in the state house which would make it a misdemeanor to use prisoners in political campaigns. The state senate introduced a bill which would require telemarketers to identify who had paid them when conducting political "polls" or other campaign work. Prison officials at WSR asked me if I wanted or needed "protective custody" from Metcalfs imprisoned supporters. I declined, noting that in eight years of captivity its only been prison officials who have ever threatened or harmed me. WMG was shut down for a while, waiting for the "heat to die down" and is supposedly trying to change its name to something not associated with prison slave labor. WMG required all of its prison employees to sign non-disclosure agreements so that the next time they campaign for politicians linked to racists and fascists the public wont know about it. This exposes the dirty little secret of prison slave labor: politicians and capitalists want to make money off of it but dont want anyone to know about it.  

My thanks to Ken Silverstein and George Howland for doing follow up investigation and breaking the story to the public at large.

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