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Washington’s McNeil Island Prison Workers Pose Unique Problem

Washington state legislators face a unique problem with the prison workers it uses to maintain McNeil Island economy. Juveniles from the Oakridge Community group home work in groups of two to six as dockworkers. The youths are paid $7.16 an hour to assist shipwrights and engine mechanics. Their cheap labor helps keep eight ferry boats and several barges running.

Also working on the island are some of the state’s convicted sex offenders. Until 2011, both the juveniles and the sex offenders were housed on the island. But budget cuts forced the boys’ prison to close. Now they are transported from the mainland to work on the island.  Their new location now allows many to regularly attend high school, college and vocational training classes.

Sen. Jeannie Darneille , D-Tacoma touts the educational benefits the boys get from their jobs but stresses the need to be certain that lawmakers are “doing everything within out power to make 100 percent sure that they would not be harmed in any way because of the proximity issues.”

Don Gauntz, interim superintendent of the Special Commitment Center, says that for those who work on the island proximity to the incarcerated sex offenders is not a concern.

 “It’s a huge island and pretty easy to keep some separation there,” says Gauntz.

Republican Sen. Mike Carrell of Lakewood agrees that the island job program is beneficial to the boys. According to Carrell the youths learn valuable industrial and technological skills.

Of course, money is a major factor behind this bipartisan support. McNeil Island adds $6.6 million annually to the coffers of the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). That’s nearly 15 percent of the department’s $43 million annual cost for running the island facility.

The real controversy arises over the fact that more workers are needed and the center wants to use the sex offenders to fill the positions. Nearly 300 prisoners classified as sexually violent predators are confined on the island. Current regulations mandate that any prisoner allowed to work is required to have a one-on-one escort. The regulation was put in place decades ago as a way of keeping the families of prison guards safe. However, no families have lived on the island for years.

Prisoners who do work are required to wear ankle bracelets which allow their movements to be tracked at all times. If their job takes them outside the fence workers wear an additional locator device. The one-on-one rule does allow residents to work off the island but that seldom happens. The last time a prisoner landed a job on the mainland was over two years ago.

Prisoner Richard Broten said he would like to get a job working at the island’s water treatment plant. “You’ve got people with you all the time, so the risk of causing harm to someone is minute.”

Although Broten has been turned down for every job he’s applied for he maintains that it is his need to have a constant escort, not his criminal history, that has kept him unemployed.

Gauntz supports the measure to relax escort requirements since it would provide prisoners with additional training and skills. He believes that enhancing their ability to successfully transition to society upon release will benefit everyone.

 “We don’t believe a transient sex offender serves the state of Washington well”, says Gauntz.

But, he adds that even if plans to relax the escort requirements succeed the DSHS would only apply it to jobs on the island.


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