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Investigation: Washington State Correctional Industries a "Broken Program"

by Lonnie Burton

Washington State Correctional Industries (CI) ranks as the fourth largest prison labor program in the United States, with revenues north of $70 million in fiscal year 2014. However, the program, which employs about 1,600 state prisoners, Was found to be "a broken program" which cost the taxpayers millions of dollars, according to a December 2014 investigation by The Seattle Times.

Among the findings by The Seattle Times was that prison-manufactured goods, which includes furniture such as desks, chairs, dressers, and bed frames, were sold to otherwise unwitting or unwilling consumers. In addition, furniture sold to state agencies, who are required in many instances to purchase from CI, were sold at "exorbitant markups" in order to make up for huge losses elsewhere.

The Times also reported that CI often takes "jobs from private businesses that can't compete with cheap prison labor." Claims regarding decreased recidivism and improved job preparedness for the CI prisoner-employees were under-substantiated, the newspaper reported.

CI "capitalizes off a built-in monopoly," The Times argues, noting that Washington state law mandates that state agencies as well as public universities buy furniture from CI.

So it was with surprise that a student at Scripps College looked at her bed frame and saw a bright yellow sticker that read "Washington State Correctional Industries."

"I don't want to sleep on this bed," bemoaned 18-year-old Sara Gonzalez-Bautista, who admitted to knowing that the college previously bought prison furniture. "But I had never seen the sticker," she said.

According to Binti Harvey, vice president for marketing and communications at Scripps, the college purchased bed frames, dressers, bookcases and chairs from CI for use only in student rooms.

Scripps' relationship with CI dates back to at least 2008. "There has been a historic pattern of (colleges) purchasing from companies like CI," confirmed Dean Calvo, vice president for business affairs and treasurer at Scripps. Calvo was unsure exactly when Scripps started buying from CI because he claimed he did not have access to records from before then, and refused media requests to see available receipts and invoices.

Scripps has since changed their policy of purchasing from prisons, writing in an email that their new default position is not to buy from companies that sell good manufactured in prisons until "sufficient research can establish that a particular prison manufacturing program is fair to prisoners."

Others argue there is no such thing as "ethical prison labor," and criticizes Scripps for seemingly waffling on the issue. "It feels like (Scripps is) saying 'Sorry, kind of, we might do it again if there's an ethical prison labor production,' which in my opinion in contradictory," said Sabrina Gunter, a member of a group calling for the abolition of prisons.

Current and former prisoners who have worked for CI largely take a different view on the subject. CI jobs are the highest paying positions in prisons and often allow prisoners to learn a valuable trade, send money home to needy family members, build up substantial savings for release, pay off legal debts, and/or just live more comfortably while locked up.

The Seattle Times' investigation did find that CI purposefully hires prisoners with longer sentences to reduce training costs. The report also noted that CI pays its workers as little as 55 cents per hour, but did not note that this was the first increment, or a starting wage, that could rise to as much as $1.60 per hour--a hefty paycheck in prison.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez-Bautista has found a new bed to sleep on. She claims that Scripps' involvement with "the prison industrial: complex is reflective of the continued cooption of social movements, and social justice by the institutions who appear less corrupt when in reality all of these institutions are so embedded in all of the systems that oppress people and create hierarchies between people."

Sources: The Seattle Times, Jonathan Azterbaum

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