Debate breaks out over bids to expand prison labor for private firms
Every morning, Bill Neighbors, a tall, mustachioed 40-year-old, makes his morning commute to his job as a metalworker.Skip to next paragraph
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But there is no rush-hour traffic to beat. For Mr. Neighbors, who has served 21 years for first-degree murder, the commute entails being moved from his prison cell at the Monroe (Wash.) Correctional Complex (MCC) to his in-prison job crafting aluminum and steel products.
"I was just a kid when I came in," he says.
Two years from now, Neighbors will be a free man.
He says he looks forward to living in his own place, acquired with money from his $7.50-per-hour prison job.
Neighbors is among the 80,000 to 90,000 state prisoners nationwide engaged in some kind of prison labor. But while most prison work benefits the public sector, Neighbors works for a private company - Elliott Bay Manufacturing. Currently, only 3,555 prisoners - all at state facilities - are employed by private firms nationwide.
Legislation introduced in Congress this spring would allow federal prisoners to work for private firms as well, touching off a debate over fair competition.
The rehabilitative benefits of these kinds of private-public business partnerships are widely touted by prison-labor advocates. And nowhere has support for prison labor been as strong as in the Pacific Northwest.
"We want to make sure that when these folks come back out into our community, they don't recidivate," says Howard Yarbrough, the director of Correctional Industries (CI), a division of the Washington Department of Corrections.
Washington State employs a larger percentage of prisoners than any other state, at least partly as a result of a 1993 state law that called for steady increases in the number of inmates employed in prison industries. Almost 70 percent of Washington's 15,000 prisoners now work in some kind of prison job.
Nearly 450 prisoners are employed by 17 private-sector companies allowed to set up shop within the state's various correctional facilities. Another 2,200 produce goods and services for tax-supported agencies and nonprofit organizations.
But questions are being raised about the true intent, cost, and benefit of state- or business-run industries inside prison walls - and whether prisoners should work for private companies at all.
The MicroJet case
In 1999, a group of small-business owners in the water-jet cutting industry sued CI and a private company, MicroJet, alleging they were hurt economically because of the low bids MicroJet was able to offer as a result of using prison labor.
But the Washington Water Jet Workers Association dropped that lawsuit earlier this year in order to focus its efforts on an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Its assertion: The employment of prisoners by private companies violates the state Constitution.
The Constitution "is designed to prevent the situation we now face, where private companies are benefiting from the labor of inmates," says Richard Stephens of the Bellevue, Wash.-based law firm Groen, Stephens & Klinge, representing the group of water-jet cutters.
One of the companies among the plaintiffs has already gone out of business, while others say they are trying to scale down or branch out into other industries to make ends meet.
The free rent and subsidized utilities provided by the state to companies like MicroJet create an unfair competitive advantage, says John Swapp, president of one of the plaintiff companies, JetPoint.
Mr. Swapp says his workers are paid between $12 and $20 per hour, and receive medical benefits as well as paid sick time and vacation. By comparison, he complains, MicroJet pays lower wages, while the state provides medical care (and no paid sick or vacation time) for inmates.