Inmate labor program needs oversight

One of the most obscure measures on the Nov. 6 general election ballot is a proposed constitutional amendment governing the use of inmate labor. The Olympian's editorial board encourages a "yes" vote on Senate Joint Resolution 8212.

The founders of this state were concerned with prison wardens lining their pockets by hiring out convicts as laborers. Article II, Section 29 of the state constitution states: "After the first day of January eighteen hundred and ninety the labor of convicts of this state shall not be let out by contract to any person, copartnership, company or corporation, and the legislature shall by law provide for the working of convicts for the benefit of the state."

That's a clear prohibition against the use of inmates for private enterprise.

But 20 years ago, the state Department of Corrections started assigning inmates to work for private companies operating inside the prison walls.

Airplane parts

One of the firms taking advantage of inmate labor was MicroJet, which uses high pressure water to cut airplane parts. There are several other Washington firms offering such services to Boeing and its subcontractors. When those private fir ms found out that MicroJet was receiving free rent and free utilities, they objected on the grounds of unfair competition. They learned that inmates were being paid $7 per hour as opposed to machinists on the outside earning $17 an hour for the same work. It was clear that the state was subsidizing MicroJet and allowing the firm to unfairly compete in the free market.

The private firms sued the state and in 2004 the state Supreme Court sided with them. The justices said the "plain language" of the state Constitution clearly prohibited the use of inmate labor for private corporations.

That's why SJR 8212 is on the ballot. It would change the constitution to allow inmates to work for private firms. The amendment says those firms operating in the prisons "shall be operated so that the programs do not unfairly compete with Washington businesses."

That's key because it's clear from the Supreme Court case that the Department of Corrections did not have a good track record when it came to overseeing the inmate labor program and ensuring that there is n o competitive advantage to firms using inmate labor.

An excellent case

Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, author of the constitutional amendment, makes an excellent case when he says that working inmates will:

n Benefit themselves by learning a job skill while incarcerated.

n Benefit crime victims because a portion of their salary is automatically used for restitution and crime victim compensation.

n Benefit taxpayers because working inmates pay for a portion of their room and board.

n Benefit the criminal justice system because a part of their wage is used to repay their court costs.

n Benefit society because studies have shown that inmates with job skills are less likely to commit another crime once released.

By supporting SJR 8212 voters are trusting that the Department of Corrections will enforce the law to ensure that there is no unfair advantage to companies operating inside prisons. The Supreme Court record showed that 37 of the 58 inmates working for MicroJet were murderers. While some will be released some day, many others will never be released from prison. That shoots a hole in Sen. Hargrove's argument about rehabilitation.

Nonetheless, with proper oversight from Corrections and assigning appropriate inmates to the tasks, this program can work.

We offer our endorsement with one caveat. We encourage State Auditor Brian Sonntag to schedule a performance audit for the inmate work program after a couple of years of operation to ensure it's operating as intended and that the Department of Corrections and the Correctional Industries Board are providing proper oversight.

Vote for SJR 8212.