Washblog

Recommend Approval of Senate Joint Resolution 8212 (Prison Labor)

I'm the Legislative Action Chair of the 46th, so it was embarassing when I realized we would be voting on whether or not to approve the constitutional amendment on prison labor.

I read the paper every day, and I was in Olympia last session. Still, I hadn't heard a thing about it. Belatedly, I did my homework, mostly on the website of the State Legislature.

Also on the ballot are three other proposed constitutional amendments relating to the establishment of a budget stabilization account SJR 8206 ("Rainy Day Fund"];  school district tax levies EHJR 4204 ("Simple Majority"); and investment of higher education permanent funds SHJR 4215.

See Bill Info and enter bill number

From the Final Bill Report on SJR 8212, passed unanimously by the Senate and 83-15 in the House (requires two-thirds majority of each), to overturn a 2004 State Supreme Court decision:

[Quoting] Summary: The Legislature has authorized the Department of Corrections (DOC) to establish and operate a comprehensive work program for inmates. At the next general election, an amendment to the Washington Constitution will be submitted to the voters authorizing the state to let out the labor of inmates in the state by contract, if it is allowed by statute. The constitutional provision requiring the Legislature to provide for the working of inmates for the benefit of the state is amended to include the working of inmates in state-run inmate labor programs. The constitutional amendment requires that inmate labor programs be operated so that they do not unfairly compete with Washington businesses as determined by law.

Under that statute, the wages of Class I industries workers are comparable to wages for similar work in the same geographic area, as determined by the director of the DOC. The DOC must take 5 percent of a Class I worker's income for crime victims' compensation, 10 percent for the inmate's savings account, 20 percent for the cost of the inmate's incarceration, and 20 percent for any legal financial obligations that the inmate owes, including victim restitution.

A constitutional amendment takes a simple majority of voters to pass. [End quote from the Final Bill Report]

I asked esteemed Democratic Activist Alice Woldt what she thought, and she told me her husband visits prisoners at the Monroe prison.  He asked them. After complaining about the sub par wages, they said, on balance, that they would rather have the prison labor program than not.

Based on that, and the overwhelming vote in the legislature (who actually listened to testimony) I recommend you vote for it. Why? It creates assets and pays fines. It gives them something to do. It may add job skills. Yes, it has shortcomings.

Here is another opinion, from Lea Zengage at Justice Works! She supports it.

"Although we understand the value for incarcerated people to earn more than 42 cents or $1.10 / hour and we acknowledge the benefits of providing work experience for incarcerated people, we see the prison industries as one of the main cogs in the "Perpetual Prisoner Machine" as described in the book by the same name authored by Joel Dyer. The bottom line is that in the long run, this change support[s] the continuation of mass incarceration in this country."

I wish I'd been better prepared to explain this measure and have us endorse it at our last 46th District Dems meeting. I notice that the 36th LD Dems did not take a position either.

< Progressive Convention in Tacoma | This time, Iran is in their cross hairs >

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So you support a constitutional amendment for prison labor?
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That paragraph from Justice Works sounds like she doesn't support it.  The Olympian also has an article about it.

http://www.theolympian.com/opinion/story/227367.html

I think we need to completely restructure our prison system.  But I think this Resolution deserves support because it ensures that the playing field is level for any private business who asks for a contract to use these workers.  The Olympian article talks about one company that was paying inmates $7 per hour for work that otherwise would have paid someone on the outside $17.  I agree with the Supreme Court that this is a government subsidy for that company.  Hopefully, if 8212 passes, we'll see an end to that.

Chad

by chadlupkes on Tue Oct 02, 2007 at 06:27:34 AM PST

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