The next time someone tells you how many jobs Boeing creates in the Puget Sound region, be sure to ask them how many of them are behind bars.
If voters legalize privately hired prison labor on Nov. 6, it could be a valid question: Back in 2004, the 20 inmates who worked for MicroJet, a company that operated inside the Monroe Correctional Complex, cut metal aircraft parts -- a good many of which went to Boeing suppliers.
In May of 2004, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that private prison labor was illegal under the state Constitution, and the Department of Corrections booted MicroJet and eight other companies from three of its prisons. While the firms aren't likely to return, a measure on the November ballot would amend the state Constitution to not only allow private companies in prison again, but dramatically expand their presence.
If passed, a secondary effect of Senate Joint Resolution 8212 would be to authorize the DOC's Correctional Industries division to increase the number of inmates privately employed from the 300 of three years ago to 1,500 by mid-2010 -- the goal set in a bill signed by Gov. Gary Locke in 2004.
Supporters of SJR 8212, which passed the Legislature in April by a large majority, say private companies provide inmates with vital job training, wages, and a way to pay child support and build savings that, in turn, dramatically reduces their chance of returning to prison -- one reason the measure has been endorsed by newspapers, police chiefs, and Seattle's Pioneer Human Services, a job training and housing provider.
Detractors say the state's failure to offer more of its own job training is no excuse for allowing private companies to exploit inmates in jobs that amount to slave labor. In the lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court ruling, a company called Washington Water Jet cited MicroJet's wages as a form of unfair competition, along with the free space and utilities that MicroJet got at the Monroe prison.
"A lot of [inmates] really want prison industries because it's the only option they have to do a little tiny bit better for themselves and their families," says Lea Zengage with Justice Works, a Seattle offender advocacy organization. "But when you look at the bigger picture -- the profit motive for incarceration -- it's not good."
Instead of allowing private companies back in prison, the state should provide education and more job training of its own, Zengage says. While the Supreme Court struck down so-called Class I private industries, Class II industries -- state-operated ventures that can sell only to state agencies or nonprofits -- still train and employ inmates at everything from making school and office furniture to removing asbestos.
But Class II industry jobs pay only 45 cents to $1.50 an hour, whereas private employers must pay inmates minimum wage or above, according to a scale set by the State's Department of Employment Security. To protect outside companies, SJR 8212 states that the private entities "shall be operated so that the programs do not unfairly compete with Washington businesses."
Nothing in SJR 8212 itself guarantees this, but the previous legislation signed by Gov. Locke in 2004 (Senate Bill 6498) requires Correctional Industries to put prison companies on an even footing with outside firms by charging them a fee comparable to what would be paid on the outside for space and utilities.
But figuring out what that fee should be won't be easy, says Ken Piel, general manager of what is now Marysville-based Ryerson-MicroJet. "I haven't found any facility out there that has no windows, or where you have to walk through 10 barbed-wire gates, or where the landlord dictates the hours," he said of his former operation at Monroe. "But [the prison facilities were] a benefit; I'm not going to deny that."
Piel founded MicroJet but says the legal costs of fighting the Water Jet case -- which is still in litigatation over unfair competition -- forced him to sell to a larger company last year. Today, he says, the wages he pays are similar and, in some cases lower, than what he was required to pay in prison.
"What's come out in testimony is that any business we won was won based on the quality of our work and the customer service we provided and not as a part of price," says Piel. Given that both MicroJet and the state's waterjet-cutting industry have grown over the years, he adds, "it doesn't look like the reason the company has been sucessful is because of prison labor."