A bill introduced by state Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton, brings up some interesting questions about the corrections system, labor fairness and basic human rights. It should be broadly discussed in the Legislature and ultimately rejected.
Simmons has proposed House Bill 1024, the “Real Labor, Real Wages Act,” which would require that inmates be paid the state’s minimum wage for work done during incarceration. The bill has drawn 17 co-sponsors — all Democrats, including Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver.
“No one should be coerced into providing their labor, and Washington should not profit from involuntary servitude,” Simmons said.
According to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union and the University of Chicago Law School, about 80 percent of inmate work in U.S. prisons is dedicated to maintaining facilities or working in the laundry or kitchen. At Larch Corrections Center in Clark County, for example, some inmates work in forest management or wildfire fighting.
In the most recent fiscal year, more than 1,600 incarcerated people worked 218,335 hours for Washington Correctional Industries. The program contributed $46.2 million to the state’s economy, with workers paid between 65 cents and $2.70 an hour.
With Washington having a minimum wage of $15.74 an hour — the highest of any state in the nation — it is easy to see the disconnect.
Simmons said: “The 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except for punishment for a crime. So this is often referred to as the ‘slavery loophole.’”
Simmons has unique insight; she is believed to be the first formerly incarcerated person elected to the Legislature. In 2011, she was sentenced to 30 months in prison for theft and drug crimes; she later graduated from Seattle University School of Law and was elected in 2020. “When I was incarcerated,” she said, “I was paid 42 cents an hour.”
The issue brings up questions about the role of incarceration and about society’s expectations for the corrections system.
On one hand, prison is not free for incarcerated people. As one inmate at the Washington Corrections Center for Women told The Associated Press: “Toothpaste is $7. Deodorant is 3 to 10 dollars. … Sometimes you can’t even get all the hygiene that you need for the month.” And Simmons said medical care often requires a co-payment.
But on the other hand, prisoners have their housing and food covered. It’s not a country club, but it is not a free market in which inmates pay for all services. In 2019, the Department of Corrections spent $115 a day for each incarcerated person.
The goal of that expense is three-fold: to protect society from dangerous criminals, punish those who break the law, and reduce recidivism. Protecting the public is self-evident, but the best ways to keep offenders from re-offending are open to debate.
Simmons’ proposal would place half an inmates’ earnings into an account that cannot be accessed until they are released. “If people can leave with enough money to have transportation — for housing, clothing, food and potentially some job training — hopefully they will have a better chance at not coming back,” she said.
That has merit, but it leaves out the public’s interest in appropriate punishment for criminals. As lawmakers consider the bill, they must act in the best interests of the community rather than showing inordinate concern for criminals.