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Low wages, high costs: Washington prisoners say they’re being exploited

By Daniel Beekman, The Seattle Times
Published: February 21, 2024, 10:58am

People incarcerated by Washington have to work for as little as $1 per hour while paying unfair costs to stay healthy and connected with the outside world, says a new report by Columbia Legal Services based partly on survey responses and interviews with dozens of people in the state’s prisons.

Because incarcerated people can face negative consequences if they decline to work and because their wages are so low, the labor system in Washington prisons “is nothing short of modern-day slavery,” says the report released Wednesday by CLS, a Seattle-headquartered advocacy organization.

“To make only $1 an hour, it’s kind of absurd, if you think about it,” Azias Ross, one of the report’s interviewees, said a phone call last week from Stafford Creek Corrections Center, where he does janitorial work in a medical unit.

The new report recommends various policy changes, including higher wages, lower costs and an end to “coerced labor.” But Washington leaders appear unlikely to address those concerns during the Legislature’s current session. While some relevant bills were initially proposed, none have advanced.

“Our hope is that this report and the perspectives from the people directly impacted can provide the basis for future legislation in 2025 and beyond,” said Hannah Woerner, a CLS attorney who helped write Wednesday’s report.

In a statement Tuesday, the Washington State Department of Corrections pushed back against aspects of the CLS report. Certain jobs in Washington prisons pay up to $2.85 per hour, offering “some of the highest hourly wages in the nation for incarcerated individuals,” the agency said.

The U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, contains an exception for criminal punishments; people today can lose “good conduct” time credits for not working in Washington’s prisons, where Black, Latino and Indigenous people are overrepresented, the CLS report points out.

Most U.S. states are like Washington, though Colorado pays outside wages to incarcerated people. In some states, incarcerated workers aren’t paid.

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“No one wants to stand up and say, ‘Let’s make slavery legal again,’ but if you get a felony, then slavery is forced upon you,” CLS interviewee Troy Williams said, as quoted by Wednesday’s report. “If you don’t work, you will get a writeup that jeopardizes your release date, so you’re forced to work.”

There are about 12,850 people in Washington’s 11 prisons, and most of them have jobs, according to DOC. More than 7,000 have “unit jobs” that involve maintenance and operations work within prisons, while fewer than 2,000 have “Correctional Industries” jobs that involve working outside prison units.

Correctional Industries is a quasi-business within DOC that recorded $133 million in sales for 2023, and its jobs include food service, laundry and manufacturing, with incarcerated people making products like furniture and license plates. Those are the jobs that pay up to $2.85 per hour.

“While some jobs in prison are mandatory, Correctional Industries jobs are all voluntary and there is a waiting list for these positions at many facilities,” DOC said in its statement Tuesday, touting a program that trains some incarcerated people for union apprenticeships. “Correctional Industries jobs provide incarcerated individuals with marketable job skills, as well as soft skills, that help them land jobs when they leave our facilities. Steady work in turn lowers recidivism rates and creates better neighbors and safer communities.”

Some CLS respondents said opportunities to learn marketable skills are too scarce. DOC disagreed Tuesday, saying 45% of people with Correctional Industries experience get outside jobs within several months of being released, compared to 31% of people without that experience.

Food, toothpaste, calls

Washington lawmakers allocated funds last year to increase the minimum wage for unit jobs from 42 cents to at least $1 per hour, the CLS report mentions. But they declined to pass a bill that would have made incarcerated people subject to the state’s regular minimum wage, which is currently $16.28 per hour. While some Democrats supported the step, the bill died as some Republicans raised concerns about the $97.5 million estimated annual cost.

So, it’s still hard for many incarcerated people to get by, partly because they have to buy commissary food at outside-world prices for nutrition to supplement inadequate prison meals and because they have to pay for phone calls, video calls and emails, affected people told CLS. They also have to pay for hygiene products like soap, shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste.

“There’s a common misconception that people who are incarcerated in our state prison system have all their basic needs provided for by the Department of Corrections. That’s not true,” said Woerner, the CLS attorney.

A 24-pack of chicken ramen from the commissary cost $8.50 in November, up more than $2 since 2020 and roughly equivalent to eight hours of pay for some incarcerated people, the CLS report says. That’s like a minimum-wage worker in the non-prison world paying $138 for the same pack of ramen, it argues.

“You have no other choice but to buy food. They say they give you three meals, but they don’t give you three adult meals. They give you three baby meals,” CLS interviewee Jojo Ejonga said in a call from prison last week.

DOC responded to the criticism Tuesday.

“Incarcerated individuals are not charged for meals, housing or education. They are not required to purchase additional food or other items from the commissary. DOC, like everyone else in the United States, has grappled with the rapid surge in inflation in recent years, but continues to provide commissary items with no, or minimal, markup,” the agency said.

Some incarcerated people have non-incarcerated loved ones who can send them money to help them cover their costs. But other people don’t get that sort of help, and a proposal in the Legislature this year to stop charging incarcerated people for calls and emails has failed to make progress.

People in Washington prisons pay 5 cents per minute for phone calls, about 17 cents per minute for video calls and 33 cents per email. They get two free 20-minute phone calls each week and four free 30-minute video calls each month, DOC spokesperson Chris Wright noted Tuesday. Some other states, like Connecticut and Massachusetts, have stopped assessing call charges.

The CLS report also describes how income “deductions” reduce what incarcerated workers earn; the state takes money from wages to help cover things including incarceration costs and general assistance to crime victims.

The low wages, high costs and deductions combine to prevent incarcerated people from saving money, which hurts society in the long run, Woerner said.

“It would be really great for people who are here for a while to be

able to set money aside for when they get out — get an apartment, a

car, get treatment,” interviewee Marvin Francisco told CLS.

Ross agrees. When people are released from prison without the ability to support themselves, he said, they’re more likely to come back.

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