Wash. State High Court Bars Private Companies From Using Prison Labor
Ammons Associated Press Writer
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - Private businesses cannot profit from prison
labor in Washington, the state Supreme Court said in a ruling that
kills a program that employed about 300 inmates.
When the state constitution was drafted, there was "populist distrust of government entanglement with private enterprise" and framers tried to draw a clear line, said Justice Bobbe Bridge, writing for the majority. "We conclude that the founders and ratifying public intended convict labor to profit the state, rather than private enterprise."
The ruling does not affect state-run prison labor programs, but state prison chief Joe Lehman called it "very disappointing."
"This was an opportunity for inmates to work in real-world jobs, to find skills, to pay support to their families, to pay for restitution, to pay for room and board," Lehman said. "This is exactly what the public wants."
Through the state program, approved in 1981, nine companies, including metal fabricators, a clothing manufacturer, a computer company and a concrete works, use inmate labor at four prisons. The companies get factory space, free or inexpensive utilities, and a break on wages and benefits.
Inmates in the private programs earn an average of $8.15 an hour - significantly more than jobs in state-run prison programs. Portions of their wages help pay for their upkeep and for restitution.
State officials were determining how to get out of the private contracts. Lehman said the state will lose about $600,000 in room and board payments from the inmates and that crime victims stand to lose $150,000 in restitution.
The lawsuit involved a challenge of the program that allowed a water-jet cutting business to use prison labor at the Monroe Corrections Center, free use of 11,000 square feet of industrial space, free security, and free or discounted utilities. The challenge came from the business's competitors.