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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Sleeping on slave wages?

By Suzanna Leung


If you’re currently living in a dorm, the mattress you sleep on was made by prison inmates making 25 to 42 cents per hour.

Washington State Correctional Industries is a company that relies on inmates from correctional facilities all across Washington. The company produces a variety of products including mattresses, furniture, optical lenses and food.

Correctional Industries is also the supplier for Western’s dorm mattresses and furniture around campus.

Western’s mattresses come from the Correctional Industries mattress factory, based in the Coyote Ridge Corrections center in Connell. According to the orientation handbook from the corrections center, inmates produce its products at a starting rate of 25 cents per hour for participating in labor pool assignments.

Inmates have the opportunity for raises, but only up to a maximum for 42 cents per hour after two continuous months of employment.

In total, inmates can earn a maximum of $55 a month from working for Correctional Industries.

“If Western wants to continue branding itself as a progressive college, then they really need to commit to that all the way.”

Kai Bjarke, freshman

Deductions will be made from inmates’ gross wages in order to fund the development of Correctional Industries programs, according to the Revised Code of Washington 72.09.111. This means inmates can make even less than the $55 monthly maximum.

Western is obligated to purchase some furniture from Correctional Industries. The Washington Institutions of Public Higher Education contract restricts colleges from purchasing items through vendors not listed in the contract.

Terence Symonds, associate director for University Residences facilities, said Correctional Industries and RT London are the only vendors currently on the contact for big purchases.

Symonds said most of the furniture in the dorms comes from RT London, but did not specify how much furniture came from Correctional Industries.

Symonds declined to answer when asked about the low-compensation rates for inmates producing mattresses and other furniture through Correctional Industries.

“CI is one of the vendors on the contract,” Symonds said. “It’s a viable contract and we have to use viable contracts.”

According to Symonds, Western is currently trying to access other purchasing contracts on a national level. These include contracts within the National Association of State Procurement Officers and the National Intergovernmental Purchasing Alliance.

These contracts would open 62 more furniture vendors for the university to purchase through.

The Washington Institutions of Public Higher Education includes six public universities within the state and 33 community colleges.

This includes the University of Washington, Washington State University, Bellingham Technical College and Whatcom Community College, as well as Western.

State law requires state institutions give purchasing preference towards Correctional Industries products. The law also states that inmates are not to be considered employees, and therefore do not fall within the guidelines of the Worker’s Compensation act. In addition, inmates are not entitled to any benefits.

Any concerns with this issue would have to be taken to Olympia, Symonds said.

Sophomore Stephanie Demetreon has lived in the Ridgeway Omega dorms for two years. She does not oppose state-sanctioned prison labor, but she said inmates should be fairly compensated for their work.

“Forty-two cents an hour is essentially nothing,” Demetreon said. “I’m assuming they’re saving up for when they’re not going to be in prison anymore, and that’s not going to help them actually get a good start. It’s not going to help them turn their lives around.”

Correctional Industries’ vision statement is to “Transform lives and increase successful reentry through training and mentoring.”

According to Correctional Industries, its programs provide inmates with the opportunity to gain work experience creating competitively-priced products. The sales of its products help fund operations within correctional facilities.

The Seattle Times found that inmates’ involvement with Correctional Industries did not affect their likeliness to commit crimes compared to inmates who did not work for Correctional Industries.

According to The Seattle Times, Correctional Industries generates up to $70 million dollars in sales per year, making it the fourth-largest prison labor program in the nation. They also found that from 2007 to 2014, Correctional Industries cost taxpayers at least $20 million dollars.

Correctional Industries’ annual report showed $51,094,934 in total assets after the 2016 fiscal year.

Symonds said it isn’t uncommon for states to utilize correctional facilities to produce furniture for state institutions.

All 50 states utilize prison labor industries for the production of goods for state institutions.  

State and federally-sanctioned prison labor is supported by the Thirteenth Amendment in the Constitution, which states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Despite the legality, people are upset with the use of prison labor.

Freshman Kai Bjarke currently lives in the Ridgeway Beta dorms. Bjarke personally denounces the practice of prison labor, calling it morally dubious.

Using production line labor to provide working experience for inmates is an outdated practice, Bjarke said. They said if Correctional Industries truly valued providing inmates with working experience for successful reentry, it would give inmates experience more relevant to modern society.

“I don’t think that has any actual effect on how they’ll be as citizens,” Bjarke said, referring to the work experience provided by Correctional Industries. “I think it affects how they’ll be as laborers.”

Bjarke hopes Western will reject the practice of purchasing products from Correctional Industries in order to set a precedent for other colleges.

“If Western wants to continue branding itself as a progressive college, then they really need to commit to that all the way,” Bjarke said.

Each mattress produced by Correctional Industries is sold for $174. According to the company, they are designed specifically for dormitory style settings.


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