State prison officers should not have to wear uniforms made by the inmates they guard.
State Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, along with 10 other Republicans and 19 Democrats, is sponsoring a bill to allow private companies to sell uniforms to correctional officers.
Washington law currently requires the Department of Corrections to buy uniforms from Correctional Industries, a program which employs 1,600 offender-workers at 16 state prison facilities.
But Walsh said at least three officers have personally complained to her about the quality of the buttons, seams and material of the uniforms.
Several officers expect to testify at the bill's hearing this week in Olympia.
But state corrections officials said they don't see a problem.
"In my view, they do a really good job," said Jeffrey A. Uttecht, superintendent of Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, where inmates make some of the uniforms.
Lyle Morse, director of Correctional Industries, said the offender-worker system allows for on-demand production. When an officer needs a uniform, inmates can make it right away. If a pair of pants rip, officers can send it to an on-site tailor or have it replaced.
Four years ago, fading colors were an issue, he said, because officers might get issued a 7-year-old pair of pants and a new shirt. Today, the department issues light blue shirts and dark blue pants to avoid that problem, he said.
Most of the complaints Morse receives are about the American flag patch on uniforms. The patch was moved to a different position on the uniform and officers say that the stars on the flag are too far away from their heart.
But Walsh claimed in a recent news release, "Not only can the private sector make these better, they can make them cheaper."
Deputy Prisons Director Dan Pacholke said he disagrees.
Not only does Correctional Industries offer the most cost-effective method of production, the guards and inmates benefit, as well, he said.
Inmates can make as much as $1.50 an hour in this program. Ten percent of the income goes into savings, and inmates can use the money to pay their legal fees.
The program also contributes to the safety and order of the facilities by reducing idleness and providing workers with training, Morse said. This program is responsible for reducing repeat offenders, by providing inmates with a foundation to start their lives over, he said.
Correctional Industries also produces food, license plates, furniture, plumbing and other textiles, such as sheets and uniforms for inmates and even ferry conductors, Morse said.
Walsh said she didn't want to downplay the benefits of Correctional Industries, but she maintains letting inmates make the officers uniforms is a conflict of interest.