OLYMPIA -- As a bill to exempt correctional officers from buying uniforms made by inmates comes closer to a Senate vote, lawmakers hope to find other work for the inmates to do.
Last week, two Senate committees approved Substitute House Bill 2346, which, if enacted into law, would cost Correctional Industries $890,000 in lost revenue and erase jobs from 100 inmates and eight staff at Connell's Coyote Ridge Corrections Center.
The bill is now waiting to be approved by the Senate Rules Committee to head to the floor of the Senate for debate.
Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma, and a board member for Correctional Industries, was the only one to oppose the bill in the Senate's Human Services and Corrections Committee, and one of two votes against it on the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.
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"How do we replace these jobs? Because we can all agree that gainfully employing prisoners benefits society," she said at a recent hearing about the bill.
Lyle Morse, director of Correctional Industries, testified against the bill at the same hearing.
He told the Herald that the program does more than make uniforms. It teaches inmates valuable skills, and keeps them productively occupied, he said.
More than 1,400 of 17,000 inmates work voluntarily for 68 Correctional Industries businesses, one of which is making uniforms.
Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, voted for the bill as chairman of the Senate's Human Services and Corrections Committee, but with some concerns for inmates.
"We'd like to have all 17,000 inmates employed. We've only been able to have 1,400, and now we're taking some away," Hargrove said.
He told those testifying that if their complaints were only about quality, the program could be improved.
Tracey Thompson, secretary-treasurer for Teamsters Local 117, which represents the officers, told the Herald, "It's not just about quality. It's a problem for officers to be wearing uniforms made by the inmates they oversee."
Correctional Industries has been expanding contracts in and out of the state, even in the textile industry, Thompson said. Even if inmates stopped making uniforms for guards, they could continue to produce textiles for groups that do not involve a conflict of interest, she said.
John T. Christy, a correctional officer for the Washington State Penitentiary for 31 years, told the Herald that Correctional Industries should teach inmates a more valuable skill.
"These guys are not going to get a job in textiles when they get out," Christy said.
He said most textile jobs go to low-wage workers overseas. Even Washington companies like Blumenthal Uniforms, which has offered to make uniforms for the officers, has expressed concerns about hiring ex-inmates, he said.
In Walla Walla and Connell, the department already has a heating, ventilating, air-conditioning and refrigeration program, Christy said.
If correctional centers give inmates post-secondary education opportunities, such as community college courses, while they serve their sentences, they will be more likely to continue their education outside of the system, Christy said.