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Originally published December 16, 2014 at 4:49 PM | Page modified December 16, 2014 at 4:55 PM

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Editorial: Fix the hidden costs behind prison labor

Idle hands in prison can be a threat, but what is it really costing the state to put them to work?


Seattle Times Editorial

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They have a huge worm farm at one of the Prisons, sell the worms to fisherman, use the compost to grow mushrooms, , and... MORE
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KEEPING a thousand sets of otherwise idle prisoners’ hands busy is a fine idea. Make them contribute to their own room and board with jobs that offer a carrot for good behavior. As a bonus, they learn job skills that will pay off once they’re released.

Fine idea. But delivering on that promise requires the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to be a shrewd business manager, and that’s where the state agency has struggled, as a three-part Seattle Times investigative series, Sell Block, described this week.

Instead of getting a self-sustaining Correctional Industries program, taxpayers have been quietly stuck with a program that has cost them at least $20 million since 2007.

The red ink propped up a fish farm that hasn’t produced a meal, and a mattress-recycling operation that put prison managers financially in bed with representatives of the mattress industry and had the state stealing work from a well-meaning private nonprofit.

One outcome of the series should be a greater financial transparency. The DOC aspires to have Correctional Industries be self-sufficient. Prove it, or fix practices.

That requires a comprehensive performance review by state Auditor Troy Kelley, and a commitment by the DOC to an annual financial checkup. The mattress scheme merits an ethics investigation, which Corrections Secretary Bernie Warneralready has requested.

A stronger oversight board would also help Correctional Industries. Seven of the 13 positions are currently open. The state’s business community should step up and help government glean private-sector expertise.

But one outcome of the series should not be to close the Correctional Industries program. There is great value in keeping inmates busy, and in teaching them basic job skills. The problem lies in the execution, not the concept.

While there is no excuse to prop up failing prison industries with $20 million in taxpayer money, it’s worth noting that the investigation spanned a period when many businesses struggled in the recession, and when the DOC closed a major prison for budget reasons. Warner said this week the program currently was $4.7 million in the black.

The series also made an inadvertent case for prison education, which in some cases is more effective at reducing recidivism for released inmates than providing prison jobs. The Legislature has refused the DOC’s desire to use existing funds to pay for higher education behind bars, instead sticking to a shortsighted ban passed in 1995.

Lift the ban, and give inmates the chance to exit prison with an education, as well as job skills.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Blanca Torres, Robert J. Vickers, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).



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