December 20, 2021 | Ralph Dunuan
If you've lived in a residence hall on campus, you may have seen a sticker which reads Correctional Industries on your furniture. This furniture was made by an incarcerated person working under Correctional Industries, an institution which exploits incarcerated workers within the prisons in Washington State.
Like most states, Washington State has what's called Correctional Industries (CI) within all of its correctional institutions. CI operates alongside the Department of Corrections (DOC) and claims to assist incarcerated individuals by teaching transferable skills and a positive work ethic as an inmate works towards their release date.
The reality of CI in Washington State does not line up with their claims. The majority of skills learned through CI are outdated and no longer transferable to respective industries. Furthermore, CI lacks a positive work ethic in its workplaces. Not only are CI's work environments degrading and the skills they teach rarely transferable, CI workers are grossly underpaid.
CI workers do not earn a paycheck rather they are given a gratuity far below the minimum wage - where an incarcerated worker can receive anywhere from .65¢ to $1.30 an hour. From that gratuity DOC then takes on average 55% of that total, and in some cases 75 - 95 % from individuals. Correctional Industries intentionally provides a gratuity rather than a paycheck in order to escape employer/employee protections and work standards which any human being is given in today's society.
While it is usually illegal to pay someone under the minimum wage, the U.S. Constitution's 13th amendment allows states to use their prisoners as the last remaining form of slave labor. This lets CI subcontract cheap labor from the Department of Corrections. For those on the other side of these walls who have not experienced prison conditions, this might sound like an economically viable way to lessen the burden of a consistently growing prison population on society. However, does it truly accomplish this, or does it achieve its stated goal of preparing incarcerated individuals for work environments on the outside?
At Monroe's WSRU facility the Correctional Industries work environment is far from positive. Some inmates are forced to strip naked to enter the shop they work in, and are forced to work with chemicals that cause cancer. Supervisors have been known to speak to their workers with threats and disrespectful/racist language. If these actions are reported, the worker, not the supervisor, is removed from their position, and in some cases staff in the living units retaliate as well. No training for positions is provided which has led to serious injuries. These things are just a small portion of what the Washington State Correctional Industries promotes, contrary to CI's claims.
Not only does CI directly exploit the individuals within its control, the broader Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) upholds the oppression of vast segments of the population. Incarceration has been the U.S.'s primary way to control its population and oppress communities across the country. The PIC is making our progress toward a socially progressive society a slow moving one. Communities of color are impacted the most, which suffer disproportionately at the hands of these institutions.
Far from valuable work skills, what this really accomplishes is the dehumanization, warehousing, and degradation of human beings. A previous article in the Daily UW by David Lovell implied that instead of starting with Correctional Industries and the quality of life of current prisoners, we should instead focus on sentencing, prosecution, and/or probation practices. This was in response to a group of students that took a stance against their University's use of slave labor. However, the state legislation, in the 2021 session proved that they are not ready to do this, as they consistently put aside legislative bills such as HB1282, HB1413, HB1169, and HB1344, all of which addressed these stated issues. (for more info on these stated bills please use contact info below)
Therefore, the UW student body, faculty, board of regents, and president Ana Mari Cauce can focus their efforts on how their institution of learning impacts our current prison population in Washington State. This should start with a change in their complicity in the harm CI causes. An institution of learning shouldn't, with all its educated minds, be unaware of the effects that the organizations they do business with have on our communities. Because shouldn't a university know that progress is found through learned thought, which leads to a change of action!
As we seek solutions for social change and racial equality within the prison system, we should look at resentencing practices, prosecution tactics, and probation policies in order to end mass incarceration. However, as with any change, all of us must do our part to fight against the use of mass incarceration and support more rehabilitative practices for prisoners. The UW can do its part by really looking at who they do business with and how that business impacts communities of color and incarcerated individuals that suffer under the thumb of CI/DOC, and then changing that relationship.