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The False Promises of Prison Labor

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Prison labor not only takes jobs away from non-prisoners who earn wages, but it is a corrupt system that does not save the state money, as the Seattle Times reports. There is also no evidence this unpaid labor creates skills for prisoners they can use upon their release.

But behind CI’s glossy brochures and polished YouTube videos is a broken program that has cost taxpayers millions of dollars, charged exorbitant markups to state agencies to make up for losses, and taken jobs from private businesses that can’t compete with cheap prison labor, a Seattle Times investigation has found.

Far from being self-sufficient, CI has cost taxpayers at least $20 million since 2007, including $750,000 spent over three years on a fish farm to raise tilapia that has yet to yield a single meal.

CI has reaped millions of dollars — money it keeps — by inflating prices of furniture it sells to state agencies and public universities, capitalizing on a law that requires they buy from prison factories. In many cases, prisoners didn’t make the items, but CI instead bought prebuilt furniture then resold it with markups, previously undisclosed state records show.

The Times also found dozens of private business owners in Seattle and statewide who say they’ve had to stop hiring or lay off workers, victimized by unfair competition from an inmate workforce paid as little as 55 cents an hour.

“Have we had some problems?” said Danielle Armbruster, director of Correctional Industries. “Absolutely.”

“I believe in this program. We hope to expand and reach even more inmates. If we help just one inmate, then that’s one less victim in the future.”

But CI can’t substantiate that key claim — that inmates who work in Correctional Industries commit fewer crimes after release than those who do not. State recidivism studies often contradict each other and are rife with shortcomings, failing to account for thousands of inmates who commit new crimes, according to a Times analysis.

Likewise, officials have publicly claimed that CI inmates more successfully gained jobs after release, but they actually have no idea which offenders get jobs or where they’re working.

While for prisoners themselves, doing something with their time is better than sitting in their cell, the problems with prison labor are myriad.

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