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Eye On Olympia

More than license plates…

Three years after the state Supreme Court ruled that it’s unconstitutional for companies or nonprofits to use prison-inmate labor, lawmakers want to rewrite that 118-year-old clause of the constitution.

The workers are paid for their time – although more than half of that money can be gobbled up for victim restitution, cost of incarceration, another victim’s fund and a mandatory 20 percent inmate savings account.

A 2005 study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that putting employees to work reduces their likelihood of re-offending upon release. The group calculated the net benefit – in savings to taxpayers and benefits of avoided crime – at about $4,400 per inmate.

Senate Joint Resolution 8212 would ask voters this November to approve amending the state constitution to again allow so-called “Class 1” industries to set up manufacturing or other employment opportunities for offenders in prisons. (It would also require that such operations don’t unfairly compete with Washington businesses.)

The bill has passed the Senate – unanimously – and is now being considered by the House.

For now, prison inmates are still doing work under state-run programs. They make office and classroom furniture, they sew uniforms, make prison mattresses, first aid kids, office nameplates and, yes, half a million license plates a year. They also provide a wide array of institutional food.

“Correctional Industries bake cookies that melt in your mouth,” promises their website.

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Richard Roesler covers Washington state news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Olympia.

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