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Eye On Olympia

An opposing voice on a ballot measure that no one’s paying much attention to…

In a busy season for ballot measures, not much coverage has been devoted to Senate Joint Resolution 8212, which would private industry to use prison labor, so long as the operations don’t unfairly compete with other businesses.

This isn’t exactly revolutionary. Until recently, prison inmates in Washington had been working for private businesses for years. But a recent state Supreme Court ruling changed that, citing a chain-gang provision of the state constitution banning Washington from renting the labor of a convict to anyone for private gain.

SJR 8212 would allow those businesses — which provide job training and a small amount of pay for inmates — to resume operation in prisons.

Among the few people objecting are two Spokane-area conservatives, state Reps. Lynn Schindler, R-Otis Orchards and Larry Crouse, R-Spokane. They authored the argument against it in the voters’ pamphlet, on the grounds that the change doesn’t protect businesses enough from unfair competition.

In Washblog, however, prison activist — and sometime source in my stories — Lea Zengage argued this weekend for a no vote on very different grounds. The title of the post sums it up: “PRISON SLAVE PLANTATION: DISMANTLING THE PROFIT MOTIVE FOR INCARCERATION.”

Zengage writes:

These companies had a pool of prisoner workers with no labor unions, no strikes, no health benefits, and no unemployment insurance. They only needed to pay a wage of 75% of what is paid to “free” people. They avoided language problems and steep international shipping costs encountered with cheap overseas labor. The free industrial space was provided with vocational training and a program coordinator provided with taxpayer dollars.

Click here to read the full Washblog post.

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

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