April 9, 1995 in Business

Prison Work Reform Sends Right Message

Frank Bartel The Spokesman-Revie
 

Convicts can go to work for a living.

Or they can go to school and acquire the skills to land a job when they get out.

Or they can do both, work and learn.

But no longer can criminals in prison do nothing to earn their keep and improve themselves. Or they will get no cable television. No special recreational privileges. No family visits.

In other words, they will be treated like the rest of us.

At least, that is the intent of a prison reform bill breezing through the Washington State Legislature.

In addition to motivating criminals to make an effort to rehabilitate themselves, reformers hope to instill some sense of responsibility and accountability.

Business leaders and labor leaders alike are behind the move to teach criminals a lesson, so that fewer ex-cons go back to prison again and again.

But neither business leaders nor labor leaders want prison inmates taking jobs away from the private sector. This is one of the few things upon which management and unions agree.

So, while they deplore the societal costs of continuing to coddle and idle criminals, there are mixed feelings in the state’s workplaces about prison work reforms.

Indeed, quite a number of business and labor interests - including such powerful forces as the construction industry and state employees union - testified against or voiced concerns about proposed changes in prison work practices.

A legislative aide who helped write the bill explained to me their resistance this way: “What if management began hiring and training convicts to write and edit your newspaper?”

Good point.

Don Brunell of the Association of Washington Business acknowledges the business community’s misgivings. “On one hand we don’t want prison labor competing unfairly against some of our businesses and industries,” says the president of the influential and progressive business lobby.

“On the other hand,” he says, “there have to be rehabilitation and incentives for inmates. We don’t want to have to pay for criminals to do nothing except just lift weights all day. But …”

Yeah. What are the answers?

“I don’t know,” admits Brunell. “I don’t even know the right questions to ask to get answers.”

And government bureaucrats, what do they want? Well, they claim it will cost too much to make more criminals in prison work. Feature that.

As to the general public, citizens just want an end to all the hem-hawing and buck-passing.

For a change, say Republican lawmakers Ida Ballasiotes of Mercer Island and Mark Schoesler of Ritzville, the citizens are going to get action.

Ballasiotes chairs the House Corrections Committee and is a principal architect of House Bill 2010. Schoesler is a key mover and shaker.

The legislation has cleared Ballasiotes’ committee and, heading into the weekend, was expected to come up for a vote of the full House any minute.

Schoesler and Ballasiotes predict the measure will pass both houses forthwith and be signed into law by the governor.

Says Ballasiotes, “It’s pretty hard to argue with the thrust of this legislation.”

It reads, in part, “The Legislature believes that by implementing a corrections management philosophy that mirrors the incentives, goals, morals, and values that guide our society and its lawabiding citizens, offenders will be less likely to re-offend. And public expectations of criminals receiving their just desserts can be realized.

“The focus of this corrections management philosophy is accountability and responsibility, both for the prison inmates and also for the public servants charged with running our correctional institutions.

“The responsibility for criminal activity should fall squarely on the criminal.

“Society should not have to pay the price for crimes twice - once for the criminal activities and again by feeding them and housing them, often in a fashion better than law-abiding working families in the community.”

Yup, it’s hard to argue with that.

As to the conflicting concerns expressed by divergent interests, Ballasiotes says she is confident, “We can work it out.”

Best of luck.

xxxx

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Frank Bartel The Spokesman-Review


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