Companies Find Home Inside State Prisons Inmates’ Earnings Help Defray Cost Of Confinement

Bert Atwater lists the reasons he just moved his company, Omega Pacific Inc., from the wooded beauty of Redmond, Wash., to a concrete building inside a state prison.

Rent-free quarters in Airway Heights, where workers are delighted with the pay - just above minimum wage in the outside world.

No workers who don’t come in because of rush-hour traffic or sick children at home.

Workers who don’t take vacations. “Where would these guys go on vacation anyway?” Atwater wonders.

“It’s a win-win situation for everyone,” said Atwater, looking at some of the 39 inmate laborers inside the state minimum-security prison’s industrial building.

“For us, because we get a stable work force. And for the taxpayer, in having inmates do real jobs and learn usable skills to help them when they get out.”

Atwater’s firm is the 13th in Washington to move completely inside a state prison.

The company makes 22 types of carabiners - D-shaped metal rings designed for climbers or mountaineers. The devices secure ropes or other items to something else.

Omega Pacific’s move is part of the state’s new efforts to offer inmates more than traditional low-paying jobs, such as banging out license plates or making three-ring paper binders.

Businesses taking their work behind bars range from a fiber-optic cable manufacturer at the Washington Correctional Center in Shelton to an embroidery firm at the Gig Harbor state prison for women. Omega Pacific is the first of its kind at the Airway Heights prison, which opened in 1994.

Employers pay nothing for use of state buildings, although they cover the cost of utilities.

They pay above-minimum wage for salaries but don’t have to deal with employee benefits or workers’ compensation.

And except for a small group of prisoners who blast the practice as “slave labor,” most inmates covet the jobs.

When Omega Pacific came to Airway Heights in December, about 500 of the prison’s 1,025 inmates applied for jobs.

The list dropped to 180 inmates after Omega screened those lacking a high school diploma or a GED (general equivalency diploma) and those with disciplinary problems.

After interviews and manual-dexterity tests, about 40 were hired.

“We have a full spectrum of different abilities here. But what really amazed me was the very high caliber of the work they can do,” Atwater said.

“Most did great work in the jobs they had before getting here. It was the stuff they did after working hours that got them in trouble.”

Added operations manager Rob Nadeau: “When we started, none of these guys even knew what a carabiner was, much less used one.”

The demand for carabiners has soared in recent years as outdoors enthusiasts have taken to rock climbing and other activities.

Atwater predicted he’ll increase productivity this year by at least 20 percent, probably adding another 20 jobs by the end of the year.

Producing carabiners requires labor-intensive, assembly-line attention to detail and frequent quality checking. The work is repetitious, which can lead to burnout and frequent worker turnover.

“In Redmond, we would lose workers whenever Boeing began hiring again,” Atwater said. “When they laid people off, we had a steady work force.”

The company has eight non-inmate workers to supervise the others.

“We try in almost every way to run it just the same as we did before,” said Atwater. The main difference from the firm’s Redmond arrangement is “we make sure we always know where every tool is.”

And “we don’t have picnics with our workers now.”

The state is trying to attract at least a dozen more companies to its prisons. At last count, private prison firms employ about 300 people, said Janeen Wadsworth, state director of correctional industries.

The state gets benefits from firms such as Omega Pacific in two ways: from increased taxes on their sales and from a separate fee collected for “incarceration costs.”

That fee means 20 cents of each dollar paid to a worker at Omega Pacific goes to the state to help offset prison costs.

Some inmates and outside critics see that fee as the state’s kickback for letting companies use convict labor.

Paul Wright, serving a 25-year term in the Monroe Reformatory for first-degree murder, criticized the practice as a mistaken way of raising money to help offset the growing prison industry budget.

“They’ll spend more money than the state gets from those jobs because of hiring extra guards and other added costs.

“It’s also slave labor … or like working for a Third World company. They can lay these guys off for two weeks at at time, then start up with a day’s notice,” said Wright, co-editor of Prison Legal News, a monthly magazine produced outside the prison and sold across the country.

But supporters of prison businesses argue the state needs to offset costs at a time when citizens are demanding both tougher criminal sentences and lower taxes.

Atwater and his three Seattle co-owners learned of the state’s private industry prison program two years ago. He researched other firms that had attempted to operate under the program and decided his company should take the chance.

The year before moving, he told all new employees their positions would be temporary. Four of his other workers made the move to Spokane.

A month after reopening his business, Atwater has gained a clearer view of prisoners as people, he said.

“The outside world thinks prisoners are thugs and troublemakers,” said Atwater.

“The truth is: I feel safer inside now than I did outside the prison. These guys want to work and they don’t want to jeopardize it with messing up - either in their housing unit or in here.

“They’re hard-working guys getting their lives on track again.”

, DataTimes

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