Photo by Joe Mabel (CC BY-SA 3.0)

If you’ve lived in a Washington state residence hall on campus, you may have seen a sticker which reads “Correctional Industries” on your furniture. This furniture was made by an incarcerated person.

Like most states, Washington state has what’s called Correctional Industries (CI) within all of its correctional institutions. Under state law, the University of Washington and other public universities must give preference to suppliers of goods produced by prison work programs like CI. According to an article by The Daily student newspaper, the university purchased nearly $7 million worth of furniture between 2011 and 2016.

CI claims to assist incarcerated individuals by teaching transferable skills and a positive work ethic as an inmate works towards their release date. But the reality of CI in Washington State does not line up with their claims. The majority of skills learned through CI are outdated and no longer transferable to respective industries. Furthermore, CI lacks a positive work ethic in its workplaces. Not only are CI’s work environments degrading and the skills they teach rarely transferable, CI workers are grossly underpaid.

CI workers do not earn a paycheck. Rather, they are given a gratuity far below minimum wage — an incarcerated worker can receive anywhere from 65 cents to $1.30 an hour. From that gratuity, the DOC in Washington state then takes on average 55% of that total, and in some cases, 75-95% from individuals for victim compensation and various costs related to incarceration. Correctional Industries does not provide the employee protections and work standards that are typical in today’s society.

While it is usually illegal to pay someone under the minimum wage, CI is permitted to subcontract cheap labor from the Department of Corrections. For those on the other side of these walls who have not experienced prison conditions, this might sound like an economically viable way to lessen the burden of a consistently growing prison population on society. However, does it truly accomplish this? Does it achieve its stated goal of preparing incarcerated individuals for work environments on the outside?

At Monroe’s Washington State Reformatory Unit, Correctional Industries’ work environment is far from positive. Some inmates are forced to strip naked for a search before they enter the shop they work in. They are also forced to work with harsh chemicals that we fear could cause cancer.

Supervisors have been known to speak to their workers with threats and disrespectful, racist language. If these actions are reported, the worker, not the supervisor, is removed from their position. In some cases, staff in the living units retaliate as well. Training for these positions is not provided, which has led to serious injuries.

Far from providing valuable work skills, what this set up really accomplishes is the dehumanization, warehousing, and degradation of human beings.

An institution of learning shouldn’t be unaware of how organizations they do business with affects communities.

Shouldn’t a university know that progress is found through learned thought which leads to a change of action?

As we seek solutions for social change and racial equity within the prison system, we should look at resentencing practices, prosecution tactics, and probation policies in order to end mass incarceration. However, as with any change, all of us must also do our part to fight against the abuse of mass incarceration and support more rehabilitative practices for prisoners.

The University of Washington can do its part by examining who they do business with and how that business impacts communities of color and incarcerated individuals that suffer under the thumb of Correctional Industries. Perhaps, that will prompt the school to change its relationship.

(Additional reporting by PJP)

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Ralph Dunuan

Ralph Dunuan is a member of the Asian Pacific Islander culture awareness group and the Native American group Tribal Sons. He is incarcerated in Washington state.