This is a Seattle Times special report, dated Dec. 13th. 2014, investigated by By Michael J. Berens and Mike Baker.
Three decades ago, as get-tough-on-crime laws channeled more offenders behind bars, the state Department of Corrections launched a campaign to leverage profits from prisoners.
Compel inmates to produce low-cost goods for state agencies at no public cost. Teach offenders new skills to help them land better jobs after release. Turn bad people into better people and reduce crime.
Washington’s pitch — crime can pay — was an easy public sell.
Today, some 1,600 incarcerated men and women in prison factories produce everything from dorm furniture to school lunches. Washington Correctional Industries (CI) generates up to $70 million in sales a year, ranking as the nation’s fourth-largest prison labor program.
But behind CI’s glossy brochures and polished YouTube videos is a broken program that has cost taxpayers millions of dollars, charged exorbitant markups to state agencies to make up for losses, and taken jobs from private businesses that can’t compete with cheap prison labor, a Seattle Times investigation has found.
Far from being self-sufficient, CI has cost taxpayers at least $20 million since 2007, including $750,000 spent over three years on a fish farm to raise tilapia that has yet to yield a single meal.