Sell Block: Broken prison labor program fails to keep promises, costs millions (3 part series)

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.

Part 2:  Recycling scheme lost state $1 million

Part 3: Why license plates have cost us so much

Idaho Department of Correction Announces Cutbacks, Furloughs

April 16, 2010

In an effort to balance its budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the Idaho Department of Correction is eliminating 24 more staff positions. That brings the total number of positions cut over the past two years to 102.

“We’ve had to make some very difficult choices since the budget crisis began,” said IDOC Director Brent Reinke. “But at every stage our focus has always been on our core mission – protecting the people of the state of Idaho.”

The IDOC plans to cut $3.1 million from the FY 2011 budget. Officials tell us at least $1 million worth of savings will result from modifications to the department’s food service program. Eight of the 24 positions that are being eliminated are food service jobs.

From the start of the economic downturn, IDOC administrators have left many positions unfilled when an employee leaves the department. As a result, almost all of the employees whose jobs are being eliminated are being given an opportunity to transfer elsewhere in the department.

“This has been a difficult process especially for the employees whose jobs have been impacted,” Director Reinke said. “While almost all of them still have jobs, many of them have had to take pay cuts and demotions.”

Another way IDOC says it will balance its budget in FY 2011 is by continuing employee furloughs. All prison security staff will be required to take 32 hours of unpaid leave. All other IDOC employees must take 80 hours for an annual savings of $1.9 million.

While IDOC’s budget is going down, the size of the inmate population is expected to go up. IDOC’s annual offender forecast calls for a 4.3 percent increase in FY 2011. But the department is bracing for an even bigger population increase because of budget cuts to social service programs provided by the Department of Health and Welfare and the Office of Drug Policy.

“The fact is there are now a lot of people who won’t get the mental health or drug treatment they need in the community and run the risk of ending up in prison,” Director Reinke said.

IDOC employs about 1,500 people, incarcerates about 7,500 inmates and supervises about 13,800 probationers and parolees.

Link to article Here

Washington state prisoners produce frozen food for other prisoners as a cost savings-2400 calories-$5 a day

Inmates cook for inmates
By Alex Paul, Albany Democrat-Herald
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

LEBANON — Inmates at the new Lebanon jail will eat three meals a day prepared by inmates from the Washington State Department of Corrections, according to police Chief Mike Healy.

Healy and Lt. Ben Silverman informed the city council about the meal plan during a recent tour of the six-cell, 12-bed facility.

The new $10 million, 30,000-square-foot Justice Center opened last summer. Inmates so far have been short-term holds, Healy said, but the jail is starting to accept longer-term inmates, from 30 days up to one year.

The meals are purchased from the Airway Heights correctional facility near Spokane. In addition to serving the nutritional needs of Washington state inmates, the factory also sells products to 45 jails in Oregon, Washington and Montana.

More than 200 inmates work at the facility that produces 4,000 to 6,000 TV dinner-like frozen meals per day. The program started in the mid-1990s, according to Danielle Wiles, a spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Corrections.

Wiles said the program generates more than $2 million per year for the system.

Opening the door of a large upright freezer, Healy revealed stacks of frozen meals. The meals are nutritionally balanced and total no more than 2,400 calories per day.

Healy said the goal is to feed the inmates, not fatten them.

“We will supplement the dinners with fresh fruit and dairy,” Healy said.

The meals are purchased in three-month supplies. They are heated in a microwave oven.

Healy said the department will be able to feed inmates for about $5 each per day. Other company’s meal plans cost as much as $8 per day. At the city’s old jail, TV dinners were bought in bulk, Healy said.

A breakfast with scrambled eggs as the entree costs $1.60, while cold cereal costs just 72 cents per serving.

For lunch, a roast beef sandwich box meal costs $1.80 and a turkey sandwich meal is $1.55.

Supper entrees are more substantial, such as salisbury steak at $1.78, or fish and chips at $1.70.

“These are the same type and quality of sandwiches that are sold in many convenience stores and at some casinos,” Healy said.

The Linn County Jail contracts with a private company called Aramark to provide meals to inmates. Aramark staff members operate the jail’s kitchen, and meals cost about $1.50 each, according to Capt. Barry Baggett.