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


Philippe El Shennawy. Libre après 38 ans de prison

From: Le Télégramme, Jan. 25 2014

Philippe El Shennawy, the “perpetual prisoner,” was finally released from prison in France, after 38 years! 
Ses « premiers pas dans la vraie vie », il veut les consacrer à son épouse, à ses amis, aux gens qu’il aime et qui l’aiment : Philippe El Shennawy, l’un des plus anciens détenus de France, a recouvré la liberté, hier matin, après avoir passé 38 ans derrière les barreaux.

« Waouh (…). La vraie vie, c’est vous, c’est là ! », a lancé cet homme âgé de 59 ans à la masse de journalistes venus l’attendre à la sortie de la maison d’arrêt de Fresnes (Val-de-Marne). « Toutes ces années, il faudrait que ça serve à quelque chose », a-t-il ajouté, deux jours après avoir bénéficié d’une libération conditionnelle. Condamné à la perpétuité en 1977 pour un braquage avec prise d’otage auquel il a toujours nié avoir participé, il devra porter un bracelet électronique pendant deux ans. Il va commencer un travail de chef de projet dans l’événementiel culturel dès lundi.

« Comment j’ai fait pour tenir ? »

Extrait à l’aube de sa cellule, Philippe El Shennawy, qui a passé les deux tiers de sa vie en détention, est sorti peu après 9 h, avant de tomber dans les bras de son épouse, Martine. « Comment j’ai fait pour tenir ? », s’est-il interrogé, avant de marquer un temps d’arrêt pour réfléchir. « X raisons, les gens qui m’aiment, la non-acceptation de quelque chose que je n’ai jamais accepté… Et puis savoir que, de toute façon, j’allais sortir. » « J’ai envie de vivre », a-t-il ajouté, répondant aux questions des journalistes avec beaucoup de calme et de sobriété, sous les yeux de sa femme et d’un de ses deux avocats, Julien Dubs. « C’est la fin de l’attente après toutes ces années. Ça fait 35 ans que je l’attends. Oui, je suis prête », avait dit, peu avant sa libération, Martine El Shennawy.

Surnommé « le détenu perpétuel »

Depuis 1975, Philippe El Shennawy, surnommé « le détenu perpétuel » par les directeurs de prison, a connu un parcours carcéral hors norme : vingt ans à l’isolement, six années en internement psychiatrique, 42 transfèrements, 34 jours de grève de la faim, une tentative de suicide. Et deux évasions. Il va résider chez sa femme, hormis des permissions de sortir pour aller travailler, en semaine et le week-end en matinée, pour la famille, et retrouver leur fils Christophe, un « bébé-parloir » conçu lors d’une visite en prison.

La révision de son procès en ligne de mire

Si la liberté de l’ex-détenu restera très encadrée, il envisage de poursuivre son combat contre les longues peines et entend se battre pour la révision de sa condamnation pour le braquage d’une banque de l’avenue de Breteuil, en 1975, début de son long cycle d’enfermement. « Je veux être un témoin. Dire ce que j’ai vécu… Sans exagération », a-t-il soufflé. « Ça n’a pas de sens. Les longues peines, ça ne sert à rien. » Il a confessé que la prison lui avait apporté « une réflexion, une vision de l’humain ». « D’une certaine façon, j’ai toujours été libre », a-t-il déclaré avant de quitter, à pied, l’enceinte du centre de détention : ses « premiers pas dans la vraie vie ».

It takes one Shift to Ruin a Future

We received the following reality-check from someone caring for a person in prison:

To the Reader:

My friend in a Colorado prison wrote this essay. Candy is grandmother, not a master criminal, and sees what is happening. As a troubled teenager, she first went into a system that did not want to prevent crime, only to punish after its commission. 

She asked me to help her show people how the government is wasting our tax dollars and ignoring chances to prevent recidivism. Employees who don’t care what happens as long as they get a paycheck, are as detrimental working in prisons as in any business. Would you want them working for you? They are.


By Candy Ra Coppinger

There are many lives sitting here in prison today. All have made bad choices. Many still do. Many come from all sorts of dysfunctional backgrounds—all sorts of abuse. We cry out for help.

The system places people in power or authority to see to our well-being. You may ask, “Are they still being neglected and abused behind the walls?” There is the aggressive, controlling officer who downgrades you; the one who uses unnecessary physical force on you. How about the officer, who, as a woman was having a violent seizure, was screaming and cussing at the individual on the floor with convulsions? Or the one who knows you are having a conflict with another inmate, instead of trying to diffuse it, keeps the strife going? What about the officer who brings in contraband to exchange for sex with a prisoner?

Your taxes are supposed to provide better medical care, education, and security. Instead, the administrative offices here were redecorated. You should see the beautiful cherry desk in the warden’s office. They can’t afford medical staff or teachers.

A COPD hearing is the due process given to inmates who break facility rules. The Colorado Code of Penal Discipline has rules that cover violations from not making your bed, to smoking a cigarette, to bartering and trading items you purchased from the commissary. Do you have any idea how many people are convicted at these hearings by an anonymous “kite?” (An unverified note saying, “Inmate #123 is guilty, but I can’t testify in public.”) So much for trying to do right if someone dislikes you.

Many inmates have no outside financial support. All inmates are required to work. The average 40 hour per week job pays $12.60 a month. Twenty percent of the $12.60 goes toward paying restitution and/or child support. That leaves approximately $9.00 on which the inmate must live for a month. If you have a civil case, such as a tort or a lawsuit pending, that takes another 20%. Don’t have a medical emergency. There goes another $5.00. Need hygiene items? What happens to the personal care products that religious organizations donate? Items must be purchased from the canteen. With little money, their convenience store prices redefine the term indigent.

Official policy says having affirmative family support is important. Explain this to your 75 year old grandmother who had her letter returned because she forgot to put the unit number on the envelope. Then, you recall the night when your spouse got drunk and loud. The neighbors called the police. Now, you can’t correspond or visit with him because of the domestic violence dispute. That you’ve been married for ten years and he’s trying, alone, to raise your two children doesn’t matter. If you can’t write him, what makes you think you can parole home to your spouse and children? It’s hard to maintain family support when you can’t communicate.
All the instability you had growing up—the inconsistency of what you could do or not—don’t worry. You’ still have all that instability and inconsistency in prison.

Everything depends on who, what, when, where and how. Right and left do not connect. Once you settle into a room with people with whom you’re compatible, you’ll get moved to a room that is chaotic. What is stability? Where do we get it?

You may ask how these kinds of things ruin a future. They are keeping a person in his or her distorted thinking. They are continuing the cycles that led many to incarceration: instability, inconsistency, lack of communication. Every time you cut educational programs, or use that funding for something else, you are taking away a person’s opportunity to grow and become a productive member of society. When you can’t or won’t provide an individual adequate medical care, is that not telling him or her they don’t matter? Are we not continuing to keep these individuals from having the hope and desire to have a better life within the legal parameters of our society? When you hire substandard employees, you are placing lives in their hands.

Ask yourself, is that shift I’m running ruining a future or raising prospects for a better future?

CRC 5/12/13

Write to Candy for support:

Candy Ra Coppinger #59072
La Vista Correctional Facility
PO Box 3
Pueblo, CO 81002

Also posted on Prison Watch for Imprisoned Women

Mississippi’s incarcaration rate continues to climb, straining finances

From: Gulf Live, Mississippi Press
Jan. 10th 2013

JACKSON, Mississippi — As Mississippi enters the second half of the current fiscal year, Mississippi’s prison population continues to increase and shows no signs of abating, according to a news release from the state Department of Corrections.
During 2011, the number of prisoners under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities declined by 0.9%, from 1,613,803 to 1,598,780, but not in Mississippi.
Mississippi has increased its inmate population by over 1,000 in the past two years:
• July 1, 2012 – 22,023 inmates, an increase of 716 from July 1, 2011
• July 1, 2011 – 21,307 inmates, an increase of 382 from July 1, 2010
• July 1, 2010 – 20,925 inmates
According to the United States Department of Justice – Bureau of Justice Statistics, only three states — Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma — have incarceration rates at or above 650 per 100,000 residents. Mississippi is second only to Louisiana in incarceration rates. 
Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, with over 1.5 million men and women living behind bars.

From Voters Legislative Transparency Project: Las Vegas: Prison Labor Used to Beat the Odds

This research article comes from the weblog: Voters Legislative Transparency Project. We are glad that they have investigated this:

Jan. 11th 2013, by Bob Sloan

Thousands of tourists, businessmen, CEO’s and executives from all over the world mix with citizens of Nevada in the luxury and splendor of Las Vegas’ many hotels and casinos.  Most come to this beautiful city for the gambling and incredible shows found everywhere one turns.  Inside the cool confines of casinos visitors can trust that every slot machine, roulette table and blackjack shoe is checked and monitored to guarantee fair play – no magnets under the roulette table, no dealer manipulating the cards or slots rigged to never pay out. Those trying to shave the odds are not welcome and at the first hint of cheating, find themselves on the sidewalk, banned or worse.

Each casino has a multitude of surveillance cameras to guarantee play is fair and the odds are understood by all who play the quarter slots or sit down at the high roller poker table.  To ensure such fairness, the Nevada Gaming Commission regulates every aspect of gambling in the entire state.  Strict penalties for violation of gaming regulations by casino operators keep each in line and playing by the rules.

Outside the casinos, locals find the guarantees of fair play and manipulation of odds are not so well regulated. State agencies responsible for overseeing and enforcing specific state laws and regulations have lost their vigilance.  In at least one case a state regulation involving the Nevada Department of Corrections is providing one company an unfair advantage over competitors.  The prize sought isn’t a hundred dollar hit on quarter slots, its millions in profits.  An important aspect of this advantage provided to a single company, is an increase in Nevada’s already high 10.8% unemployment rate.

The issue is an ongoing battle being waged over the use of inmate labor by a private company, Alpine Steel operating out of Las Vegas, NV.  Alpine is competing directly against other Nevada companies in the field of structural steel fabrication.  Alpine’s competitors pay fair wages, benefits, provide unemployment insurance and vacation pay, while Alpine avoids all those costs.

It is not illegal for companies to be allowed to use prison labor under current laws but there are strict state and federal regulations involved that must be met before allowing direct competition with prison made products:

Mandatory Criteria for Program Participation

Corrections departments that apply to participate in PIECP must meet all nine of the following criteria:

1. Eligibility. Authority to involve the private sector in the production and sale of inmate-made goods on the open market.

2. Wages. Authority to pay wages at a rate not less than that paid for work of a similar nature in the locality in which the work is performed.

3. Non-inmate worker displacement. Written assurances that PIECP will not result in the displacement of employed workers; be applied in skills, crafts, or trades in which there is a surplus of available gainful labor in the locality; or significantly impair existing contracts.

4. Benefits. Authority to provide inmate workers with benefits comparable to those made available by the federal or state government to similarly situated private-sector employees, including workers’ compensation and, in some circumstances, Social Security.

5. Deductions. Corrections departments may opt to take deductions from inmate worker wages. Permissible deductions are limited to taxes, room and board, family support, and victims’ compensation. If victims’ compensation deductions are taken, written assurances that the deductions will be not less than 5 percent and not more than 20 percent of gross wages and that all deductions will not total more than 80 percent of gross wages.

6. Voluntary participation. Written assurances that inmate participation is voluntary.

7. Consultation with organized labor. Written proof of consultation with organized labor prior to program startup.

8. Consultation with local private industry. Written proof of consultation with local private industry prior to program startup.

9. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Written proof of compliance with NEPA requirements prior to program startup. (emphasis mine, source BJA PIECP program overview)

In the instant case, most of the above mandatory regulations are being ignored – entirely. Prevailing wages paid by most in the steel fabrication industry in Las Vegas are in excess of $17.00 per hour.  The inmates manufacturing components for Alpine are paid less than half that scale at minimum wage or less.

By having access to and using inmate labor provided by Nevada’s Silver State Industries (SSI), Alpine Steel, is able to underbid competitors for structural steel construction projects.  This company is just one of several businesses in Nevada (and 150 others nationwide) enjoying increased benefits and profits derived from inmate labor.  Other Nevada companies enjoying similar access to inmate labor include; Vinyl Products, Inc., (vinyl waterbeds), Thomson Equipment Company (Silver Line Industries trailer manufacture and remanufacturing) and Jacobs Trading Company (repackaging).

Alpine Steel is currently manufacturing and installing prison made structural steel components at three locations in Las Vegas; the SkyVue (Ferris Wheel developed by Howard Bulloch), Staluppi Automotive Group’s Planet Mazda and Wet ‘n’ Wild Las Vegas (financed by Andre Agassi; his wife, Steffi Graf; Dr. Steven and Karen Thomas, members of the Thomas family of Thomas & Mack Center fame; and Roger and Scott Bulloch, of SPB Capital Partners).  Companies competing with Alpine Steel for these contracts, were totally unaware they were competing against a company with such a distinct and hidden advantage.

While the Staluppi and water park projects are actively being constructed, the Sky Vue job appears to be abandoned, though developer Howard Bulloch assures the absence of activity is due to plan revisions – and not a lack of funding.

Read the rest here and plz read part 2 and 3 too when they are published

Germany: 18th Rosa Luxemburg Conference includes discussion and teach-ins about the Prison Industrial Complex in the USA

The conference will discuss the so-called crisis that brings with it (amongst others) the break-down of parliamentary democracy, the strengthening of repressive instruments against ordinary civilians.

There has been much struggle against this repression, on all fronts and all over the world. For example, the fight agains tthe Prison Industrial Complex in the USA. 

This conference discusses what we can do.

From the program in German, which can be found here:

Date: Saturday, 12th of January 2013, from 10 AM

URANIA-Haus, An der Urania 17, 10787 Berlin

About the Conference in English:

Free Mumia Berlin is co-organizing, and Mumia Abu-Jamal will also address the conference, as well as David Gilbert, Sundiata Acoli and Oscar López Rivera, all in prison as political prisoners.

Theme: Who is afraid of whom?

Ab 11.00 Uhr Vorträge

Wer hat Angst vor wem?

Im Sommer 2007 platzte in den USA die sogenannte Hypothekenblase. Seitdem hat sich die damals ausgelöste Finanz- und Wirtschaftskrise durch viele Länder der Welt gefressen.

Sie bringt stetig neue Rekorde an Armut, Arbeitslosigkeit und physischem Elend bis hin zum Hunger hervor. Politisch wurde der Weg dorthin in USA und EU durch verstärkte präventive Aufstandsbekämpfung, durch Verstärkung des Repressionsapparates, Abbau der parlamentarischen Demokratie und sozialer Regelungen bei großzügiger Sozialisierung der Verluste von Reichen und Banken freigemacht.

Die großen Medien der westlichen Welt begleiten jeden Schritt zur Enteignung von Lohnabhängigen, kleinen Selbständigen, Rentnern und Patienten mit Beifall. In den Weltordnungskriegen unter Führung der USA sind sie Teil der psychologischen Kriegführung gegen die eigene Bevölkerung. Neofaschistische Bewegungen erhalten Zulauf.

Widerstand gegen das Abrutschen in die Barbarei findet weltweit in unterschiedlichsten Formen statt. Von den Streiks der Schüler und Studenten in Chile über den Kampf gegen den Gefängnis-Industrie-Komplex der USA, die antikapitalistischen Bewegungen in den Bankzentren bis zu den Anstrengungen Kubas um die Bewahrung der Revolution.

Was zu tun ist – darüber wird auf der Rosa-Luxemburg-Konferenz 2013 zu sprechen sein.


  • Ignacio Ramonet (Frankreich), Direktor von Le Monde Diplomatique en Español, Präsident des Vereins Mémoire des luttes, Ehrenpräsident von Attac
  • Hernando Calvo Ospina (Kolumbien), Journalist, ehemal. politischer Gefangener
  • Ramón Chao (Frankreich), Schriftsteller, Journalist
  • Dan Berger (USA), Schriftsteller, Aktivist, Dozent
  • Luis Morlote (Kuba), Präsident der Vereinigung Hermanos Saíz (Organisation junger kubanischer Schriftsteller und Künstler), Abgeordneter der Nationalversammlung
  • Jean Ziegler (Schweiz), Soziologe, Vizepräsident des beratenden Ausschusses des UNO-Menschenrechtsrats (angefragt)

Außerdem Beiträge von politischen Gefangenen:

  • Mumia Abu Jamal (USA), Journalist
  • Sundiata Acoli (USA), ehem. Black Panther Party, Black Liberation Army
  • David Gilbert (USA), ehem. Weather Underground
  • Oscar López Rivera (USA), Unabhängigkeitskämpfer für Puerto Rico
  • Grußadresse der Cuban Five (in den USA gefangene kubanische Freiheitskämpfer)

Moderation: Dr. Seltsam

Seven arrested in protest outside Graterford prison

Published: Monday, in: Montgomery News

November 19, 2012

By Bradley Schlegel

Authorities arrested seven protesters from Decarcerate PA early Monday morning along Route 73 in Skippack.

The group was blocking the entrance to the construction site of two new prisons on the grounds of SCI Graterford, according to a public information release report from the Pennsylvania State Police.

The protesters lined up a number of chairs, desks and apples along the road between Hudnut and Lucon roads, according to Decarcerate PA spokesperson Thomas Dichter.

All from Philadelphia, the protesters face charges of criminal conspiracy, criminal trespass, failure to disperse and disorderly conduct, according to state police. The intent of the “mock schoolhouse” was to bring further attention to Gov. Tom Corbett’s plan to construct the new prisons, according to Dichter.

He said the grassroots organization believes the approximately $400 million needed to build the two facilities would be better utilized to fund Pennsylvania’s education, calling the demonstration an attempt to draw attention to the “wasting of valuable state resources.”

Authorities observed 10 school-style desks purposefully placed by the protesters to block the construction entrance, according to information provided by Morgan Crummy, the public information officer at the state police’s Skippack barracks.

The protesters set up at 6:40 a.m. Monday, according to Dichter.

He said they were arrested approximately one hour later.

Police said the desks were occupied by seven protesters and that authorities observed eight other protesters on foot.

All seven protestors — Layne Mullett, 27, of the 4000 block of Walnut Street; Jenna Peters-Golden, 27, of the 800 block of Saint Bernard Street; Leana Cabral, 29 of the 4000 block of Hazel Avenue; Erica Slaymaker, 23, of the 400 block of Sansom Street; Sean Damon, 35, of Chester Avenue; David Fisher, 41, of the 5000 block of Chester Avenue and Robin Markle, 26, of the 5000 block of Cedar Avenue — were arraigned by District Judge Albert Augustine, according to authorities.

The judge set the bail for each at 10 percent of $5,000, according to police.

Dichter described the nature of the demonstration as escalation of Decarcerate PA’s willingness to “do what needs to be done” to prevent the construction of the prisons.