A Washington state lawmaker who is a former convict is aiming to start paying inmates for working prison jobs.
Democratic Rep. Tarra Simmons said in a statement, “This is an evolution of slavery,” and is proposing that the convicted felons be paid minimum wage for working in the kitchen or while producing other goods.
Simmons is an attorney and co-founder/director of the Civil Survival Project, an organization that advocates for former convicts. The representative has previously worked to restore voting rights to those convicted of felonies and to reduce penalties for drive-by shootings in order to promote “racial equity,” even as the state has grappled with a spike in shootings and homicides.
Simmons pre-filed House Bill 1024, also known as the “Real Labor, Real Wages Act,” for the upcoming 2023 state legislative session, which begins on Jan. 9.
She purports to be the first person elected to the legislature after being convicted of a felony. Simmons served a 30-month prison sentence for theft and drug charges and during her incarceration worked as a custodian as well as in the prison kitchen and laundry room.
Simmons claimed, “When I was incarcerated, I was forced to work graveyard shifts for less than $0.42 per hour,” and added that the income prisoners earn often goes toward fines and fees imposed by courts.
According to the lawmaker, felons have little to cover basic expenses upon release, and being released from prison without financial support leads to recidivism, homelessness, and substance abuse.
Simmons said, “If people can leave with enough money to have transportation, for housing, clothing, food and potentially some job training, hopefully they will have a better chance at not coming back.”
The lawmaker is proposing that half of an inmate’s minimum wage earnings be placed into an account that cannot be accessed until their release.
Simmons, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other reform groups argue that the US Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, excluded inmates and allowed states to continue “exploiting” convicted criminals.
They claim that incarcerated felons are coerced into working for minimal wages under threats of punishment.
According to the Washington Department of Corrections, working jobs in prison is part of the rehabilitation process and one of the paths for convicts to transition back into society after their sentence. The agency cited a Washington State University study that incarcerated individuals who participate in prison work programs are less likely to re-offend after they are released.
Additionally, former inmates who worked in prison were more likely to have a legal source of income and earn more than their peers who did not participate in the work programs.
According to Center Square, Washington Correctional Industries is a revenue-generating branch of the Department of Corrections that operates in the state’s 12 prisons and the work program generates approximately $70 million in sales a year.
The outlet added that the program is the country’s fourth-largest prison labor program with almost 2,000 inmates working on projects earning between 65 cents to $2.70 per hour.
It was noted by the outlet that some outside companies complain about unfair competition because they are required to pay minimum wage which increased their production costs.