Unable to find seasonal public works employees this summer, the City of Snoqualmie has turned to correctional inmates — signing an agreement with the state Department of Corrections (DOC) that will pay inmates less than $2 an hour.
While the city has no control over the pay-rate, city councilmembers, in a 6-1 vote, approved a three-year agreement with the DOC on July 26, which will pay correctional inmates between $1 and $1.50 per hour while working in the city. That rate is 10% of the state’s current minimum wage set at $14.49 per hour this year.
City staff called the partnership a “win win,” for both them and the DOC, noting that it will provide “resources” at a “nominal cost” for the city and allow for needed maintenance on 64 city stormwater facilities. Without that maintenance, staff say, it could result in “considerable” financial penalties for the city and public safety risks during storm events.
Maintaining those facilities requires 10 to 20 seasonal employees readily available on an annual basis during summer months. However, hiring those staff at minimum wage would not be “fiscally feasible,” according to a city staff report.
“I will state [the city] tried to hire seasonal workers, but they were out of luck,” Snoqualmie Mayor Katherine Ross said at the meeting.
Councilmember Jo Johnson was the lone councilmember in opposition to the agreement, citing ethical reservations about wages.
“When I ask my heart what’s right, for myself, I come down on the side that I can’t support it,” he said.
The new agreement is the successor of at least a decades worth of similar agreements that have allowed the city to benefit from low-wage prison labor. The city council approved agreements with the DOC on an annual basis between 2015 and 2020 and at least as far back as 2008, the Valley Record previously reported.
Inmate labor in Washington is run by Correctional Industries (CI), a wing of the DOC that generated over $109 million in revenue in 2020. There are currently 20 active inmate employment contracts between cities, tribes and statewide government agencies and the DOC. Inmates are primarily used for parks and public works jobs, but have also spent time working on salmon restoration projects and as firefighters under the Department of Natural Resources.
Councilmember Bryan Holloway, chair of the city’s parks and public works department, emphasized that the prisoners would not be used within the city’s parks. He also said they will be under supervision at all times. Holloway also said all inmates would be working voluntarily.
“This gives the parks [and public works] department a resource at a reasonable rate as well as allows inmates to earn some income,” he said.
However, the actual benefit of these programs for inmates has long been questioned by experts, who liken the practice to a modern form of slavery that puts them under the complete control of their employees and strips them of basic labor protections including the minimum wage and the right to refuse work.
This practice is made permissible by both the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution – which outlawed slavery – and the Washington state Constitution. While both documents prohibit forced labor, they each have provisions which exclude inmates from those protections.
“These are exploitative employment practices and unfortunately, they’re not too far off the ugly legacy of Jim Crow and and post-Civil War era where states attempted to reinstate slavery through other means,” said Nick Straley, an attorney for Columbia Legal Services in Seattle whose work focuses on ending mass incarceration.
“Southern states, that had previously been slave-holding states, changed their practices to lock up large numbers of people who were recently freed and created things like chain gangs,” he said.
While the city and DOC say these programs are voluntary and a “privilege” for inmates, a report published by the American Civil Liberties Union in June found that 76% of inmates in the U.S. reported being forced to work or risk additional punishments including solitary confinement or decreased visitation hours.
Inmate work programs are often touted for providing job training and extra money for prisoners that would otherwise not be available to them, but regularly come up short in providing actual benefits, Straley said.
The types of jobs prisoners usually work are low-skilled maintenance positions that allow for little advancement to obtain a living wage once released. Additionally, the money made by prisoners while working often goes towards paying fines and fees associated with prison, Straley said, leaving inmates with close to nothing upon release.
“We need to create real programs that provide people with real skills that they can use when they leave prison,” Straley said. “95% of people who are inside are going to leave prison at some time and we need to provide training and skill development to allow them employment opportunities that will provide living wages, family stability and will really help them re-enter their communities.”
When asked for response on the notion that their agreement with DOC was exploiting prisoners, Danna McCall, a city spokesperson, reiterated that the city has no control over the program or its pay-rates, and redirected comments to the DOC.
After asking for comment late Monday, Aug. 1, a spokesperson with the DOC told the Valley Record on Wednesday, Aug. 3, that they were unable to comment at this time, but were working on a response.
Correction: This story has been updated for clarity. An earlier version of this story should have said the program will provide “resources” at a “nominal cost.” The earlier version also should have used the term “notion” in reference to asking the city for comment. These corrections have been made.